DECEMBER 27, 2017
This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 16, Art
Gold might be hiding in plain sight; some small stowaway that’s been overlooked, or somehow dislodged, knocked into plain view. I’m always hoping for some sliver of a remnant.
I knew better, but I tossed my notebook and camera into the car anyway and threaded out the driveway. A few years back, sparked by a couple of sentences I couldn’t shake, I slipped out just after dawn for a little Sunday morning ghost chasing. I’d gotten midway through Howard Reich and William Gaines’s vivid 2003 biography: Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton, my imagination adrift in the descriptions of Morton’s rollicking Los Angeles years. The broadcasting-24-hour Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe Morton (better known as Ferd or simply “Jelly Roll”) was his own sky-sweeping searchlight and publicity department; Los Angeles was just another stop along the frenzied nonstop press tour that was his entire life. As the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz,” Morton, despite his ornate yet delicate polyphonic piano stylings, was as much a genius as he was bombastic.
The reporter in me wanted more. The night before, I’d dashed out a couple of addresses and some approximations based on the narrative’s descriptions, and had them at the ready when I snaked south down the 110 Freeway to Central Avenue. I wasn’t aiming for the area we Angelenos consider “Jazz Street,” but a corridor further north, closer to downtown’s heart. I was looking for the site of the old Cadillac Café, as well as the Hotel Anita (named for Morton’s paramour, Anita Gonzalez) — where Morton had taken up residence for a time in Los Angeles. I knew to expect little, but what I found was exactly nothing. Numerical gaps, absent street addresses, a parking lot, and a deserted strip mall. Somewhere in this jumble I realized I’d scared up more questions than answers. It hadn’t been my first try. So many times, I’d hoped to locate some vestige, some sense of former place, a hint of that wild, wide-open California that Morton and his Louisiana cohort had tumbled into. (Phil Pastras’s 2001 book, Dead Man’s Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West, fully embraces this chapter — Morton’s West Coast years — Los Angeles and beyond — “an odyssey within an odyssey.”)
But what I wanted to understand most: What did he and so many see when they arrived here, tired but exhilarated, finally unburdened of their pasts? What was their first glimpse? How did California suit them? How did it find its way into their creative imagination, their melodies?
For them, California may have just as well been a lyric in a song. Not simply the word — the way the syllables tumbled across the tongue, the stresses, lifts, and pauses — but the very region itself, poetry. The physicality, its varied climates, diverse terrains, and the mysteries that come with vastness could be stanzas or choruses in and of themselves. For African Americans dreaming of opportunity in the early part of 20th century, that lure, the music in California’s new-start promise, was embedded into the consciousness. It burrowed deep. It was the necessary fuel — inspiration — to carry onward beyond known possibilities.
Roughly between 1910 and 1970, in two great waves of migration, six million African Americans would journey out of the nightmare of the American South, fleeing post-slavery horrors: Jim Crow segregation, lynching, nonexistent or stunted economic opportunities. The sentence of a still-circumscribed life set families in motion. My family was one of them, tipped toward a musical-sounding myth.
Migrants carved paths across the country, pointing northeast, midwest, and way west to make a way for themselves: assembly-line jobs, mining, steel mills, skilled labor, railroad work, and later, aerospace. But they weren’t the only laborers looking to flee the constraints and hazards of the South. From early on, artists were leaving too: the chroniclers who would write the poems, who would lay paint on canvas, or who would compose and perform the music that filled in the spaces between work and home chores. So many of these migrant forebears had at least one California chapter.
California was a prayer.
“California … is a flim-flam town.”
Buildings rise and fall, but vivid stories endure, can resuscitate and reanimate memory. The great guitarist, banjo player, and expansive raconteur Danny Barker was nothing if not a living, breathing story, absolutely encyclopedic in scope. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1909, Barker led a peripatetic life. Part of the legendary Barbarin family of musicians (among them, his grandfather Isidore, his older uncles Louis and Paul), Barker’s matriculation into music was as expected as learning to walk and talk. “Naturally, I was entangled in this scene” he said. His playing and sense of time was inflected with the idiosyncratic syncopation of his native place. From an early age, he knew that that first line of New Orleans jazz players, those players who laid the groundwork, needed to tell their stories. The long days and the itinerant nature of the work — a no-curfew town, life on the road — meant you might not necessarily be there to relate the details, not to mention to guard the particulars of history.
A Life in Jazz, Barker’s expansive autobiography (recently reissued by the Historic New Orleans Collection) showcases his keen ear and eye for story down to the most minute detail. Barker was not only part of an early generation of musicians who would shape and guide the music that we would come to know as the “New Orleans sound,” but he was also, as the book’s editor Alyn Shipton notes, “a pioneer historian of jazz.” As Gwen Thompkins, host of public radio’s Music Inside Out, also points out in the introduction, the importance of this autobiography isn’t just to provide context and feel for Barker’s world — “the jazz whirl” as Barker would put it — but to emphasize Barker’s preoccupation with documentation. “By the time Danny Barker published A Life in Jazz he was an old man and had already told his story to anyone who would listen,” writes Thompkins. “It was 1986 and he’d been at it since the 1920s.”
Believed to have appeared on more than a thousand recordings, Barker had been around long enough to know the New Orleans music scene before it was transformed by Louis Armstrong and the stratospheric range of his trumpet. He also lived long enough to see early jazz bloom, thrive, and transform into America’s popular music and then eventually fade from view, a museum piece that he would protect and tend to. Barker brimmed with what seemed to be a bottomless inventory of anecdotes; yarns peopled with figures named Rough Dry Sammy or Good Lord the Lifter, and a cast of named and unnamed “Do Wrong People” or “Night People.” Shipton characterizes Barker’s approach as a “complex mixture of researcher and folklorist.” His ornate, at turns eccentric, storytelling wends the reader through decades of shifting musical taste, moving across glittering American cities, in and out of after-hours clubs and backwoods juke joints, speakeasies, bars, and impromptu recording sessions. It’s immediate because you ride shotgun; Barker detailing the sights along the way, danger often shared space with the glamour.
Barker left New Orleans looking for work in 1930 with strong opinions about jazz and how it should be expressed. For him, music served to bring people together; it was simply another level of conversation and communication: “Hearts can be beating together […] foots shoving and knees hitting next to one another. That’s what music is all about.” Barker eventually came to be known for his “fat chords” and his sense of rhythm. “You play anticipation,” as he put it. He shared sessions and stages with many great fellow jazz musicians — Bunk Johnson, Cab Calloway, Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, and even Charlie Parker — but he never felt comfortable making the show about himself. Even though he was a member of Cab Calloway’s orchestra for eight years, “he never took a solo, not once.”
Instead, Barker always kept his focus on the community. Though he wrote popular novelty songs for his wife Louise (“Blue Lu”), he largely dedicated himself to New Orleans’s rich history, resuscitating and recording Creole folk songs (“Mo Pas Lemme Ca,” “Salee Dame”) sung in that vanishing patois. He also had the incredible prescience to record songs from the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition “[a] genre of music,” Thompkins underscores, “that remains mysterious and deeply influential to native born musicians. For a New Orleanian living far from home, the words to a song like ‘Indian Red’ carry a special affirmation. The call-and-response resonates like a negro spiritual, even if no one else in the whole wide world understands.”
Wynton Marsalis watching Danny Barker at Jazz Fest
View of the Wynton Marsalis Sextet performing at the 1989 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) is seen watching Danny Barker (1909-1994) play the banjo guitar. An unidentified musician is seen behind them playing an upright bass. According to the 1989 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival program, The Wynton Marsalis Sextet performed on Tuesday, May 2 at 8 p.m. in The River Tent.
Barker may not have been a soloist, but he was singular: there’s music in his words, even when they only appear on the page. You can hear his exasperated deadpan loud and clear, and envision the lifted eyebrow. He spins a memory — part history, part exaggeration, with a sharp nudge of innuendo. His autobiography is a trove of elaborately embroidered behind-the-scenes stories about music and the conditions in which musicians in the South made their names. Barker knows just how to charm the listener — when to pull the story’s thread taut and when to ramble a bit. Within each story, he spells out the whys and hows of New Orleans traditions — the brass band, the details of “turning the body loose,” the New Orleans color caste system: “Mulattos, Quadroons, Octaroons, all those different people in New Orleans had different halls. You went to them because you felt welcome […] If you weren’t in that groove you couldn’t come into the hall. Each one of those caste systems had their own trumpet player.”
The book strips these stories of sepia, opening a window onto a vivid landscape detailing the day-to-day particulars of what it meant to be a workaday jazz musician in New Orleans. Barker reanimates the details of the tossed-together life of found work — the “spasm bands” that played “all sorts of gadgets that produced sounds: musical saws, washboards, spoons, bells, […] kazoos” or the “boozans” (parties) that lit up parlors and dance halls. Traveling with itinerant musicians to backwoods jukes in other Southern states gave Barker’s story fodder, but it also set his wanderlust in motion and gave him a taste of a touring life. Beyond the gulf, what we know about New Orleans music was carried along with those who are part of the New Orleans diaspora. That knowledge owes an incalculable debt to Danny Barker and his presence of mind to acknowledge, identify, and elevate a “New Orleans sound.”
As reportage and reviews of jazz and its players traveled to both coasts, Barker was especially concerned about what would translate as the “official story” and what writers from outside of the Crescent City might be thinking and extrapolating. He was proactive and founded the Jazzland Research Guild, which was, in a sense, his own one-man-band version of a research team. As he traveled the country, he would implore first-generation jazz musicians to complete questionnaires and mail back their detailed testimonials. The forms asked that they describe their training, musical heroes, their specialties, solos, broadcast experience — information that Barker knew would help to balance, if not fully correct, the record. This was crucial business; he closed his requests, “Be punctual in your reply.”
At this time, New Orleans was overflowing with master musicians at the top of their game, many of whom were part of powerful family trusts. “That is the main reason why so many musicians left the city when they became great on their instrument,” Barker explained, “[t]here was no chance for advancement on the local New Orleans scene.” That instinct for survival — the inner-impulse and push to “get that money” — propelled Barker himself out into the world, first to New York, and then later, to many other parts of the country. And yet, Barker always brought New Orleans with him. Even in far-flung cities, he would meet up with players from Louisiana and spark an instantaneous intimacy. When Barker first met Jelly Roll Morton in New York City at the Rhythm Club, Morton quickly dubbed him “Home Town.” For years, Barker stayed in New York, working nonstop and sharing tight bandstands and opulent theater stages, but he couldn’t help but feel a dissonance between the connections he was making and the music itself: “Somewhere between those ‘hearts’ and ‘foots’ lies a lingering divide between traditional New Orleans jazz musicians, who believe in the natural marriage between music and dance, and other musicians who don’t. In New York City,” writes Thompkins, “the New Orleans musicians were outnumbered.”
He began looking toward new horizons, new terrains, and of course California eventually became a destination for Barker too — as it had for many New Orleanians trying to get a leg up and out of the South. For all of these musicians, it was a roll of the dice, no promises.
“Let’s get this money.”
Before Morton and Barker, a first-run of New Orleans musicians had cleared a path to California in the early 20th century. Freed from the yoke of Jim Crow, these ensembles began to make their way across country. One of the first was bassist and bandleader Bill Johnson, who set down new roots in Los Angeles. Johnson formed the Creole Band (known also as the Original Creole Orchestra) and introduced the West Coast to authentic New Orleans sounds in the early teens. He sent a call back home for other musicians. They had “warmed up the room” in some sense; there was an audience of re-settled New Orleanians to entertain and a new kingdom to be claimed.
At this point, a confluence of New Orleans “firsts” were occurring in Southern California: one of the very first recordings by a black musician with New Orleans roots was made here in the Southland by trombonist Edward “Kid Ory” in May 1922. The session was organized by the Spikes Brothers (Benjamin a.k.a. “Reb” and Johnny), who owned and ran a record store on Central Avenue. Ory and his band set up at the Nordskog Studios in Santa Monica, but the fruits of the day would go to the Spikes Brothers new label, Sunshine Records. The ensemble featured Mutt Carey, Dink Johnson, and Ed Garland. The players recorded six tunes: four vocals and two instrumentals — among them, “Ory’s Creole Trombone” and “Society Blues.” These songs are historic: they are the first specimens of the black New Orleans sound recorded on the West Coast. These recordings are also significant in that they endeavor to replicate a music that has deep roots in a specific place — something that is both authentic and steeped in mood, not sentimentality. The recordings, while “rather laid back” to historian Lawrence Gushee’s ear, were “distinctly New Orleanian in character.”
The afterlife of these recordings of “Kid Ory’s Sunshine Band” — as they were credited — was fraught. According to jazz historian Steven Isoradi, co-editor of Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles, “The Spikes Brothers had a conflict with Nordskog, who initially put his Nordskog Records label on them. Spikes then pasted their label all over them.” If there was a plus side to this tug-of-war it was a peculiarly Louisiana–Los Angeles history lagniappe. “Paul R. Williams, the great architect,” says Isoardi, “designed the labels for them. He was a big jazz fan.”
Just how influential was the music? Was it simply part of the atmosphere, like new languages or dialects converging? That’s difficult to measure — communities of color in Los Angeles weren’t documented with the same precision and care. And yet, what one may not find in mainstream newspaper features or in photographs of the era, we may locate reading between the lines of advertisements. Black newspapers of the time ran promotional ads and announcements for the Creole Band or other Louisiana-themed get-togethers. This evidence suggests that a community of musicians and a curious, if not invested, audience had begun to form across the Southland.
The possibilities of the West Coast also turned Jelly Roll Morton’s head. Morton, the flashy and showboating “jazz inventor,” blasted onto the California scene in full-on powerhouse fashion. After a few years knocking around in Chicago, he’d made enough of a name for himself that he was offered work out west. “[I]n 1917, when impresario Lovey Joe Woodson offered Morton a job at the Cadillac Café, in Los Angeles, deliverance was at hand,” Gaines and Reich write in Jelly’s Blues:
He knew he would not be alone in the faraway city of Los Angeles, for as early as 1908 […] some of the men from the District had tested the waters in Southern California. They had taken a train through Houston, Dallas, Waco, and Yuma en route to L.A. and played a month at the Red Feather Tavern […] — the band, in effect, the precursor to the Original Creole band, the soon-to-be-legendary ensemble who would show the rest of America what music and life in New Orleans were all about.
It didn’t take long for Morton to land on the notion that he could piggyback on their success and perhaps parlay it into his own. “His timing could not have been better, for crowds line up to hear him at the Cadillac Café at 553 Central Avenue […] At closing time, Morton — energized by the change of scene and his soaring popularity — [he] hopped in his car and headed to George Brown’s Watts nightclub to play until sunup, then he came home and wrote music.”
Playing in the New Orleans style was not a task easily mastered; it was a technique not simply “learned,” but lived and felt. Morton sent word home for backup. This was a complicated proposition:
Anticipating that his New Orleans cohorts would show up in Los Angeles looking as if they never had set foot outside the District, Morton rushed to meet them at the train station. Sure enough they were wearing the ‘antiquated dress habitual to New Orleans musicians, with their instruments all taped up to keep them airtight and [Wade] Whaley’s clarinet in his back pocket,’ recalled Morton. ‘We spirited them away […]’ It was not a good omen. Though the newly attired District musicians worked with Morton in Watts, at Baron Long’s joint, they proved incorrigible, bringing buckets of red beans and rice to cook and eat at the show […] Morton and Bill Johnson who rounded out the band razzed the threesome as country bumpkins until the New Orleans men could take it no more. They headed back home before the year was out and swore they would murder Morton if he ever bothered them again.
With or without them, Morton was on what he hoped was a yellow brick road toward wild success, playing to packed rooms and acquainting a West Coast clientele to the sounds of Louisiana jazz. “Work was picking up as the population of black California swelled from 21,645 in 1910 to 38,763 in 1920,” note Reich and Gaines, “He was becoming known up and down the avenue for he looked and sounded like no one else Los Angeles had ever encountered.” That item, whether covered in the press or not, echoed all the way back home. By the 1950s, when Danny Barker deigned to journey west, Morton was long gone (though he would return some years later). “Jelly was forever beefing about ASCAP. He heard many of his songs being played on the radio daily,” Barker recalled in A Life in Jazz. “It seems that he signed his songs over to some publishers and they had become wealthy, but Jelly received no royalties as the composer, and there was nothing he could do about the situation.”
Barker and his wife first set up housekeeping in the Bay Area and later in Los Angeles. He wrote, “I had been to California and I liked the weather and I thought it was a whole new fresh area […] so we went […] We stayed eleven months.” It clearly didn’t take long for Barker to sense that something was awry in California. “White Only” signs may not have been posted over lunch counter entryways or restroom doors, but there was something even more pernicious about the quieter but no-less-virulent brand of racism he encountered. “[T]o me California is nothing. A beautiful place, a big flim-flam town.” But the racism that was hot on his neck in the Deep South took on surreal form here, particularly in show business:
[T]he black community, as far as being stars at that time — well, you had to have some pull in the movie industry to let you be nothing but a porter or a menial. Every time you appeared in a movie you had to be in service: a street cleaner, a dish washer, a clothes washer. You could do nothing that would let you be equal with anybody else. And there were black people out there who had done all that business, like they had all them kids. Little black kids — they give them all nicknames: Farina, Pork Chops, Sunshine. Buckwheat — all kinds of things …
Quite simply, he had had enough of reading between the lines — better to know what he was dealing with on the marshy shores of the Gulf.
“That easy to get California real estate.”
Even still, California beckoned — blemishes and all. It offered a second- or third-start promise. Saxophonist, arranger, composer, and educator Harold Battiste Jr. came through Los Angeles on the mighty second wave of the Great Migration after World War II, right around the time my mother also traveled west. They were loosely from the same neighborhood in New Orleans, with friendships that glanced off one another, sometimes intersecting or overlapping. Same schools. Same hangouts. Same impediments to opportunity. They were the generation where a tune like Barker’s Creole-laced “Eh, La Bas” (“Hey, over here!”) could stop a party and unite a room of Louisiana transplants in song.
After earning a scholarship, my mother headed west to study piano and voice. By that time, the sounds and styles in music were changing and many musicians were filing out of New Orleans. The West, albeit imperfect, still seemed a better bet than making the rounds of the old Southern circuit. Wasn’t it better to take a gamble with the “flim-flam” game — as Barker had witnessed — and at least have a horse in the race? There would always be tension between what you wished for and what you were dealt.
My mother traveled to her new life in Los Angeles by train on the Sunset Limited, the run that snaked “west into the sunset” — tipped toward another horizon. As my relatives used to say, going east to west, you picked up an extra couple of hours to “make things right.” On her journey in the Jim Crow car (known formally as a “partitioned coach”), she shared polite conversation with the musician Paul Gayten, who was heading out to “the Coast” for some gigs. After she detrained at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, she was mortified to learn that her father had buttonholed Gayten — and some of the porters — back in New Orleans, slipping them a few bills, asking to keep an eye out on his “baby” along the way.
As Harold Battiste remembers it, he and his friends — Ed Blackwell and Ellis Marsalis — set out to Los Angeles just a couple of years later, in June 1956. The impetus was Ornette Coleman, who had been rethinking and remaking jazz from the inside out. This was a new jazz that Battiste and his cohort had been flirting with and steadily writing, playing, and reworking. “Coleman […] had gotten stranded in New Orleans a few years back and stayed with one of the well-known New Orleans families, the Lasties — long enough to meet some of the cats.” Battiste recalled the details in his 2010 memoir, Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man. “Coleman sent a bus ticket to [Ed] Boogie Blackwell to come out to Los Angeles. Boogie told Ellis [Marsalis] about the bus ticket and Ellis decided that he wanted to go along.” (Blackwell, however, had already started casting a curious eye westward and making sojourns to Los Angeles as early as 1953, according to historian Isoardi, who recalls Bobby Bradford’s stories of playing with Coleman and Blackwell in downtown Los Angeles on Fifth Street — “The Nickel.”)
Battiste, who was a music educator, had been battling to ensure that black students were afforded the same opportunities, skills, and scholarship as the white pupils in still-segregated schools. After some years at the job, he had a last-straw moment facing down a school board administrator. He then tendered his resignation with no Plan B. Miraculously, here was a contingency plan. The young husband and father decided to take a gamble, offering to drive his friends out in his Chevrolet 210. They cashed out their tickets, “got some maps and figured out a way to get to Los Angeles…” The freeways were staggering — “I had never seen so many lanes of cars moving so fast in all my life,” but so was the beauty. Battiste recalled:
We found Ornette’s pad on St. Andrews just north of Santa Barbara Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Boulevard). After only about fifteen minutes of greeting and talking, Boogie unpacked his drums, set up in Ornette’s living room, and we played for about two hours; after all that’s why we came here. Later that day, we rode around looking for a place to live.
For the next couple of decades, Battiste ricocheted between the two L.A.s — Louisiana and Los Angeles — trying to find his groove. The story of these two parallel scenes, in conversation musically, is related in great detail — and with great heart — in Unfinished Blues (also published by HNOC, and co-written with Karen Celestan). Battiste initially secured a job working for Specialty Records, later becoming the label’s New Orleans talent scout and opening an office back home. Specialty would be the first real bridge that would connect him to the energy and creativity of both cities, and it was the place where he met a young truck driver and struggling-but-success-hungry songwriter named Salvatore “Sonny” Bono. That meeting would be fateful and would set Battiste on a path to a certain kind of success in the music world, but would also distract him from his own dreams. He began taking on arranging and producing gigs, working with Bono and his partner, Cher. He would ultimately serve as their musical director on the road and on television shows. He wrote, “In my soul, I was a jazz musician, or soul, R&B or blues even. But suddenly I was sliding across the line musically and being put up front in the studio [. . . . ] now I was in charge.”
In this time between two cities, Battiste began to amass an impressive roster of musicians he’d signed, produced, arranged, or simply rehearsed: Eddie Bo, James Booker, Johnny Adams, Art Neville, Lee Dorsey in New Orleans; Sam Cooke, Billy Preston, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Womack in Los Angeles. Imbued with the same collaborative philosophy of his All For One (AFO) projects in New Orleans, Battiste’s first L.A. laboratory, Soul Station #1, was a small storefront on South Vermont Avenue intended to be the first of a series of intimate rehearsal spaces designed to serve artists who didn’t have connections or access to Hollywood. “I had the idea for a place that would provide a relaxed, at-home environment where talent could be developed for presentation to major companies. It was conceived to be a place where we could immerse ourselves in music, be ourselves and be part of the neighborhood.” Years later, in another move to both shape a new generation of players and elevate the stature of jazz, Battiste set to the task of designing the jazz curriculum at the Colburn School of Performing Arts here in Los Angeles.
Battiste became not just the bridge between the classic sounds and the new, but also the integral link connecting two places as well as the life before and after. That note someone scrawls on the matchbook cover and slips you when you arrive in a new city? Battiste was that voice on the other end of the line. “For the homeboys I’d become the person you called when you got to L.A. Often I was able to help cats get some kind of gigs.” When guitarist-pianist Mac Rebennack was in what he called his “L.A. Exile years,” Battiste was among the first calls. “I had known Mac since 1957 — back in my Specialty Records days. He showed up in the city around 1965. Someone in the music community told me he was in town — or it may have been Mac himself. Whenever he got a chance play (guitar or piano) he would get on someone’s list […] After awhile I introduced him to the Sonny and Cher operation.”
Battiste had begun work on Progress Records, a side project that he and Sonny had launched in 1967. He approached Rebennack first, wanting to know if he had anything in mind. Rebennack told Battiste that he had been reading up on a character called “Dr. John,” a figure out of New Orleans voodoo tradition. “The concept appealed to me immediately [. . .] I envisioned creating a new sound, look and spirit [. . . .]” He and Rebennack began assembling musicians, including the person who was to voice “Dr. John”; that performer, however, declined. “I felt Mac was right for the part, but he was reluctant too. He didn’t see himself as an upfront artist.” Call it studio magic or simply being “in the spirit,” but the sessions they recorded transcended time and place. What would come to be one of Rebennack’s spookiest and most bayou-dank albums was a tour-de-force conceived, produced, and recorded by Battiste amid palm trees and succulents, beneath a sharp Southern Californian sun.
History was made in that Hollywood studio. The album, Gris-Gris, would become a critical success as well as a cultural touchstone. (The sessions would also serendipitously set Rebennack on a life path — the album was followed by Babylon and Dr. John’s Gumbo. Each recording was awash in that New Orleans sound: the mood, sticky like Louisiana-in-August humidity.) As for Gris-Gris, said Battiste:
We collected our cast of New Orleans refugees who understood the spirit of what was going down. […] This was not to be a proper production with music arrangements and everything by the number. […] Looking back at this mixed bag of characters, it seems amazing that we got anything done. The studio was like a Mardi Gras reunion, everybody laughing and talking, telling stories all at the same time. But once we got settled, the vibe was there and the music just flowed. I felt better than I had felt in the studio in a long time.
Out of the studio, however, life in Los Angeles was still a conundrum. Much like Barker, Battiste found Los Angeles’s race politics oblique. In the mid-1960s, Battiste was solvent enough to go “buy some of that attractive ‘easy to get’ California Real Estate.” After some false starts and near disasters, he and his family moved into to their West Coast dream home in Baldwin Village, on Bowcroft Street in West Los Angeles near La Cienega Boulevard. Battiste wrote, “I even had my own little office — a little shed attached to the garage. I equipped it with a desk and a piano. I wrote music there and would sometimes rehearse with a musician or two.” They had a neat front yard with long-necked birds of paradise and other tropical foliage. “For me this was an accomplishment that filled me with joy and pride. This was what defined me as a father and husband and as a man.” It was Battiste’s California Dream, even if it only lasted a moment.
The neighborhood was in transition, with Whites and Jews leaving, African Americans, Asians and Latino Americans coming. Our house was between the two remaining Whites, which was an interesting first for us. The people next door seemed to be cursing and fighting every other night. I learned from that experience. It was obvious to me that these White folks acted like they claimed Black folks acted — in a loud and common way. I had never lived among people that behaved like that.
“You play your part. I’ll play mine.”
Danny Barker, like Battiste, was also facing down unvarnished truths. California might have offered a “different kind of freedom,” as Southerners used to say, but it certainly wasn’t a cure. He’d come out for his West Coast chapter, seen what he’d seen and acknowledged the limits of this new world. After Los Angeles he circled back to New York, but that choice no longer felt like a glamour move. Instead, New York was like purgatory. He found himself playing in a couple of small joints in Hoboken. To stretch his money, he took a day job working for a company called American Management, a business school located at the Astor Hotel. “The job was to put pitchers of iced water on the tables in the classroom, forty or fifty tables, three times a day — morning, noon-time and 2:30. That was my job and then I served cocktails.” He was paid fairly and it was “goin’ alright,” but after his wife’s mother became ill, he realized it was time to take himself back home:
For a long time, I had been thinking about my status in music. I evaluated myself: I am a musician, but what am I doing? Am I successful at it? Yes and no. I am playing sometimes, but where? At the bottom status, singing and playing in bars […] In New York City I’ve been to the top on other great musicians’ bandwagons so who’s fooling who? Go back home.
In the mid-’60s, he moved back to New Orleans — and a world — that he could now see with clear eyes. “I came to New Orleans fully aware of the status quo and resigned to just about any sort of social abuse. I know it’s national, not just the South, because I have been very observant and subjected to too much subtle, clever, hypocritical Jim Crow.”
He took a job at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, where he was part docent, part security guard, and an artifact in himself. He continued telling his stories, collecting keepsakes and testimonials and working on his manuscripts. He would be in the music business for six decades before his book would finally be published. Barker had been discouraged, even patently dissuaded, plenty times along the way. The times he’d share pieces, writers and editors would tell him, “It needs editing.” The rejection smarted but he noted that once his stories began to appear in books about jazz, not one word was changed. “That all started up North, so I came home to the South where I had not the least idea that the material would get some action—and, finally, it happens.”
In the years after his museum gig, Barker found himself adrift — home but not feeling at home: “[T]he New Orleans that was an exciting living experience to me has largely evaporated.” He’d lived long enough to see hip-hop, rap, neo-soul, and smooth jazz all come on the scene, and remake both the art of creating music and the ritual of experiencing it. He wrote, “There are many of these jazz replacements. Jazz playing, jazz singing, jazz dancing is old folks’ old time music. So you have to face it: time brings on changes.” He recounted how New Orleans folks reacted to his return:
“’Why did you come back down here when you had left New Orleans? Why didn’t you just go away and stay away? What’s wrong? You were a failure where you were? Huh, answer me! We don’t need you here.” So I observe all in stride. In my travels about New Orleans I look about at the many places where musicians and sporting people used to gather. They ain’t around any more. The jazz places are churches or open lots.
But in those churches and in those vacant spaces, that old spirit sometimes rises; that encyclopedic history was still deep inside him. In his later years, Barker began to work with a group of young musicians and school them in the particulars of New Orleans sound. The Fairview Baptist Church Band connected a new generation of New Orleanians to brass band tradition, reigniting an interest and energy in the form. Their ability and enthusiasm was, to him, flesh-and-blood insurance that “jazz will live on, because it digs down inside the body, the brain, the heart the nerves and muscles.”
“Eh, la bas!”
What distinguishes early New Orleans jazz is its energy. “You play your part and I play mine, so we’ll both express ourselves,” was how Barker phrased it. It was a way of interacting, of addressing a moment that for some of these players translated into the arc of their life paths. Barker toured the world, sharing the New Orleans sound, but eventually went home and gave back. Harold Battiste set forth, steeped in the old style, but bending the sound into something new. He too would also return home, using his California connections and know-how to build a jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans. Both men died in New Orleans: Barker would pass on in 1994, Battiste in 2015.
The forever-restless Morton kept circling what he felt was his — fame beyond place and category. He stayed in motion, and his health took a toll. Barker ran into Morton for the very last time in New York City, standing on a corner talking to a priest on Seventh Avenue near the Rhythm Club. Barker wrote,
Mabel [Jelly’s wife] and Jelly greeted me with smiles and there was a big multi carat diamond in each of their mouths right up in front for the world to see. I’m sure the priest was well aware […] that they were the symbols of notoriety and of tenderloin characters […] We shook hands […] Jelly had noted my surprise at his association with a priest and then said, “Home Town, I have gone back to the Church and it is a great thing.”
The couple invited Barker back to their apartment, and Barker sat and absorbed Morton’s saga of his misfortune “and how completely disgusted he was with New York City as well as the music business.” All the while, Mabel, Barker recalled, checked on pots and pans in the kitchen. “[S]he just looked sadly at Jelly and then looked at me […] When I left the apartment I was real shook up. A few days later I was standing in front of the Rhythm Club with the usual crowd of musicians. I looked down the street towards the church to see Jelly there talking with two priests. That was the last time I saw Jelly.”
Morton traveled back to California to make another try, which would be his undoing. He returned to Los Angeles to take care of business, bringing with him a pile of new music and hoping to form a band and restart his career. Ultimately, it was a plot to claim what he felt was his: full recognition of his contribution. He took ill — a consequence of a chronic respiratory condition — and was hospitalized for 10 days in the summer of 1941, first placed in a broom closet in the charity ward of Los Angeles County General Hospital because “[i]t was the only room available.” He died 11 days later, July 10, his estate in disarray.
News from the West Coast wended back to Barker, the keeper of the lore, and he would later contextualize Morton’s passing thusly: “When Jelly died in Los Angeles there were four famous negro bands touring the West Coast. None of those leaders attended the services of funeral or sent floral offerings,” Barker states in A Life in Jazz. The official Downbeat magazine coverage from August 1941 would flesh out Barker’s “researcher/folklorist” account, reporting that Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, and Fred Washington were among the pallbearers, but that Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford, who happened to be in town for performances, had failed to appear to pay last respects. Morton’s end was indeed grim — his thin estate a tangle of confusion and red tape (Mabel Morton would step in and file a claim as the pianist-composer’s widow, not Anita who had initially positioned herself as such). It would spin out over time. For years, his grave would remain unmarked. A man and legacy, erased. A poignant irony for a figure who was so consumed with his billing and marquee power.
So much of that history has vanished; it’s been wiped or worn away. But the stories, and their retelling, keep it alive and aloft. Now, if you do wander out to Calvary Cemetery in Montebello, California, looking to chase ghosts, someone in the front office will hand you a map, and if they aren’t busy tending to a family, they will help to plot your journey to the spot.
A formal marble marker is now in place. A simple inscription, white etched on black, reads “Ferdinand Morton” and beneath it, “Jelly Roll.” A delicate rosary encircles the “Rest in Peace.” That dash between the dates can only hint at the impossible twists of the journey east to west, west to east, and back again to make things right — but here, the journey is tangible. Evidence.
He’s over here, hiding in plain sight.
Lynell George is a Los Angeles based journalist and essayist. She is currently an arts and culture columnist for KCET’s Artbound.