By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Jazz Emerges Part 4

with one comment


Trumpeter Percy and Clarinetist Willie Humphrey
On Tour and At Home

Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product

Photographs by William Carter 1973-1985

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Birthday party with kin folk and friends after a gig in California in 1976; musicians included the Humphrey brothers (center), drummer Cie Frazier (behind Percy), and banjoist/singer Narvin Kimball (seated).

In a long caption in my book, Preservation Hall (W.W. Norton, 1991), I told the story, quoted below, of the Humphreys’ long lives and distinguished lineage. I never met their trombonist brother, Earl, who died relatively young. Their father, Willie Humphrey Sr., was a clarinetist who spent much of his life on road tours; in a surviving publicity shot he looks just like Willie Jr. The pioneering grandfather’s story says something about the rich artistic and cultural complexities underpinning the birth of what has been called “America’s classical music”:

“The work of the front-line Humphrey triumvirate stemmed from the teaching of their grandfather, James Brown Humphrey, who played a unique role in the earliest years of jazz. That “fair-skinned Negro with red hair,” as the authors Berry, Foose and Jones told it, in Up from the Cradle of Jazz (1986), “starting about 1887, boarded the train each week, wearing a swallow-tailed coat and carrying a cornet case and music sheets in a satchel. The professor had many New Orleans pupils who entered the ranks of early jazz; he is also said to have taught whites. Most students on his weekly tour of the plantation belt — 25 miles either way from the city — were illiterate workers who lived in shacks behind the sugar and cotton fields along the river…Humphrey by 1890 was a rare commodity, a black man who lived off his talents as an artist. He played all instruments, directed bands and orchestras, and became a catalyst sending rural blacks into urban jazz ensembles.”

The essence of classic New Orleans jazz is the ensemble. The essence of that essence is a tough, growling, cut-down, loose-limbed, abbreviated lead trumpet or cornet — allowing the other horns lots of space. Trumpeter Percy Humphrey gives us a fiery taste of his lead in the excerpts below.”Running Wild” and “Panama” were recorded in Oxford, Ohio by the great George Lewis Ragtime Band of 1952.

Click below to listen to segments of “Runnin’ Wild” and “Panama.”

In the following solo on “St. Louis Blues,” clarinetist Willie Humphrey demonstrates two cardinal components of the New Orleans style.

Rhythmically, the horns and piano never cease to play off of, and around, the beat as strictly laid down by the rhythm section. Attacking microseconds before or after what would be correct in a more European or “white” reading, this constant off-beatness serves to trip up the listener. “What’s your music for? Mine’s for dancing!” exulted a classic player. Making people move their bodies out on the streets and in the dance halls is the musicians’ fundamental assignment — which extends to foot tapping in concert halls. Syncopation is key.

Structurally, Willie gradually, logically builds his variations from lower to higher pitches and intensities. Employing St. Louis Blues-derived themes and a faux-stumbling manner that helps release micro-rhythms, he gradually weaves a baroque edifice soaring above the underlying foundation.

Click below to listen to “St. Louis Blues.”

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.

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Written by bywilliamcarter

April 21, 2013 at 8:00 am

One Response

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  1. Fabulous.

    Like

    Barbara Sully

    April 22, 2013 at 5:51 pm


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