Guide to the New Orleans Jazz Revival, 1938-1966

New Orleans Jazz Revival, 1938-1966 – spotify playlist


Despite being the king of New Orleans and Chicago, King Oliver’s influence was waning by 1925. By the mid to late 20s, the modern sounds of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, and Louis Armstrong were on the rise. 

Once all the rage, New Orleans Style was becoming rural and old-fashioned. Armstrong recorded his last small combo song, “Knockin’ a Jug,” in March 1929. The fall of Wall Street in Oct 1929 put the final nail in the coffin. New Orleans was dead, and Big Band was taking over.

During the Great Depression, New Orleans Style was almost completely forgotten. Louis Armstrong led a mediocre big band almost solely by the force of his own genius. King Oliver lost his life savings when his bank collapsed; he died penniless in 1938. Sidney Bechet & Tommy Ladnier ran a tailor shop which doubled as a hang-out spot for jazz musicians. Jelly Roll Morton struggled through hard times, trying unsuccessfully to get his royalties. Kid Ory retired to run a chicken farm. Meanwhile, white musicians were getting rich playing the music they learned at the feet of the New Orleanians. 

In 1938 French jazz critic Hugues Panassie came to America to produce some real jazz records with Mezz Mezzrow, and they enlisted the New Orleans greats Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier. They recorded the timeless classic “Really the Blues”. 

A month later, John Hammond produced the first From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring Sidney Bechet & Tommy Ladnier representing New Orleans Style. Bechet got a deal with Blue Note and had a minor hit with “Summertime”. Amidst the Big Band craze, there was still some appetite for the original jazz. (The same day as “Summertime,” Bechet recorded “Blues for Tommy” for his friend Tommy Ladnier, who had just died earlier that week.)

A few months later in Sept 1939, Jelly Roll Morton got his first recording session in years with the instructions to play the old music. So he enlisted Bechet and played old New Orleans tunes such as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” (which was a version of Bolden’s hit song “Funky Butt”) and “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”. Morton would have only a few more chances to record before dying in 1941.

In 1940, Bechet and Armstrong were reunited for the first time in 15 years to record 4 songs. They did not get along, and the results were not as great as they should have been. “Perdido Street Blues” is interesting though. After this brief return to New Orleans Style, Armstrong went back to his mediocre big band.

Johnny Dodds (King Oliver and Hot Five alumni) got his first chance to record in over a decade and produced the tremendous “Red Onion Blues” (1940). He died of a heart attack that year at age 48.

After the meteoric rise of Swing in 1938, critics started chronicling the origins of the music. Jazzmen, the first book on the origins of jazz, was published in 1939. The book brought the broke trumpeter Bunk Johnson (b. 1879) out of retirement; a collection was made to buy him dentures so he could play again. Johnson made embellished claims about teaching Louis Armstrong everything he knew, which pissed off Armstrong. Johnson was no longer as great as he claimed, and was reportedly drunk all the time. He recorded quite a bit in the 40s, dying in 1949.

New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis (b. 1900) played in Johnson’s band and took over the band when Johnson retired. In the early 60s, Lewis’s band would form the original Preservation Hall Jazz Band. 

Trombonist Kid Ory (b. 1886) — the first African American to record New Orleans jazz (1922), who had played with both King Oliver and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five — came out of retirement in 1944 and led one of the most popular New Orleans jazz bands for the next 15 years.

In 1944, jazz fan Orson Welles put together an all-star band to record on his radio show, consisting of Kid Ory, clarinetist Jimmie Noone, Mutt Carey, Zutty Singleton, and others. After a handful of popular broadcasts, Jimmie Noone died of a heart attack at age 48. Kid Ory and the band recorded “Blues for Jimmie” in his honor. 

Bechet recorded another timeless classic for Blue Note, “Blue Horizon” (1944). A tumultuous man who had trouble working with others, Bechet still occasionally showed off his genius. 

One of the most important aspects of the New Orleans Revival was that the drums could be recorded — drummers could not record in the 20s or they would throw the needle off. The New Orleans greats Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton had to play with wood blocks when recording with King Oliver & Louis Armstrong. In 1945, Baby Dodds was recorded telling stories and playing unaccompanied drums, and it was later made into a documentary, Baby Dodds – New Orleans Drumming.

By 1947, the writing was on the wall: the Swing Era was over. Louis Armstrong was convinced to do a concert with a small combo before a packed house of 1,500 at Town Hall, and it became the turning point of his career. He reluctantly fired his big band and formed the All-Stars with Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, and Barney Bigard. With Armstrong on board, the New Orleans Revival had officially arrived.

The New Orleans Revival coincided with the rise of Bebop, and there was a friendly rivalry between the camps that was played up in the media to sell more tickets. (Louis Armstrong & Dizzy Gillespie ended up becoming good friends and neighbors in Queens, smoking joints and playing cards together.)

Far from being a rehash of previous glories, Armstrong and Bechet were still playing their asses off — and now, unlike in the 20s, they had good recording quality and could record live shows.

Bechet went on to great fame in France in the 50s, and of course Armstrong skyrocketed to even further fame.

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