Dec 27, 2011 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
A century after its origin, traditional jazz remains the definitive music of New Orleans and an international hallmark of the City that Care Forgot.
And, as documented in a new book about modern-day Crescent City jazzmen, a former Syracuse clarinetist — Jack Maheu — was one of New Orleans leading lights of jazz.
Plenty of books focus on pioneers who turned the sounds of New Orleans into the popular music of the 1920s and beyond, cats like Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. While those men certainly deserve attention and accolades, so do contemporary Crescent City performers who have carried the trad-jazz torch into the 21st century.
Giving credit where it’s due, Indiana University Professor Emeritus Thomas Jacobsen has profiled nearly 20 modern-day musicians in his book “Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music” (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge; 244 pages; $22.50/softcover; 2011).
In one chapter, Jacobsen spotlights students of the late Danny Barker including Leroy Jones, Lucien Barbarin, Gregg Stafford and Dr. Michael White. Also featured are performers like trumpeter Lionel Ferbos — the city’s oldest working jazz musician — and 2010 Grammy-winner Irvin Mayfield, leader of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Central New Yorkers will revel in Chapter 7, which paints a glowing portrait of our own Jack Maheu. Titled “The General” — a nickname Jack picked up at Fritzel’s Pub on Bourbon Street — the 20-page chapter is in the form of a Q&A which Jacobsen conducted with the veteran clarinetist in 1995, five years after Maheu had moved to New Orleans.
Maheu was 65 at the time of the interviews. Since then, he has dealt with business failures, Hurricane Katrina, heart surgery and a stroke. Last year, at age 80, he moved to Ithaca to be with his sons.
But in 1995 Maheu remained at the top of his game, and in his free-wheeling talks with Tom Jacobsen he recalled his troubled childhood in Plattsburgh, his grandparents’ musical gifts and his introduction to reed instruments starting on alto sax in the summer of 1943. Dixieland captivated him in 1949 when he first walked into Eddie Condon’s club in NYC and heard musicians like Pee Wee Russell.
Salt City Six
“They hit ‘At the Jazz Band Ball,’” Jack remembered, “and I almost fainted … I was overcome. I couldn’t imagine anything so good.”
The following year, Maheu matriculated at the Syracuse University School of Music as a clarinet major. Before long, he left his lessons behind and formed the Salt City Five along with trombonist Will Alger. He discusses the group’s debut on the radio broadcasts from Child’s Paramount, recordings such as “The Original Salt City Six Plays ‘The Classics.’”
Maheu has fond memories of Alger, who died in 1992.
“Will Alger was a major player,” Jack told Jacobsen. “If he had ever come down here, he would have caused quite a stir. He had such exuberance in his playing … [and] he was a great ensemble player.”
In 1959, Maheu left Alger and the Salt City Six and joined the Dukes of Dixieland. He returned to CNY in 1962 when trumpeter Wild Bill Davison joined the SC6. “We were scuffling,” Maheu remembered, but so was Davison. “He came to Syracuse with us for $25 a night. Very sad.”
(For more on the Salt City Five and Six, visit saltcity56.com.)
Jack spent the next few decades in Rochester and New York City where he played in Condon’s house band and Florida where he formed the Paradise Jazz Band.
When Jack arrived in the Big Easy in spring 1990, he was near-broke and ready to work menial jobs to get by, but he found his phone ringing off the hook with gig offers. He hooked up with trumpeter Al Hirt —whom he called “Jumbo” — before landing regular jobs at the Fairmount Hotel (now the Roosevelt Hotel) and Fritzel’s. Jack’s city-wide reputation was solidified at those venues. As Jacobsen writes, “Upon settling in New Orleans … Jack Maheu became one of the most respected and frequently called clarinet players in town.”
Toward the end of the interview, Maheu makes the case for trad-jazz.
“It’s a glorious, exciting sound,” he said. “And it should not be made light of or trivialized.
“If people would just take the time to search out these records: the Hot Five, the Hot Seven, even Bunk Johnson, the Lawson-Haggart band, and especially the Condon band with Wild Bill and Pee Wee Russell or Edmond Hall and the Bob Scobey Band. Oh, marvelous! That’s as good as it can get. If we could get people aware of that sound, demanding that sound, [we’d] get it back again on a more consistent basis.”
You could say the same about Jacobsen’s book. Its candid, sometimes comedic conversations document the fervor that continues to fuel the flame of traditional New Orleans jazz.