NORRIE COX BY PAIGE VANVORST
Date Posted: 2006-03-17
MEET NORRIE COX AND THE NEW ORLEANS STOMPERS by Paige VanVorst Clarinetist Norrie Cox is a man with a mission- he`s devoted the last fifteen years to preserving and nurturing New Orleans jazz in an unlikely locale- Milwaukee. He has one of the most authentic New Orleans bands in the US, and he`s always working to expand the band`s influence- he has three regular gigs right now for various-sized groups and he assembles the full ensemble once or twice a year for special concerts.
In addition to performing, Cox is very active as a teacher- he`s trained a band of youthful musicians through community-based organizations. While he hasn`t produced another Louis Armstrong yet, he`s taught a growing number of teenagers the values of New Orleans jazz, and many of them head off to college with an appreciation of early jazz unavailable anywhere else in the US, possibly in the world.
Instead of drilling them on Kenton charts as virtually all other jazz educators do, Cox teaches them how to improvise and how each instrument fits together to make the ensemble jazz so beloved of New Orleans purists. The world would be a far better place if we could clone Norrie Cox and establish bands all over the country, as Jelly Roll Morton had suggested to the FDR as a way to help end the Depression.
Norrie Cox , in common with a number of other US and Canadian New Orleans players, hails from England, a product of the trad boom of the late 1950s. Cox took up the clarinet while serving in the RAF in 1952 and when he left the service he went right into the music business, leading the San Jacinto Jazz Band, a popular semi-pro jazz band. He toyed with the idea of going into music fulltime but he was involved in a demanding training program (he`s a mechanical
engineer) and felt he couldn`t handle both the shopwork and his music. He married and gradually moved away from music, settling in the US in 1966, first in Indiana then in Wisconsin. He worked for Waukesha Motors, a manufacturer of heavy-duty motors for fire engines and other heavy equipment and later was chief engineer of the testing lab at Harley-Davidson.
I returned to Milwaukee in 1973 to hear Harold Dejan and a cutdown Olympia Brass Band play at Milwaukee`s Summerfest as part of a sister-cities thing.
Harold had a pile of 45 EPs of the Olympia which he was pitching into the audience. The man next to me asked what it was they were throwing and I said, "That`s the 45 from Tom Stagg`s NOLA label." I heard a very British voice pipe up from about two rows back, "Did someone up there mention Tom Stagg?"
I introduced myself to Norrie and we had a brief chat. He was not active as a jazzman, but worked with the First Brigade Band, an ensemble connected with a group of Civil War re-enactors. They re-enacted the musical battles of the Civil War with authentic costumes and instrumentation.
A few months later I was having dinner with Barry Martyn and mentioned having seen Cox. He looked like he`d seen a ghost."Norrie Cox- he was the first Englishman that could play the clarinet like George Lewis. Where is he?"
I gave him Norrie`s number and he called him a while later while changing planes in Milwaukee.
Gradually Norrie worked his way back into the jazz business. The first jazz bands he worked with were the Chicago Hot Six and the Riverboat Ramblers, a Madison WI-based band featuring Bob Schulz; he recorded with them in 1988 (GHB BCD-279).
There were a few jazz enthusiasts in Milwaukee and the city put on the Milwaukee Jazz Experience in the early eighties to try to stir up more interest in jthe music. One of the guest musicians was cornetist Charlie Devore of St Paul.
He and Norrie hit it off at once and decided to start a New Orleans jazz band. They worked up a list of their ideal bandmembers and set about convincing them to get on board.
The New Orleans Stompers made their first appearances in 1989 and they have played numerous jazz festivals and societies coast to coast. They regroup at least annually for a series of concerts in places like Milwaukee and Madison, and they`ve had a remarkably consistent personnel- the only position where there has been any change was on banjo- Mac Reynolds was there at the beginning, followed by Mike Carrell. When Carrell died two years ago he was replaced by Phil Cartwright.
Our new release is the band`s fifth recording- there was a cassette in 1991 followed by three CDs for Delmark, the most recent featuring a guest appearance by pianist Butch Thompson. This session was recorded at the Grieg Club, an old lodge hall with probably the closest possible resemblance to a New Orleans dancehall, the standard for recordings of t his type since Bill Russell first
recorded Bunk Johnson at San Jacinto Hall in 1943.
The recording equipment was housed in a trailer parked behind the hall and cables ran all over the place- the recording engineers were basically out of sight, though, and their presence was almost an afterthought. The band were their own producers, and they rolled through the numbers at their own speed- a couple were done a second or third time but most of the numbers went down easily, as the band knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it.
The New Orleans Stompers have been together fifteen years and it shows- they have all had extensive experience in other bands and most are still active in a variety of settings, but they concentrate on New Orleans ensemble playing when they are with the Stompers.
Charlie Devore has been active as a New Orleans musician since the mid-1950`s. He fell in love with New Orleans jazz while stationed near the Crescent City with the Navy. He became associated with William Russell, the dean of New Orleans jazz musicologists, and took lessons from Fess Manetta, a veteran instructor whose earlier students included Emmet Hardy, Henry ‘Red" Allen, and Kid Thomas Valentine.
Once he left the Navy and returned to his native Minneapolis, he continued his musical activity as a member of the Hall Brothers Jazz Band. The Hall Brothers were among the first groups to record for GHB and the band`s forty-year history included the operation of their own nightclub, the Emporium of Jazz, for twenty-five years. During that time the Hall Brothers welcomed a wide variety of musicians as guests with the band- all of the major musicians from New Orleans, Eubie Blake, Turk Murphy, the Worlds Greatest Jazz Band, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, and many others.
In addition to working with Norrie Cox, Charlie co-leads a band in the Twin Cities with trombonist-bassist Bill Evans.
Trombonist Jim Klippert enjoys playing Norrie`s music so much that he commutes from California for band appearances. Jim grew up in Akron where his father, Moe Klippert, led the Rubber City Retreads, and young Jim was exposed to a lot more traditional jazz at an early age than most youngsters. While at Harvard Jim was a member of the original Black Eagle Jazz Band, and he can be heard on their LP for the Philo label featuring special guest Chester Zardis. When he`s not appearing with the Stompers, Jim works in a group led by Cllint Baker that`s had a weekly gig for about ten years. He was also a regular member of the Magnolia Jazz Band and recorded with them for GHB and Stomp Off. He also spent some time with the great Seattle-based Grand Dominion Jazz Band.
Mike Carrell played banjo in bands around Madison WI for almost fifty years.
He worked a weekly job at the Holiday Inn in Madison for almost twenty years.
Mike became ill with cancer not long after this session but recovered sufficiently to travel to New Orleans for JazzFest 2004; he had a great time jamming with bands all over town then died of a massive heart attack while sightseeing.
His solid rhythm and encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards is missed by bands all over the Upper Midwest.
Bill Evans started his jazz career as trombonist with the Mississippi Counts, a Minnesota-based band. He switched to string bass when he joined the Hall Brothers Jazz Band in the late 1950s as one of the Hall Brothers (Russ Hall) had already claimed the trombone chair. He was with the group for twenty-five years. They were one of the first groups to record for GHB (GHB-11, issued in 1965). Since the Hall Brothers band became inactive, Evans returned to the trombone and fronted his own band for a long-running St Paul gig and currently co-leads a group with Charlie Devore. He`s established a pied-a-terre in New Orleans and keeps an apartment and a string bass for use on his many visits. He`s become a regular in the Audiophile Studios and appears on a couple of our new releases every year.
Donald "Doggie" Berg became active as a drummer while studying at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1950s. Madison was a hotbed of jazz interest in those days and there were many excellent bands comprised of students and recent grads. Berg journeyed to New Orleans in 1957 to study the music at its source and wound up in a jam session at Larry Borenstein`s Associated Artists Studio (later known as Preservation Hall) which was raided by the police for the then-illegal practice of having an racially integrated jazz band. Others in the patrol wagon that day included Charlie Devore, Punch Miller and Kid Thomas Valentine; they were let off with a stern warning from Judge Babylon, who knew Valentine in his day job as an Algiers LA-based handyman.
Berg settled in Minneapolis and joined the Hall Brothers Jazz Band. He still appears whenever the Devore-Evans combine have a gig as well as his regular appearances with Norrie`s unit.
The New Orleans Stompers have a tremendous command of the New Orleans repertoire. They`ve all been playing the music a long time and studied with many of the pioneers in the idiom. The Stompers take their cues from the earlier New Orleans performance style, with a lot more ensemble playing than contemporary bands. Their repertoire includes tunes dating to the earliest days of jazz- this set includes early tunes like When You and I Were Young Maggie, Bogalusa Strut, and Silver Bell, a surviving Indian number, from a fascinating ragtime genre that surfaced briefly in the late teens.
The Stompers have made the New Orleans ensemble style their own- you`ll hear echoes of greats like George Lewis, Bunk Johnson and Jim Robinson from time to time, but the Stompers have all gone far beyond imitation of their idols to make the music their own.
The Grieg Club session was held on Father`s Day 2000 and I`m eternally grateful my family gave me the ultimate gift by allowing me to take leave of them
for the day to take the trip to Madison to hear the session.
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