Huey Smith, Lonnie Johnson, New Orleans

The New Orleans Jazz Scene, 1970-2000 by Thomas W. Jacobsen (LSU Press, 2014) is a slim paperback focused on the younger and newly arrived veterans who provided most of the best jazz in the Crescent City in the late 20th Century. There are descriptions of clubs, many now defunct, that flourished during the era in question. There is a good deal on media and its reaction-or lack of reaction to the music being made. But the focus is on the musicians, many still active, who provided a spark to the scene.

If we think of Banu Gibson and Jacques Gauthe as the leaders who introduced many of new arrivals they are not the only ones. Preservation Hall and the PHJB are properly accorded center stage since the continued popularity of that travelling ensemble served to introduce New Orleans jazz to more people than Armstrong, Morton or Bechet. The Dukes of Dixieland are also given a good deal of space, rightfully so.

The discussion is chronological so that the impact of certain players is allowed to build or fade naturally. The importance of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is given plenty of space but its importance as far as jazz is concerned lessens over the scope of the work.

As someone who was a frequent visitor to New Orleans during the period, I recognize the scene and Jacobsen does a fine job of getting it all out there. Lots of photos.

New Orleans Rhythm & Blues has been the flip side of the New Orleans musical coin since the 1950s. One of the finest practitioners of that music was Huey “Piano” Smith, the subject of a new biography, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rockin’ Pneumonia Blues by John Wirt (LSU Press, 2014).

Smith was not a singer but an organizer, pianist and songwriter of the first rank. His music has lasted so well that is hard to believe his heyday lasted less than a decade. The making of that joyous sound takes up about 40 % of the book while the hassles, legalities and Smith’s inability to take care of business comprise much of the rest. Along the way we meet the notorious Johnny Vincent, owner of Ace records, Smith’s label.

That Johnny Vincent screwed Huey Smith is well known. What is revealed here is that it happened time and time again. If there was a fork in the road, Smith invariably chose the one fraught with trouble. The lawsuits and court battles go on and on until the eyes start to glaze over the page. A good manager probably solves most of Smith’s problems. Sometimes, do-it-yourself is not good advice

There have been few musicians over the long history of jazz to have matched the talent and versatility of Lonnie Johnson. In one of the longest titled biographies I’ve seen, The Original Guitar Hero and The Power Of Music: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, Music and Civil Rights by Dean Alger (University of North Texas Press, 2014), the artist is covered from stem to stern and back again.

As a studio sideman in the 1920s, Johnson was good enough to record with Louis Armstrong , Eddie Lang and Duke Ellington. As an artist making his own vocal blues recordings, he cut hundreds of sides for Okeh and Bluebird with a style closer to crooning than shouting. And at a time when his career should be winding down, it actually took off like a rocket: he scored a #1 Race Hit with “Tomorrow Night” in 1948 and followed that with two other Top Ten hits. Following another slump, he emerged just prior to the blues revival with some marvelous LPs recorded for Prestige/Bluesville.

Alger quotes Chris Albertson, who was responsible for Johnson’s rediscovery in 1959, as bringing Johnson to play for John Hammond and Orrin Keepnews with little positive results. Bob Weinstock, on the other hand, said, ”let’s do an album” and thus the Bluesville association began. This is just one example of the thoroughness of the research. There is virtually no aspect of Johnson’s professional career that is not carefully detailed.

On the other hand, Alger tends to gild the lilly from time to time. Enthusiasm for one’s subject is fine (and Alger has that in abundance) but the attempt to raise him to a level beyond his achievement helps nobody. Still, that seems a small price to pay for such a wonderful read. This one is likely to appear on Best Of The Year lists.


Bob Porter