PETE FOUNTAIN DAY in New Orleans
The New Orleans Jazz Club Presents PETE FOUNTAIN DAY
Recorded During Actual Performance At The Municipal Auditorium, New Orleans
"Home is where the heart is," said a wise man. Pete Fountain knows this to be true. The clarinetist has lived and played in other cities, but all roads lead back to the Crescent City. There, he is king; there, he is happiest.
For those who love and are faithful, there's always a day. Pete had his on October 29, 1959. New Orleans paid him homage, with a concert at the Municipal Auditorium capping festivities.
Drummer Jack Sperling, his two bass drums, various smaller drums and cymbals, and ex-Stan Ken-ton bassist, Don Bagley, were flown in from Holly-wood for the occasion. After taking in the sights and sounds of the city, the two West Coasters met with Pete and his New Orleans colleagues, vibist Godfrey Hirsch and pianist Merle Koch. The group talked things over before the concert, exchanged pleasantries, then sat down and wailed. It was as simple as that.
The music??? Emotional and communicative are the first words that come to mind. For those among you who are prone to categorization, it was small group jazz in the relaxed yet incisively swinging manner native to the best of Benny Goodman's chamber groups - a refinement, an extension, if you will, of the type of music spawned in New Orleans.
Though the group had not performed together before, there was a surprising sense of rapport about the proceedings. Counter-lines, unisons and riffs were dashed off with precision and feeling; the rhythm section flowed, followed and underlined, often in an almost intuitive way.
Pete was the lead/dominant voice; he carried the ball and obviously had one as well. "Pete's a playin' fool," said a friend of mine who attended the concert. "Challenged, even pressed by the excellence of those around him, he played better than ever."
The three prime voices in the unit - Fountain, Hirsch and Koch - lined up well. All three have traditional leanings. As a result, their solos, fills, etc., were of a kind, and all the more invigorating for that.
"And that drummer!" insisted my friend, "he (Jack Sperling) really broke things up with his great solos and rhythm playing. He made the group swing hard-and the entire audience reacted strongly."
It was a memorable, lifting, musical evening in New Orleans ...
Co-Editor, THE JAZZ WORD (Ballantine)
PETE FOUNTAIN DAY
In New Orleans
In the year 1796, the first resident opera company in America settled in New Orleans, and while the first performance was transpiring inside the theater in French Town, Negro slaves stood outside at their masters' carriages and sang their own music, the blues laments for a homeland from which they had been forceably taken.
Thus began a quiet battle between the two kinds of music in New Orleans, a fight that was to continue for more than 160 years and would not be resolved completely until a rainy night in October of 1959. Music, however, was not all of the battle.
By the time Louisiana became a part of the American states in 1803, New Orleans already was known as the wickedest city in the world, and if this reputation was spawned in the era of the Creole plantation owners and their carefree love of play, their descendents kept it going from one generation to another.
The great town houses and plantations in and around New Orleans supported the most elegant life America ever has known, but every night when the sun dipped below the banks of the muddy Mississippi, the highborn men left their wives to seek the fun and ribaldry of the back streets.
This world that care forgot existed through the War of 1812 even when the city was menaced by the British and was saved only through a last-ditch campaign by General Andrew Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte.
It existed right through the Civil War, and even the Yankee capture of the city had little effect on the lavish and sinful way of life. It was at this time, as a matter of fact, that the music which was to become America's only original contribution to the music of the world began to take its first shape. In the brothels which catered to the Union troops, Negro attendants began to play musical instruments to pass the time and entertain, and before long, the customers found they liked this plaintive, sad music with its paradoxical gaiety which came forth from this race so newly freed from bondage.
After the war came a time of confusion. The Negroes were free, but they were so thoroughly tied economically to their masters that freedom was more of a challenge and a problem than it was a blessing. There was no place a Negro could find employment except in the whore houses. It was natural that he would wind up there.
On Bourbon Street, the French Opera House, built just before the Civil War and the finest such edifice in the world at that time, flourished. So did the new music, but if the former owners no longer could control the Negroes at least they could hold in disdain all his efforts to better himself, and the music quickly fell under the shadow of this bitterness.
By the dawn of the 20th century, this simple music was well-established and even white bands began to play it. The clubs spread from Storyville on Basin Street over into the Bourbon Street area, under the very shadows of the French Opera House.
By this time, New Orleans was a thriving metropolis, having shed itself of the last memories of the War Between the States and the Carpet bagger era that followed. It still was a city of sin, of corrupt politics, of narrow streets and romantic patios, of magnolias scenting the night air as the gentle (breath of) breeze wafted up from
the Mississippi and spread its cooling effects over the city.
Canal Street, widest main street in the world, still served as a border between "French Town" which by now was called the French Quarter or Vieux Carre, and the uptown population rarely ventured downtown other than to attend the opera or to dine at one of the famous restaurants - Galatoire's, Antoine's, Arnauds' or Tujague's.
Just as the American tourist began discovering Storyville and its jazz environment a double tragedy struck New Orleans. A clean-up campaign, one of those periodic political ventures which Orleanians see occasionally and scorn totally, was directed at Storyville, and the bands began migrating.
They went forth into the nation to spread the Dixieland gospel and to spread the fame of this music. As though the whole episode was but a signal, even the white bands began hitting the road. It was not long before the proud Creole families rebelled at the purge and what it was doing to their pleasure spas, but it was too late.
At the same time, in December of 1919, the French Opera House burned, and if this had been a symbol of the domination of one kind of music, the domination began to die with the destruction of the symbol. Jazz was on the march, and if the city still rejected it, the world did not. The musicians stole away north in the night, and the rest of the land soon accepted it.
Through the years, jazz developed. Ragtime, swing, bop, modern jazz and even symphonic jazz came into being in other parts of the world, finally achieving recognition as an art form. But New Orleans still turned a cold and haughty shoulder and deaf ear to its plea for recognition.
One of the Quarter's special prides, the delightfully crazy maze of wrought-iron grillwork is everywhere along the charm strewn streets. Carefully maintained, the intricately designed balustrades cast shadows of a bygone era across the modern tail-finned autos that pass beneath.
"Home is where the heart is" - after a year of gaining national fame, Fountain returned home to play his own kind of music. With the help of Dan Levy, who operates several New Orleans jazz places, Pete opened the Bateau Lounge - now a magnet for musicians-at-large, jazz-buffs and dowagers, too.
Tourists (and musicians) have always flocked to "The City that care forgot..."
A few jazz groups performed on in the clubs along Bourbon Street, but theirs was a success measured chiefly in terms of the number of tourists who happened into town. This was not always a small success because tourists always have flocked to "the City that Care Forgot," particularly at Mardi Gras, when the whole town goes crazy for pageantry and fun. Some of these groups even made periodic recordings which got attention abroad from New Orleans.
Once in a while other musicians would get together for recording sessions, and the records often were hits everywhere other than in New Orleans.
In 1948, the New Orleans Jazz club decided to present an annual concert in a plan to preserve the jazz art, or what was left of it, in much the same way that a commission had been set up to restore and perpetuate the old world charm of the French Quarter.
For 11 years, the club has presented such an annual concert, and in most years, it barely made expenses. As Dr. Harry Souchon, one of the club's vice presidents and long a champion of jazz, says "There were times when you couldn't even pay New Orleanians to listen to jazz."
One day, somewhere about this time, a young clarinetist named Pete Fountain appeared on the scene. The people who followed jazz, and there were precious few of these, recognized that Pete had something, and so it was that he took the place of another great clarinetist, Irving Fazola, on the night Fazola died.
But the place was typical of jazz haunts in New Orleans - a strip joint - and Fountain plied his clarinet-playing trade without making so much as a ripple or stir on the other side of Canal Street and without ever daring to think of it as an art instead of a trade.
After a few years of this and several other jobs - just about anywhere he could work to keep family alive, Pete joined Lawrence Welk on Welk's national television shows.
Uptown Orleanians, who had rejected him in his home town, began seeing him on the screens in their living rooms on fashionable St. Charles Avenue. After a year of gaining more than a little national fame, Pete returned to New Orleans to play his own kind of music. He was not a one-number-a-week type player.
Fountain decided to open his own place, and with the help of Dan Levy, who operates several of New Orleans' jazz places, started the Bateau Lounge directly across the corner from the lot left vacant when the opera house had burned.
It was a big risk because there were plenty of places to take care of the tourists seeking after jazz, and New Orleans society still hadn't lowered the barriers. Then, surprisingly, the society began to crumble. A few people who had seen and liked Fountain on television began wandering down to the Quarter to hear him in person. The blue bloods were capitulating.
In 1959, New Orleans yawned, stretched and looked around. The fathers of the city realized it was not taking advantage of the tourist trade and began seeking ways to attract more tourists to the city. Jazz was hit upon as a possibility. Wasn't Newport the rage and hadn't Monterey made a splash with its tourist-attracting jazz festival?
The eleventh annual jazz concert by the New Orleans Jazz Club became something of a test. If it succeeded, New Orleans might very well decide to go all out and try to capitalize on jazz in the form of a festival. But would it work?
On October 26, 1959, Municipal Auditorium was ablaze with lights. You might have called it a fitting nightcap to "Pete Fountain Day." International Week is a yearly event, but in 1959, jazz was incorporated into its activities, and more import-ant, with Pete Fountain one of the biggest attractions.
The limousines began arriving and the St. Charles Avenue dowagers, replendent in jewels and furs, alighted at the auditorium. The crowd was huge, and when it was all over, long after midnight, everyone in New Orleans realized that a young clarinetist by the name of Pete Fountain had accomplished what no one had been able to do in more than 160 years. He had brought jazz home to respectability in New Orleans.
Notes by SIM MEYERS,
Amusements Editor and Music Critic,