So I didn’t get to jam with Taj Mahal or have the deep discussion about the universal language of music or to compare our musical journeys over the last forty years as I was hoping. Taj was catching up with doudou his old pal who had the rising sun where all the great bluesman and woman performed in the seventies and eighties. here is a story about it.
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There was a house in Montreal…
A random sampling of awesomeness
photo: Courtesy Justin Time
And it was called the Rising Sun, and many excellent live recordings, it turns out, were made there
Twenty-five years ago my father took me to my first B.B. King concert, and halfway through his set at Place des Arts, King invited butch blues legend Big Mama Thornton on stage to belt out a song.
The hard-drinking Thornton – who would die four years later, in 1984, at the age of 58 – was booked at Doudou Boicel’s Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club across the street. And when Big Mama took the mic, she just about blew King off the stage.
“B.B. King came to my club after that show and he gave me a hundred bucks and he gave Big Mama a hundred bucks, and [blues legend] James Cotton was there and they played until 4 in the morning,” Boicel says today. “I was an idiot – I didn’t record that show.”
But Boicel, now 67, recorded just about everybody else, and many of the recordings that survived the 1990 fire that destroyed Boicel’s historic club have been digitally remastered and released by Montreal’s Just a Memory Records, a division of Justin Time Records.
Two new releases are Sassy Mama by Big Mama Thornton, recorded at the Rising Sun in 1977, and Walk On by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, recorded at Boicel’s Rising Sun Festijazz (precursor to the Montreal Jazz Festival) at Place des Arts in 1980.
“Big Mama drank her gin with milk,” Boicel recalls.
He remembers Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee famously feuded for decades after Terry – who was blind – refused to pay his share of their gasoline bill because he wasn’t the one driving their car from gig to gig.
“I had to pay them
separately,” Boicel says. “They insulted each other while they were singing on stage. But when they were off stage they didn’t say a word to each other.”
Other releases include Goin’ Way Back recorded by Muddy Waters and his entourage in a Montreal rooming house in 1967; Black Night Is Falling by John Lee Hooker, recorded in 1977; and Salt Peanuts, a live set by Dizzy Gillespie also recorded at the Rising Sun.
“John Lee was a very good friend,” Boicel says. “He always came with young 17- and 18-year-old girls. He told me, ‘When they’re 20 they’re too old for me!'”
Boicel continues, “Many musicians were surprised to learn I was black because black club owners were extremely rare. So they played without pay to help me out after the club burnt down in 1990. Taj Mahal came and paid his way to help me out. Dizzy was a real friend. He cancelled a tour in [Mexico] after the fire to come to Montreal to help me, and without getting paid. And when Taj toured Japan, he told Lightnin’ Hopkins, ‘There’s this black guy in Montreal running this place called The Rising Sun. We need to support our black brother.'”
Boicel sighs. “I lost a lot of recordings in that fire. But some remained. So I contacted Jim West [at Justin Time] and sold them.”
West has been releasing the Rising Sun sessions ever since, as well other historic Montreal concerts by the likes of Oscar Peterson (1951), Nina Simone (Let It Be Me) and Chet Baker (Love for Sale, recorded at the Rising Sun in 1978).
“They’re historical recordings,” West says. “It’s like finding a treasure vault. And the atmosphere was great at Doudou’s club. He was friends with all of these people. Over the years we’ve had offers for recordings made at other clubs – including some in New York – but they just don’t have the same meaning for us. The Rising Sun was a special place.”
Three ladies, presumably Taj’s cousins, were sitting further down the table backstage, and Taj was getting ready for the Thunderbirds’ set to be over and for his turn to take the stage, stoking up with a couple of glasses of brown Barbados rum on the rocks. So we didn’t really connect, his attention being so divided. Someone came and got him and said it was time to go on and he left without even saying goodbye or anything and I figured if he wanted to pursue our acquaintance he would have asked me to meet him after the show, but he didn’t, because the three ladies, relatives perhaps from his St. Kitts side, were waiting to see him then, and Bong his tour manager said they were flying out to the next city on their tour at six in the morning. I also think after forty years of performing he had become the good time hard-living itinerant bluesman he played on stage and had maybe long ago ceased to be interested in the sort of intellectual shuff I was. We really weren’t that much on each other’s wavelength, or we were were but didn’t have the opportunity to break through to each other in the half an hour we spent together. Taj plays his music, and I play mine. His musical persona is far more developed, but I found his performance a little coarse and repetitive, like a real juke joint bluesman, though occasionally he took off on some really incredible flights on the neck of his guitar. He is a very idiosyncratic sui generis musician, and so am I. It reminded me of an ordnery 90 year old banjo picker named Cordell Kent I jammed with a few years ago on his porch in a little place in western Tennessee called Defeated, because the Confederates had lost a battle to the Union there. We were going along fine in the key of G on one number and suddenly without warning and for no apparent reason Cordell switched to another key. I said I thought we were playing in G, and Cordell said, well you play in your key, and I’ll play in mine.
I was sort disappointed, thinking that Taj would have progressed further in forty years of music-making to something more intricate and subtle, like Gary Davis, something more beautiful. But a lot of journeymen on the road bluesman find a certain groove and sound and perfect certain signature licks, and then that’s what they play for the rest of their careers, like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. In the end, musicians are producers, not consumers. The consumers are the audience, the same sort of people who go to PGA tournaments. I’m not sure what they really get out of it. And then there are the critics, an even more curious breed. They are not musicians, in most cases, but they put them selves out as people who know something about playing. Some musicians play for audiences, some play for themselves, to liberate the notes their brains are bursting with. I am the latter. I rarely perform and I have to say it shows. Kate McGarrigle gave me an incredible gift of getting twelve of my tunes out there before she died in the Suitcase on the Loose, even though my vocals leave something to be desired, and the arrangements are a little too haut folk for me. My voice is too didactic, because I wanted each word to be recognizable, I hate it when you can’t make out the lyrics, so I sound a bit like John Houseman in the E.F.Hutton commercial : we don’t make money, we earn it. I should of sung more melodious.
Two days later my pal Bob Olivier and I took in two shows. The first was Gil Evan’s orchestral arrangement of Porgy and Bess for Miles Davis, with Ron de Lauro on the trumpet. De Lauro was fine, but he wasn’t Miles. I like the original opera better. Then a hot jazz band from Paris in the style made famous by Django Reinhardt, whose 100th birthday is this year. The band was called Gypsie Planet with Christian Escoude as the alpha, David Reinhardt (who is Djano’s great-grandson) and Daryll Hall on guitars, Marcel Azzola on accordion, Flordin Nicolescu on violin, and Jean-Baptiste Laya on base. Escoude took most of the guitar solos, and Bob found his lightning up and down the scales a little tiresome after a while. High testosterone jazz, he called it, too competitive between the musicians. Too virtuosic when if they were going to be competing they should have been trying to produce the most beautiful and melodious solo. Nicolescu, a lubugrious tall dark-skinned Rumanian was unbelievable on the violin. When one of the guitarists, usually Escoude, was soloing, the other two bumpchinked chords. I loved it, but I agree with Bob. Great music is not about the speed you can play the notes in. Even the hottest jazz has a ceiling. B0b was right, Escoude was too bravura and into showing what a great guitar player he was. You could tell from the minute he walked on that he had a big ego and was not the shrinking violet type. At one point he cut off Reinhardt in the middle of a solo. Bob thought the most tasteful and sensitive of the guitarist was Daryll Hall. “Jazz today has become insipidly competitive and anti-musical,” he said. “who wants to hear a bunch of music jocks running off scales so fast you can’t make out a single note ?” Being a guitar player, I, though, was very happy that I got to hear Gyspie Planet. Some day I gotta learn that stuff. And later I took in some melodious refined jazz of the highest order, shows Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett.
Two days later I took Dan Stepchuk, who is married to my wife’s kid sister, to see Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed with Zorn on sax. The Stepchuks were visiting from Ottawa for the weekend. This was a totally different kettle of fish. I was hoping to hear Lou sing Take A Walk on the Wild Side. and his songs from his Velvet Underground days, as were many in the audience. Mickey Foote, who produced clash’s first album, after listening to Suitcase on the Loose, told me was my voice on one of the songs sounded just like Lou in a certain Velvet Underground which he named but meant nothing, cuz I had never heard Lou or the band, antedeluvian as I am, so it was a case of independent convergence, except that we are both products of the sixties.
Laurie and Lou were friends of the McGarrigle sisters and always joined them in their Carnegie Hall Christmas concert, so I was looking forward to finally hearing them.They came out on the stage of the Salle Willfred Pelletier, the most prestigious venu in the festival. Lou looked old, he sat at a guitar that was plugged into a synthesis and all sorts of other special effects, a whole orchestra of sonic possibility, and sat there the whole show hunched over like a patient in a wheelchair in a hospital corridor. Laurie, in her fifties I would guess but short haired and still pixiesh, stood on the left, playing an electrified violin and a few times a keyboard, and Zorn was on the sax in the middle. They were like a trio about to give a chamber concert, but when they started playing it was… I don’t know how to describe it. Far out, with moments like classical, Indian, Tibetan monastery droning trumpets and clashes symbols, bagpipe, wind rushing out of the portals of Hades as I once described howler monkeys, 2001 Space Odyssey, the oracle of Delphi, a ten or fifteen minute taking off on a single note, D. They were tapping into the universal sound of being here. Not the flattened pentatonic wail, but something more primal. Pygmies and Bushmen and Cayapo of the Amazon would have gotten into it, but a lot of the audience didn’t, and there started to be a slow exodus, two or three people at a time who found it skritchy and cacophonous and couldn’t stand it. 200 irate festivalgoers demanded their money back, which is unheard of at the jazzfeste, and got it. On the next number Zorn went wild on the sax, playing it as freely and inventively as I have ever heard a sax blown, trilling and skronking, sounding like an elephant trumpeting. In the middle of it, I don’t know how he knew when to do it, a long haired guy came in and gave Lou a bass and he gave hin the guitar. sometimes it got a little creepy, like suspense music in a horror movie. One unhappy, belligerent member of the audience yelled, Play some music ! and Zorn said to him, “If you don’t think that’s music, give the fuck out of here !” “Oddly enough,” the Gazette reported, ” Zorn’s other show, the two-concert Masada Event, generated no such controversy. “”It was modern and so ancient at the same time,” said Russ Davis of the New Yor jazz station MOJA. “The musicianship was increidlbe, the spirit coming from the stage was so ebullient and uplifting– but deep, high art and folk art at the same time. What more can you ask for ?” This is an accurate description of what Zorn was doing when we took in.
What do we call this ? Dan and I puzzled. Avant garde ? Indubitably. I could hear Phillip Glass and the Night Kitchen, my pal Arto Lindsay getting incredible skritchy sounds on the guitar, which he doesn’t know how to play in the sense of knowing any chords. I understood the provenance of the performance. It reminded me of dan up the street who rents a soundprooof studio on St Laurent once a month with his friends, none of them professional musicians, and they all bring different instruments they don’t really know how to play and they play whatever they feel like, not worrying about whether it fits it with what the others are doing, they just let out, whatever notes and beats possess them, creating a really interesting dense field of unpredictable sound, which is incredibly therapeutic, like primal scream therapy. I felt like my cylinders were blown out and my envelope was pushed and felt refreshed at the end of one of dan’s jams and this is just how I felt after Lou and Laurie and Zorn’s show. whether the relentless droning cacophony could be called music is another thing. I would say definitely yes. whatever you were listening for, it was there. Wow dan said I never heard anybody do that with the sax before. this is bringing up all kinds of dark emotions. it’s very industrial and angry.
that wasn’t how it made me feel. it was a constantly changing field of sound. laurie going one two three four same note over and over expanding into a whole violin section, then contracting again. this is what music will sound like 100 years from now, what it has always sounbded like. but for dan it is conjuring images of environmental disaster, the oil spill. edge postindustrial apocalyptic sounbdscapes, he calls it, uncertain music for uncertain times. to me it started like a polite trio that very soon blows the whole thing open. I go to the urina and the guy next to me says, gee, man, I couldn’t stand it. it was so disorderd and non-musical. I thought they were singers. I went to George Benson last night. He was great.” I say : “Well it just shows you how many kids of music there are.”
dan continues, “it was shrill, repetitive, 35 minutes would have been enough . it has to be one of the edgier performances of the festival. it had the feeling of them jamming among themselves, and we got to watch and experience what they were up to. we should go somewhere and have a martini. every one in a while ya got to go hear something like that. get out of the comfort zone. take some artistic medicine. it was unsettling. not soothing.” Dan works for the Canadian government in a department whose mandate is to streamline the bureaucracy.
No offering at the festival generated such a buzz since smacked-out Chet Baker nodded off onstage in l985.
outside the sun was dying beautifully in a high rosy ribbed rack of cloud at the end of St. Urbain between the walls of highrise . the doors of my perception had been opened and everything seemed new, heightened, charged. Music that can do that to you get high marks from me. As Louis Armstrong said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never understand it.”
back home I open an email from a Russian translator who has just translated nine poems of the obscure prerevolutionary silver Age poet, Velimir Klebnikov (1885-1922), about whom the nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, who obviously didn’t think much of him, wrote, “Klebnikov’s work is a phenomenon of towering incoherence.” That what Lou Laurie and Zorn’s show was “a phenomenon of towering incoherence.” Bravissimo !
The festival is to be congratulating for taking such an open-minded view of what jazz, and music are.