There's a saying that goes something like this: "Those guys aren't
from the old school - they're from the school they had to tear down to build
the old school". That, in a nutshell, sums up Norrie Cox and His New Orleans
Not many jazzmen perform in the New Orleans style anymore. There was a time
40 or 50 (or even 30) years ago when giants walked the earth. They were throwbacks
to an earlier era. Wooden Joe Nicholas, Kid Thomas Valentine, Jim Robinson, George
Lewis, Punch Miller, Slow Drag Pavageau, George Guesnon, Cie Frazier and the list
goes on and on. But they're gone now. Each and every one of them. But we are
lucky that their spirit lives on. Not only in recordings, and books and articles,
but in the people whose lives they touched. One common trait of many New Orleans
jazzmen was to teach what they knew to the next generation coming up. It's
how New Orleans jazz stayed alive and Norrie Cox and his band are part of it.
Norrie Cox was part of the great English trad-boom of the 50s. Ken Colyer
led the pack and many others came along with him. Colyer stayed true his entire
life to the New Orleans sound he heard there in 1953. Norrie knew Ken and even
sat in with him. Perhaps Colyer's dedication to a non-commercial music rubbed
off because Norrie has been one of its greatest proponents for decades.
Aside from teaching eager (and talented) youngsters about New Orleans jazz,
Cox created the New Orleans Stompers in the late 80s to have a place to play pure
music. No compromises, no gimmicky solos, no sped-up tempos, no dixie - just great
"old style" jazz. "Old style" like Bunk Johnson, George Lewis,
Kid Thomas Valentine and others. If you look back to the recordings by Bunk and
Kid Thomas, you'll find that they played songs from different eras. Bunk always
liked to play the popular tunes of the day and a sampling of a Kid Thomas dance
hall performance would find waltzes, rock -n- roll tunes, marches, novelty songs,
just about anything. And that, I think, is the key to this music. It's not
the tunes or even the instrumentation - it's the style of playing.
The New Orleans Stompers understand this well. Cornetist Charlie DeVore was fortunate enough to request and receive station in New Orleans
in the 50s. There he met Bill Russell. Mr. Russell, for those who know nothing
of him, was very much responsible for the great New Orleans jazz revival of the
40s. It was Russell who took an interest in Bunk Johnson, recorded him and gave
him opportunities to show the world his music. It was Russell who did so much
of the interview legwork that comprises the Tulane University Jazz Archive. Bill
Russell complied information (photos, recordings, letters, etc) his entire life
and this massive collection of materials is now stored in New Orleans. And it
was Russell who the early architects of Preservation Hall turned to for advice.
To overestimate the contribution that Bill Russell has made to New Orleans jazz
Bill Russell introduced Charlie DeVore to many of the city's greatest
jazzmen: Wooden Joe Nicholas, Kid Thomas Valentine, George Lewis, Punch Miller,
Raymond Burke and many others. Charlie took music lessons from the legendary Manuel
"Fess" Manetta and was even thrown in a New Orleans jail for playing
in a mixed band. In fact, that is how he met Donald "Doggie" Berg, the
fantastic drummer. The years spent in New Orleans obviously had quite an effect
on Charlie as he went on to be an original member of the famous Hall Brothers
Jazz Band and opened The Emporium of Jazz in Minnesota which hosted many legendary
jazz performers over the years. Charlie, like King Oliver and Mutt Carey, is a
freak player using mutes to alter his sound. I never get tired of listening to
Charlie play. He is always doing something endlessly inventive. Any band is very
lucky to have him, and any audience is lucky to hear him.
From the Stompers' first gigs in 1989, the band has displayed a tight,
authentic ensemble sound and the personnel has remained very constant (only Mike
Carrell on banjo is an addition). The Stompers' first concert was to fill
a slot by an absent band. A review from the Potomac River Jazz Club from April
"The overall effect of the New Orleans Stompers was classic New Orleans
jazz played correctly. They played the material with reverence, yet gave it their
own stamp, with varied tempos and solo sequences. There was no hint of sameness
among their performances. Their version of Just A Closer Walk With Thee was as
good as Ive heard. The comments I overheard from those on hand were uniformly
positive. The audience may have been a witness to history. The New Orleans Stompers
were too good to be together for just one night."
Luckily, this band has performed many times since. Originally conceived by
Norrie and Charlie in 1987 as an all-star band with each choosing who they would
love to play with, the Stompers have gone on to be one of the most respected bands
in the country. Trombonist Jim Klippert (of the Magnolia Jazz Band among others)
was an obvious choice and DeVore's Hall Brothers friends "Doggie"
Berg and Bill Evans on bass rounded out the group.
They didn't wait long to get into a studio and their first recordings
from 1990 show them in wonderful form as a unit already. Several
other great albums followed and they just seem to be getting better and better.
Unfortunately, with the members spread out over a great distance they can only
get together a few times a year. However, every time they do get together it is
a big event for real jazz fans.
A typical Stompers concert will include a bit of everything. Marches, waltzes,
rags, pop tunes, jazz standards, rumbas, blues - you name it, they can play it.
Dancers often get a workout as real New Orleans music is made for dancing. And
the group is always quick with a joke or story (for instance, I did not know that
a cymbal on "Doggie" Berg's drum kit is from Raymond Burke's "junk"
shop). Between the various members there are several hundred years of playing
experience and it seems that at least one of the members knew (or rubbed elbows
with) just about everyone in the last 50 years of jazz history. And they know
how to tell their stories. Through the music.
In the year 2002 one has to work very hard to hear real music. Try turning
on the radio or the television and what do you hear? "Music" that sounds
like it was spit out by an angry machine, not designed for pleasure or art, but
to make a profit. Musicians have been replaced by attitude, the melody is now
just electronic noise. Loud and dumb, it is an obvious byproduct of our culture.
But there is still joy to be found in contemporary music... if one looks hard
Norrie Cox and His New Orleans Stompers cannot lay claim to any Grammys. Nor
have they played in front of 20,000 screaming fans. And they will never sell a
million records. But then again, neither did Bunk Johnson.