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Jim Leigh’s El Dorado Jazz Band, 1955

September 20, 2012

“WE WERE HAVING TOO MUCH FUN”

By Michael Steinman

Often highly publicized “rare” and “previously unheard” jazz reissues do not live up to their potential.  I can’t be the only listener who thinks, “Did they have to play every tune at the speed of light?”  ”Someone should have shoved that piano off a cliff.”  ”I know Kid Flublip is dead and legendary both, but he sure sounds lousy here.”  And so on.

But a recent CD by Jim Leigh’s El Dorado Jazz Band is a triumph.  Although the material comes from private tapes made onsite in 1955, the sound is clear and sarisfying; the repertoire is varied (as are the tempos and dynamics), and the twenty-one tracks were a delight rather than an test of my endurance.  I new Jim in the last months of his life as a fine writer and a player who understood how to balance technique, knowledge, feeling, and experimentation within an apparently “limited” idiom.  When I read his memoir, where he mourned the early death of clarinetist Rowland Working, I wondered if the evidence would live up to the legend.  It certainly does.

On this CD, Leigh is surrounded by lyrical players who could weave lines like rapidly-growing ivy.  Their inventions delight, but they sing on their instruments, which is the ideal (not always realized) of players trying to make brass and wood as personal as their speaking voices.  The players are Jim Borkenhagen, trumpet; Roland Working, clarinet — and he’s joined by Bob Helm on several tracks! — Pete Fay, piano; Danny Ruediger, banjo and vocals.  The repertoire offers classic Morton, Twenties jazz classics and pop tunes, Louis, and  ancient but still lively blues: JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE / ST. JAMES INFIRMARY / CAKE WALKING BABIES FROM HOME / GOOD TIME FLAT BLUES / SOME OF THESE DAYS / STRATFORD HUNCH / ACE IN THE HOLE / MILENBERG JOYS / TROUBLE IN MIND / BID BEAR STOMP / SIDEWALK BLUES / BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME / AFTER YOU’VE GONE / RIVERSIDE BLUES / CHATTANOOGA STOMP / DROP THAT SACK / FRANKIE AND JOHNNY / ALABAMA JUBILEE / SEE SEE RIDER / HOW LONG BLUES / WEARY BLUES.

And as a bittersweet bonus, Jim wrote a brief essay for this material in June 2011.  I so admire his writing — terse, affectionate, witty — that I reprint it here.

The members of the original five-piece El Dorado Jazz Band were all twenty somethings when the music on this CD was recorded.  If somebody had told us that summer of 1955 that 56 years later one of us (and I’m the lone survivor) would be writing liner notes for a kind of record that didn’t even exist then we probably wouldn’t have paid much attention.  We were having too much fun.  By 1958 Danny Ruediger had taken over the band, and I had moved to San Francisco.  Rowland and I were playing Watters charts in the Bay City Jazz Band on weekends.  On a Sunday boating and swimming outing with his wife Jane, BCJB pianist Art Nortier and his wife, Rowland drowned.  He was 28 years old.  So I’m extra glad that Dick Karner is putting out this music on Tradjazz; it will allow fans of this music to hear what a brilliant plater he was already in his own right.  He admired Bechet and Dodds — but his real exemplar was Helm himself.  So it was great good luck that brought them together for those few nights with a tape recorder running.  I can’t think of any other clarinet duets in traditional jazz which have the sympathetic brilliance of those two.  Indeed, there are a few places where you need a very good ear to tell them apart.  Helm’s wife Kay would tell me later that Bob was “overwhelmed” at hearing Rowland and thereafter never missed a chance to play with himm — or to fill in for him when the occasion arose.  Like any informal recordings of live performances, these come with a few warts.  We could not have played Morton’s “Stratford Hunch” more than half a dozen times in all and I was delighted it was a clean take.  Listen to the clarinets behind and next to the vocals on “After You’ve Gone” and “Trouble in Mind.”  There are a few tunes here you won’t hear too often lately: “Drop That Sack,” “Good Time Flat Blues,” and others.  Not many people besides Turk sang such complete versions of “St. James Infirmary” and “Frankie and Johnny” as Danny does here.  After so many years I’ll admit I get a lift, hearing how we tore into such indestructible warhorses as “Some Of These Days” and “Milenberg Joys” and, with the clarinets tearing it up, “Big Bear Stomp,” “Naughty Sweetie,” or “Weary Blues.”  If I have one regret it was that I didn’t have the wits to lay hands on an extra vocal mix for Danny, but you can hear that he never let that stop him.  I’m grateful to have been there with him, and Rowland, Bork, Pete, and Brother Red, when he strapped on his leather aviator’s helmet and drove his open-air MG down the peninsula to visit us.  I’m grateful, too, to Dick Karner at Tradjazz for digging up this evidence and making it available here.  It reminds me that I didn’t waste my youth.

To say that Jim and his colleagues — now all of them gone — didn’t waste their youth — would be a substantial understatement.  All I can say from this angle is that I haven’t wasted my time listening to this music, and I think you will agree.  Here are brief samples from tradjazz and cdbaby.  Listen for yourself.  And — just in the name of amused candor — if you had told me five years ago that I would be writing enthusiastically about Fifties “West Coast” “trad,” I would have looked horrified.  But the music is stronger than the boxes we try to force it into.

May your happiness increase.

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