Into the jazz heartland

By William Claxton. Excerpt from the book 'William Claxton. Jazzlife'

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My fear disappeared and we actually enjoyed ourselves, as did the prisoners. After leaving the prison, I got a delayed reaction to being surrounded by a thousand or so prisoners with no guard. It was a bit unnerving. The music and stories that we heard were both depressing and inspiring, but above all authentic. All in all, we left New Orleans with a wonderful feeling. We had heard such good ol' happy jazz, dined on delicious food and met genuinely warm and friendly people.

Early one Saturday morning, we arrived in St. Louis. The city seemed dead. We met with the old trumpeter Dewey Jackson in his home, but he said, "Don't blow jazz no more, I'm a house painter now." However, I did some good photographs of him in his home against a setting of his memorabilia. We were told that St. Louis had always been a home for great trumpet players. There was a strong German community. Generations of musicians were trained in both military and classical music featuring brass instruments. And, of course, Miles Davis was from St.Louis.

We heard several jazz combos that were popular there, and a nightclub called the Mellow Cellar was very much alive and kicking with modern jazz much like what we'd heard in New York. And then, somehow, we found ourselves in a place called the Faust Club late one night. We were told that we could hear some good ragtime there. We looked forward to perhaps finding a new Scott Joplin. While seated in the dark, dingy club, we listened to a rather masculine woman singing the blues accompanied by another lady outfitted in a tailored man's suit playing a tenor saxophone. "Joe," I said quietly, "we are the only guys in the place. We're surrounded by lesbians." Joe replied, "Ja, but some are so good-looking!" We were treated very well and even had complementary drinks sent to us. But it was not an exciting evening of music.Being a scholar, Joe Berendt knew more about the roots of American music than I did. He announced to me, as we were driving through the Midwest, that Kansas City was, after New Orleans, probably the most important city in the history of jazz. Two great styles had originated there, swing in the 1930s and bebop in the early '40s. Upon arriving in Kansas City we went immediately to the Olive Street home of Charlie "Bird" Parker's mother, Mrs. Adie B. Parker. But our brief visit was too much for her; she was still overcome with emotion by the loss of her genius son five years earlier. It was terribly sad. Evidently many well-meaning people had knocked on her door to inquire about him. We did visit his grave, however, and I photographed it.
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The Metropole Cafe on Broadway. Buster Bailey (clarinet), Claude Hopkins (piano) the dancer Audrey Armstrong, Hal Singer (tenor saxophone), Red Allen (trumpet). New York City.
(c) William Claxton