By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Professionalism and Creativity

with 8 comments


LAWilliamCarterOnce in the late 1950s, when our friend, the bassist “Squire” Girsback, was on the road as a member the Louis Armstrong All Stars, Squire invited us to his home on the San Francisco Peninsula to enjoy red beans and rice and meet the great man.

Louis was sitting on the floor in a back bedroom with his pants legs rolled up and a big plate of the beloved New Orleans dish in his lap. He was glad to meet Squire’s friends but looked slightly sheepish at first because he was hiding from a road manager one of whose jobs was to prevent Louis, who was afflicted with stomach problems, from eating the wrong foods, including such good ole spicy n’owlins fare.

I was not yet a photographer, but would soon become one, and would meet Armstrong one more time — in 1962, at Rutgers University — and photograph him there. The picture on this page was never printed until 2014, 52 years later. A print of it is going to the unique Louis Armstrong archive in Queens, New York, and another will be donated to Stanford University, whose Archive of Recorded Sound holds important jazz collections. These include those of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation, the original Monterey Jazz Festival tapes, and the over 400 Jim Cullum radio shows which Stanford has been streaming free worldwide, 24 hours a day.

Squire, in semi-retirement, sometimes regaled us with stories of those two years with Louis — the highlight of the bass man’s life. Constantly playing one night concerts in huge auditoriums on the road, the All Stars used a set routine, like most successful touring shows. Squire told us the players mostly played the same notes, in the same places, with the same crowd-pleasing antics, every night. With some exceptions — especially Satch. Now and then, Louis would seemingly receive some message from outer space and blow — or sing — a flurry of notes Squire never heard before or since. The band just kept the same routine going, but Squire would answer these flourishes with a special flurry of his own, which caused “Pops” — who heard everything happening in his band at all times — to turn and give his bass man a big wink. Squire carried those winks in his heart until the day he died.

Professionalism in any field means producing, or reproducing, a reliable product. Careful preparation, good chops and perfect execution. Big bucks in the top echelon of the entertainment industry is no different in this respect from bands remaining stable, and stable enough to get invited back every year to established festivals.

But is this middlebrow predictability not fundamentally in conflict with a premise of jazz, namely spontaneity? Many musicians will tell you that some of the great moments in jazz happen out of the limelight, in dim bars or backroom settings allowing for creative chemistry — happy accidents. Which means leaving open the possibility for bands and players to depart from expected routines, even at the cost of the occasional wrong chord or creative “mistake.” Dimly lit Bay Area joints like Pier 23 and Café Borrone and Nick’s and Berkeley’s old Monkey Inn are and were the seedbed for such creativity. As were, in the whole history of jazz, a precious few record labels, and leaders whose DNA understands not only reliability but freshness.

Louis’ crowd-pleasing was the opposite of a circus routine. It flowed directly from his heart in communication with other hearts — from an understanding, in his personal DNA, which was inseparable from the DNA of New Orleans jazz, that this music is about a kind of inner and outer openness in which spontaneity is key.

girsbackSquire Girsback, San Francisco Peninsula, 1970s © William Carter

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

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Written by bywilliamcarter

February 4, 2015 at 6:34 am

8 Responses

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  1. Great article & photos, thank you so much for sharing! I’m the grandson of Squire Girsback and while visiting my grandmother over Easter she told me this story about Louis and the band coming to visit her home in SF. She said she was so nervous because she had never prepared a New Orleans dish before and was afraid it wouldn’t taste authentic. She said it was the biggest meal she’d ever made – she barbequed 21 chickens to feed the hungry appetites of the band, and their family and friends. The meal turned out to be a success!

    If anyone has any other pictures or stories to share about my grandfather Squire Girsback aka Squire Gersh, please share in the comments or send me an email at mgirsback@gmail.com. Unfortunately, he died before I was born, so I never got to know him on a personal level, but I’m so thankful that I’m able to come across gems like this on the internet. Thank you again for this wonderful article and photos, I’ve printed a copy to send to my grandmother as I’m sure she will be so happy to see this.

    Michael Girsback

    April 29, 2015 at 12:23 am

  2. Thanks for both pix, Bill!! I never met Squire, but have a CD recorded in Seattle that features him on a bass solo with the All Stars!! He performs the melody of one of Bunk’s blues and sounds just great!! He and Trummy have a little repartee that adds to the moment. Charlie DeVore

    Charlie DeVore

    February 5, 2015 at 10:59 pm

  3. Bill,

    Wonderful article and filled with irony how even jazz requires a break away from its core to create an outbreak.Terrific photo of Squire.

    George Melnikoff

    February 5, 2015 at 7:27 am

  4. Those were the days, my friend…Those were the days.

    marshall berman

    February 5, 2015 at 12:53 am

  5. Wonderful and fun article, and stunning photos as usual! Thank you Bill!

    Barbara L. Sully

    February 4, 2015 at 11:18 pm

  6. Bill – as usual, I always enjoy looking at your photos – Tony Pringle and I are now working on a dvd (wonderfully video taped from a concert in 1990 at the Rhode Island School of Design) of the New Black Eagles with Tommy Sancton, Brian Ogilvie and Danny Barker – the concert was supposed to be a tribute to Chester Zardis who passed on several months before the concert date – his widow was present, and Danny Barker took his place – in today’s email from you, I noted with great interest your wonderful photo of Chester, and I am writing to inquire how we might obtain a copy of that photo for use in the final edited dvd package we hope to produce – hope this finds you well, and I look forward to your response – Peter Bullis (banjo and manager of the NBEJB)

    Peter Bullis

    February 4, 2015 at 9:42 pm

  7. Very moving and thoughtful, Bill. Thank you.

    Medea Isphording Bern

    February 4, 2015 at 4:54 pm

  8. Very nice article. I met Squire only once when I was in San Francisco back in the ’50’s. In San Jose where he was playing w/Jim Leigh’s ElDorado Jazz Band. I was fortunate enough to get some recordings down. Thanks for the article. >

    Richard Karner

    February 4, 2015 at 2:17 pm


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