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The Becoming of the George Lewis Band by Paige Van Vorst

Date Posted: 2005-01-31

Many years ago prominent Swiss record collector Arnold Bopp issued a series of tapes called 'The Becoming of Jazz' wherein he traced the origins of jazz back to ragtime and other early recorded music. In connection with the reissue of one of the seminal George Lewis sessions we'll take a look at the steps that resulted in what we now know as the Lewis band, the band that began touring in 1953 and was featured on literally dozens of LPs.
S. Frederic Starr, an academic superstar/clarinetist/bandleader, recently spoke in New Orleans about the primitive-ization of New Orleans jazz, how what he felt had been a rich and complex music evolved into the relatively simple music of the Preservation Hall era. Among other things, he indicates it all may have been a Communist plot, its three principals being Al Rose, Bill Russell, and Larry Borenstein. The Communists took an interest in folk music beginning in the late 1930s (e.g. their sponsorship of the Spirituals to Swing Concerts) and somehow dumbing down New Orleans jazz fit this strategy.

What is ignored in all this is that the so-called evolution took place without any of the three principals having anything to do with it. Russell did make several visits to New Orleans to record Bunk Johnson and others, but he only went there to record musicians, not present any public performances. There is a poster and T shirt offered on the Internet purporting to be a reproduction of a poster advertising a July 21, 1945 concert at San Jacinto Hall by the Bunk Johnson band. There was, of course, no such concert and Johnson's influence in New Orleans, as indicated by Charles Suhor in his book, 'Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970,' was negligible. He played a couple of numbers at the Esquire concert, appeared in a Mardi Gras parade, and may have sat in with Louis Armstrong once or twice. Bunk was certainly no advocate of the music he played, as he considered himself 'fit for orchestra,' unlike the 'temporary emergency musicians' he had been saddled with. It would have been difficult for him to have any influence on anyone in New Orleans based on his infrequent visits and lack of contact with anyone on the musical scene there.

The fact that Bunk was saddled with musicians not of his choosing was a function of his lack of knowledge of the New Orleans scene. He'd been away from town for a generation and knew no one in town, and so a band was found for him. It happened that the band they found for him belonged to George Lewis. Alton Purnell always said that the band was Lewis's, not Bunk's. Certainly Lawrence Marrero and Slow Drag Pavageau were regulars in Lewis' small group in the early 1940's and Jim Robinson had worked with Lewis many years earlier as one of many musicians working the dives on Decatur Street.

Lewis and Johnson last played together at the Stuyvesant Casino May 31, 1946 and Lewis returned to New Orleans to resume his musical career. He lined up a job at Manny's Tavern, a neighborhood bar at Benefit and St Roche. He used the nucleus of the Bunk band, adding Elmer Talbert on trumpet and Joe Watkins on drums. The Manny's Tavern job lasted about four years, and during that time a number of young musicians went to Manny's to sit in with Lewis, including Pete Fountain, his teacher Johnny Wiggs, and the members of a youth band that was just starting up, the Dukes of Dixieland. There are live recordings of the Lewis band from Manny's on American Music AMCD-85. During this time, the band was not full-strength- Alton Purnell wasn't with the group and Jim Robinson was there only if a visiting jazz fan coughed up enough to hire him.

Lewis acquired a manager in 1947. Nick Gagliano, a Tulane student, visited Manny's a few times and liked the Lewis band enough that he went out on a limb and convinced a student organization he belonged to to hire them for a dance instead of dancing to a jukebox. The band went over fine and he handled the band for several years. He introduced them to the New Orleans Jazz Club and lined up a regular broadcast on WTPS radio.

The next big event for the band was the LOOK Magazine spread. LOOK sent a two-man crew to New Orleans to do a feature on dixieland jazz, and the intention was to provide coverage of Sharkey Bonano and Papa Celestin, both of whom were then active on Bourbon Street. Bob Greenwood, then a Tulane student, took the reporter out to hear the Lewis band at Manny's, and he was sold. The next day the photographer, Stanley Kubrick, later a celebrated filmmaker, got off the plane and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Where's George Lewis playing?' The article, in the June 6, 1950 issue of LOOK, was entitled 'Dixieland Jazz is '˜Hot' Again,' and said that George Lewis had the best band in New Orleans.

As it turned out, the article wasn't even necessary. The Lewis band lined up a job on Bourbon Street before the magazine hit the stands. The band were walking down Iberville Street after their job ended early and someone in the El Morocco asked if they'd like to come in and play a number or two for tips. They were a sensation and on May 9, 1950 they opened at the El Morocco. They later went to work at the Mardi Gras Lounge, another Bourbon Street club.

About the same time, their first recording deals were materializing.
Dr. Edmond Souchon of the New Orleans Jazz Club recorded the band at an outdoor function in the Spring of 1950 and sent a tape to Jack Lewerke of Good Time Jazz. They agreed to record the band and four sides were cut June 5, 1950. These have remained in print almost from the start, coupled with sides by three other bands that also did four-title sessions for issue on 45 RPM extended play records.

About the same time, Dr. Souchon recorded the band at Filiberto's Music Store. This session, generally referred to as the George Lewis Jam Session, is one of the most-honored Lewis sessions. The session was certainly the high point of the Talbert Era. Elmer 'Coo Coo' Talbert was a large, powerful trumpeter, somewhat along the lines of Wooden Joe Nicholas, and he took enthusiastic, gruff-voiced vocals. The version of Bugle Boy March from this session is probably the definitive recording of the number, and several of the other numbers, particularly Maisie and Ole Miss, are also memorable.

Doc Souchon sold the session to Dante Bolletino of Pax Records. Bolletino was the grandfather of the record bootleggers and had issued a formidable catalog of 10' LPs featuring the cream of the 1920's era sessions- the Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens, the Bix Beiderbeckes, etc. Then a major scandal erupted when the major labels discovered they had been pressing his records, in essence ripping themselves off. They refused to press any more Jolly Roger LPs for Bolletino, and he had to find something else to issue, hence his need for the Lewis Jam Session. The session was issued on Paradox Records as a 10' LP and a 45 EP, and Bolletino subsequently leased the material to the Concert Hall Society for their Jazztone label, and the it was also leased to the French Vogue label.

We're proud to report that we have acquired the rights to the material and the original tapes from the Souchon family, so we are issuing the full session for the first time with the best possible sound. There are only two new items- one alternate take and one incomplete take- but it is all there, for the first time.

The Lewis juggernaut continued to pick up speed. 1951 saw a series of sessions produced by Joe Mares for Rudi Blesh's Circle label. Mares, as was his custom, assembled pickup bands, combining Lewis with musicians he normally didn't work with, like pianist Lester Santiago and drummer Paul Barbarin. Most of these sides appear on AMCD-71, George Lewis with Red Allen.

Elmer Talbert died December 13, 1950, and he was replaced by Percy Humphrey, best known at the time as the leader of the Eureka Brass Band. Humphrey was a brilliant soloist and recorded three times with Lewis, at Artesian Hall for Decca in 1952, and at New Orleans Jazz Club concerts in 1951 and 1952 which were issued by Hup Records and are now on American Music AMCD-107. In recent years additional music by Humphrey with the Lewis band was located and issued on American Music AMCD-21-23.

By 1952 the Lewis band was ready for the big time. They'd even been rehearsing, playing records like Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens and adding numbers like Heebie Jeebies and Canal Street Blues to their repertoire.

Percy Humphrey apparently took the the band's first college tour, to Ohio in 1952, then discovered he couldn't operate his insurance route and tour with Lewis at the same time. Lewis chose Kid Howard for the band. He had been in a period wherein he drank a lot and played very little, but he was still known from his 1943 records with Lewis and it was probably easier to book the band with a trumpet player with a good reputation.

The George Lewis band played dates in Illinois and Ohio then headed for the West Coast and instant fame and fortune. During the next three years the band worked constantly, recorded a lot, and Lewis established his reputation as the standard-bearer for old-time New Orleans jazz. He'd survived some lean periods and gone though a number of changes with his band, but he'd succeeded, though slowly, to build his band. They appeared to be overnight successes, but it had taken seven years of local gigs and steadily-increasing publicity to reach the pinnacle. and they did it without the intervention, benign or otherwise, of Bill Russell, Larry Borenstein or Al Rose.

We're glad for the opportunity to shed additional light on this period in Lewis' career with the release for the first time of the George Lewis Jam Session.

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