Date Posted: 2008-08-15
By Paige VanVorst
We’re proud to salute Sam Charters this issue, in conjunction with the recent publication of his new book, A Trumpet Around the Corner, by the University Press of Mississippi.
Sam Charters is one of the most prolific individuals in the field of jazz and blues- he is not only a writer and researcher, but he has been an active record producer for a variety of labels, and he even threw in his two cents’ worth on banjo and piano on some informal sessions recorded in the pre-Preservation Hall era at Larry Borenstein’s art store.
Charters is approaching eighty but shows no sign of slowing down- A Trumpet Around the Corner was written after he finished New Orleans- Playing a Jazz Chorus, which was written in the wake of the destruction of much of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina- that’s two books in three years, a good pace for an author of any age; another book, A Language of Song, will be published this Fall.
Samuel Barclay Charters was born in Pittsburgh, August 1, 1929 and grew up in Sacramento. He heard his first jazz and blues when he heard one of Bessie Smith’s records when he was seven. He moved to New Orleans in December 1950 and began amassing a priceless collection of jazz and blues records.
He began formal music lessons, studying the clarinet under George Lewis. He was part of a small group of musicians learning jazz in New Orleans in the early 1950s- Billy Huntington is still on the scene from those days while Richard Allen gave up the trombone to concentrate on developing the Jazz Archive at Tulane. Other musical associates in the early days included Paul Crawford, trombone; Erwin Helfer, then a Tulane student specializing in boogie woogie piano; Charles McNett, a drummer; and David Wyckoff, trumpet.
The young musicians would occasionally invite one of New Orleans distinctive older musicians to join them, though a racially mixed group would not have been legal under New Orleans codes at that time, so, for example, when they invited Johnny St Cyr to come over for a jam session, there would have to be a carefully documented cover story that they’d hired him to provide entertainment at a party.
Sam Charters produced his first recordings about 1954- he’d become enamored of the Six and 7/8s String Band, an amateur group playing in a very authentic, very hot style that was a complete holdover from the World War I era; they’d been rehearsing over the years but never played other than for their own amusement. The sides were issued originally on Folkways and were recently reissued on a double-CD set on American Music. During this period Charters also recorded Billie and DeDePierce, Isaiah Morgan and Israel Gorman. He later recorded several rehearsals of the Eureka Brass Band, the first recordings done of a working brass band- all prior New Orleans brass band recordings were of band basically assembled for recording purposes- Charters got the Eureka on its home turf- the results were part of a five-LP set on Folkways which included sides recorded by Charters as well as things recorded by Alden Ashforth and David Wyckoff, two active researchers during the early 1950’s.
Charters’ New Orleans residency resulted in his first major piece of scholarship- Jazz: New Orleans 1885-1957 An Index to the Negro Musicians of New Orleans. The original book was published as part of Walter C Allen’s Jazz Monographs series, in February 1958. There was an updated edition published in 1963 by Oak Publications, a firm best known as the publishers of Sing Out, a popular magazine that chronicled the folk music revival of the 1960s.
The book was basically a continuation of a project Richard B Allen had begun in 1954 and it included biographical entries for most of the major musicians active in New Orleans in the 1950s as well as most major historical figures, though only to the extent of their work in New Orleans- musicians who left, like Johnny Dodds, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, as covered to the extent they played in New Orleans- Armstrong’s career, for example, was covered until he left for Chicago and then mentioned again only in discussing his visit to New Orleans in 1931.
In the early 1960s, this was the only book in print with any coverage of the contemporary New Orleans scene and as a jazz-hungry youth I devoured it- I read from it every night before I went to bed and can still quote passages from it over forty years later; my original copy is almost totally worn out.
The second edition had a better binding, though it was still a paperback, and it had a section in the rear with additional information that came to light after the first edition came out, as well as a few corrections. John Dodds Jr took exception to a passage indicating his father was quick-tempered and had no problem using a knife. Charters said Bill Russell was greatly amused by that passage, and whenever a visitor to his record shop had him play a Dodds record, he’d jump around the shop, lunging as if he had a knife, saying “This is knife music.”
After the publication of Jazz New Orleans, there was an outpouring of additional work from Charters- in conjunction with Len Kunstadt, one of the editors of Record Research and an astute researcher on New York jazz scene, he wrote Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, a valuable jazz history tome published in 1962 by Doubleday.
Beginning about 1958, Charters and his wife Ann began traveling throughout the South researching the blues. Many of the earliest blues recording artists were still alive in remote Southern hamlets and they were able to locate and interview many of them. The results appeared in a series of books, including The Country Blues (1959), The Poetry of the Blues (1963), The Bluesmen (1967), The Legacy of the Blues (1975) and Sweet as the Showers of Rain (1977).
In addition to writing about the blues, Charters became active as a record producer in the field. He assembled a series of LPs for Folkways’ RBF subsidiary, some of the earliest blues reissued, and he began recording contemporary blues in the mid-1960s with an explosive series of recordings documenting the Chicago scene (Junior Wells, Buddy Guy etc) which came out on Vanguard to a rapturous reception, as they were among the first album-length product covering modern Chicago blues. He had earlier produced several blues albums for Prestige.,
Between 1966 and 1970 Charters was also active for Vanguard producing a series of LPs by Country Joe (McDonald) and the Fish, a rock band popular with the antiwar coalition then prevalent in the US. During his time with Vanguard Charters also found the time to produce some valuable ragtime LPs,.
During the early 1970s Charters became disenchanted with the US due to the Vietnam War and relocated to Sweden. He continued his involvement with music, producing sessions for release in Europe on the Sonet label, including two wonderful sets by the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, and also wrote about Swedish music and translated the works of Swedish writer Tomas Transtromer into English. He also produced blues and modern jazz sessions for Sonet.
In 1974 Charters traveled to Africa to research the roots of jazz and blues. The result, The Roots of the Blues, won the Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Music Writing.
Charters turned to writing fiction in the 1980s, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton’s Last Night at the Jungle Inn: An Imaginary Memoir (1984). The story is a fictional account of one of the low points of Morton’s career when he was managing a seedy nightclub in Washington DC. The book effectively evokes the Morton who recorded for the Library of Congress in 1938, telling story after story into Alan Lomax’ disc recorder. A subsequent novel, Louisiana Black (1986) was made into a movie, White Lies, starring Gregory Hines.
During the last several years Charters has split his time between Connecticut (his wife, a recognized authority on Jack Kerouac, is a Professor at the University of Connecticut) and Sweden.
In 2000 Charters and his wife established the Samuel and Ann Charters Archive of Blues and Vernacular African American Musical Culture, part of the Thomas J Dodd Research Center of the University of Connecticut. The archive includes recordings, research material and other documents collected over fifty years of writing and research.
Charters returned to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina to write New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus, a survey of the state of music in post-Katrina New Orleans. He interviewed almost everyone connected with the music scene- Preservation Hall, the contemporary brass band scene, the GHB-Jazzology studios, and a number of other cultural entities. The book describes the hope that was apparent even in the dark days of late 2005.
Sam Charters has now finished Trumpet Around the Corner, an update of his original book, Jazz New Orleans, including this time both black and white musicians, something not feasible due to the prevailing mores of the 1950s.
There are very few researchers with Charters’ credentials and his output includes not only books on jazz and blues, but poetry, fiction and translations from Swedish. It has been more than fifty years since he published his first book and we’re glad he’s still turning his skills toward the music of New Orleans.