Monday, August 11, 2008

Hyppolite Charles And The Early Days Of Jazz

"Now, music was different in New Orleans because they taught you to play your instrument just like a good songster. You had to get out what was inside you."
-Hyppolite Charles, in an interview 1957

Premium T. spent yesterday afternoon going through boxes in her other house. She brought home a gem, a 1963 revision of a book originally published in 1958 called Jazz New Orleans (1885-1963): A Index to the Negro Musicians of New Orleans (Samuel B. Charters). For me, obscure reference books are among life's pleasures and this one is a real treasure. Divided by era, each part contains an introduction, brief biographies of the important musicians of that time, a summary of the brass bands and orchestral groups, and addenda. The eras are 1885-1889, 1899-1919, 1919-1931, and 1931 onward. Here's the complete table of contents:

1885-1899
Introduction
The Downtown Musicians
The Uptown Musicians
The Brass Band and Orchestral Groups
Addenda

1899-1919
Introduction
Biographies of the Musicians
The Brass Band and Orchestral Groups
Addenda

1919-1931
Introduction
Biographies of the Musicians
The Brass Band and Orchestral Groups
Addenda

1931
Introduction
Biographies of the Musicians
The Brass Band and Orchestral Groups
Addenda

Discographical Appendix
Introduction: First Period
Discography: First Period
Some Recent Revival Revordings

An Appendix: Some New Source Material On The Beginnings of Jazz in New Orleans

Index To Names Of Musicians
Index To Names Of Bands
Index Halls, Cabarets, Theatres, etc. In New Orleans
Index Of Tune Titles
Index To Addenda Sections

Jazz New Orleans also includes a small but wonderful photo section, primarily of bands and venues, as well as an 1895 map of "The Delta Country."

Who was Hyppolite Charles?  He was a cornet player from St. Martinville, Louisiana, born April 18, 1891 (Patriots' Day in New England, April 18 being the anniversary of Paul Revere's Ride). Charters has this to say about Hyppolite's formative years:

"Charles' father was a school teacher, and he encouraged Hyppolite to study music. When he learned that Hyppolite was playing in saloons in the neighborhood he punished him and sent him to New Orleans to study with competent teachers. Hyppolite came to New Orleans in 1908, when he was 17, and began studying with Eugene Moret, the brother of George Moret, leader of the Excelsior Brass Band. Eugene was passing for white, and played with most of the white bands in the city. Within a year Hyppolite was good enough to work for [Manuel] Perez at a little dance hall at Dauphine and Elysian Fields where Perez was working three nights a week."

Now, can you imagine being 17 and -- as part of your punishment -- being sent to 1908 New Orleans on a subsidized trip to learn the cornet? I'm trying, and all I can say is that Old Man Charles had some exceptionally advanced notions of parenting. Anyway, the second paragraph includes an anecdote that illustrates just how much Hyppolite had matured as a musician:

"[By 1911,] Hyppolite had begun playing parades with the Excelsior Jazz Band, but he was playing a parade in the Quarter and stumbled over a rock at the corner of Esplanade and Decatur, cutting his lip. After this, he wouldn't play a parade with a band that read music. He played with the tuxedo brass band so he could watch where he was going."

The final paragraph of the entry concludes with an account of Charles' life after jazz:

"In August, 1925, after a Sunday afternoon tea dance, Hyppolite collapsed with a ruptured spleen. He was in bed over a year, and was not allowed to play again. He sold life insurance in New Orleans until 1940, when he turned his accounts over to Peter Bocage and returned to St. Martinville to take over a grocery store that his father had been running. He has done well in business and is living quietly outside of St. Martinville."

In three paragraphs of unexceptional prose sharpened by an eagle eye for the precisely right detail, Charters conveys a deep love and respect for the milieu and the people. He's able to land the wondering reader alongside Hyppolite Charles in the most important and fertile period of American music, a time of passing for white, of early jazz parades, and of a boy musician methodically building his skills and gaining the respect of his peers to the point that he could turn down work. By the end of the entry, I could imagine Charles quietly tending his store, a respected member of a small community entertaining his customers with tales of Uptown and Downtown at a time when they were jazz' Babylon...

R.I.P., Isaac Hayes...

6 comments:

Foxessa said...

Sam Charters, though elderly by now, has just published another book about jazz in New Orleans.

Another one of those marvelous, odd dux out of the 60's music scene -- Vaquero suspects that Country Joe and the Fish found out about "Muskrat Ramble" from him.

Love, C.

K. said...

I just ordered the book.

His wife Ann is the leading expert on the Beats. They must make for a great couple.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

I really dug isaac. r.i.p.

K. said...

Did you notice who introduces him in the video?

Renegade Eye said...

The jazz solo came out of New Orleans, inspired by opera arias, which was popular in NO.

Foxessa said...

Ren -- Jazz's development is far too complex and mulit-dimensional than to be limited to this > that.

Love, C.