The Mississippi Rag

Conrad and Janis Wilson - Snafu

 

"Today, very few bands try to play like Ory. Watters’ trombonist, Turk Murphy, has had a lot more influence than Ory on today’s traditional jazz trombonists. Turk was an enthusiastic player. And at the volume he played, he had speed."


Conrad’s musical destiny was to be affected by a young girl’s concern about her lips. Rudi’s daughter, Hillary, played trombone in her high school marching band. One day, she decided the horn was making her lips puffy, ruining her chances for dates.. She returned the trombone to her dad and Rudi passed it on to Conrad.
"I had learned a little guitar for a role in a Broadway play and I’d studied piano and violin in school. I knew a few chords and I had played a little bugle. I had a good ear and could hear chord changes; maybe I couldn’t name them but I knew what they had changed to. When I was fooling around with the horn, I discovered that I had memorized all of Ory’s repertoire without trying to.

Ory was a very inventive musician. Night after night he would play his choruses almost the same. Almost. They would vary just a little bit, so that three months later they might be completely changed. "Listening to him night after night, I had absorbed his style."


Modern art again enters Conrad’s story. By 1948, New Orleans jazz had been "rediscovered." Conrad received a call from a friend of his parents, Douglas MacAgy, director of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). MacAgy had gathered around him a number of young artist/teachers then known as the "San Francisco School" and they had formed a jazz band. Would Conrad join them?
     "Sure. I’ll bring my guitar."
     "No, your trombone."
Surprised but excited, Conrad -- still filming for Fox -- would drive each weekend to San Francisco to play with this revivalist band that included Elmer Bischoff on trumpet; Charlie Clark; clarinet; David Park, piano; Clifford Still, guitar, and MacAgy, drums. If you are a museum-goer, you’ll recognize their names. Park’s painting of Conrad’s first band is hanging on the walls of the Oakland (California) Art Museum.

Weekend after weekend, Conrad traveled up to San Francisco to play for dances and parties or just to jam. In those days, there were no jazz clubs offering a chance to sit in with experienced musicians, no youth bands with dedicated sponsors.
But after many months, the drive became too long. Conrad called another family friend in Los Angeles, Nesuhi Ertegun, founder of the early jazz record labels Crescent and Jazzman and, later with his brother Ahmet, Atlantic Records. Ertegun and his wife are also credited with organizing the revived Kid Ory band.

She knew Rudi Blesh as an art collector, but he was also the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Later, he was to write "Shining Trumpets," one of the first serious efforts to trace and dissect the musical roots of early jazz At that time, early 1943, he was delivering a series of lectures on New Orleans jazz at which pioneers like Kid Ory and Bunk Johnson performed live.

"I had a matinee to do, but my mother came back from Rudi’s lecture bubbling. She and Rudi had hit it off. He was very erudite. He seemed to know something about everything, art, architecture and jazz! I had to meet him
"Rudi played records for me, talked about jazz; he was compelling. Between his and her enthusiasm, I was bitten by the bug."

By coincidence, the next stop on the "Junior Miss" tour was New Orleans and, following Rudi’s itinerary, Conrad and his mother got a good overview of the sights and sounds of the birthplace of jazz.

Conrad continued with "Junior Miss" for another year, moving up to the lead, the boy who gets the girl.
Back in New York, he made the rounds of theatrical agents, landed in another hit play, "Dark of the Moon," where a movie talent scout spotted him.. A year later, after the play closed, Conrad was in Hollywood, starring in his first film, "Snafu," with Robert Benchley.

Those were the days of the "studio system." Though in his teens, Conrad was in demand. In 1946, 20th Century Fox signed him to a long-term contract. He was kept busy but still had plenty of spare time. With a forged ID, he haunted the Beverly Caverns night after night for three years to listen to Kid Ory’s band of New Orleans veterans -- Mutt Carey, Jimmy Noone, Bud Scott, and later Andrew Blakeney and Joe Darensbourg.

"I sat there at Ory’s feet and listened to him play ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp,’ ‘Muskrat Ramble,’ ‘Savoy Blues,’ and sing the dirty lyrics to ‘Do What Ory Say’ in Creole with the band giggling in the background.

"Harmonically, Ory’s music was very simple — three, four, five chords. But rhythmically, it was very complex. "Savoy Blues" is built around four sliding trombone notes. Each was different when Ory played it. He would come in ahead of the beat, behind the beat, on the beat. One he would hold to the last second, building a tremendous tension. It was all instinct. His innate musical sense, his passion and his rhythmic sophistication dictated that he play them differently each time. "Ory was the guy you didn’t want to meet back in New Orleans in the battles of jazz on the wagons. He could blow the roof off the place."

"They were playing four-four, not two-beat. That’s what they played back in New Orleans in the old days, four-four. There have been many disputes about this, but all one has to do is listen to the records. Besides, Baby Dodds once told me, ‘In New Orleans, we played four-beat.’ Lu Watters band played two-beat. That’s not to denigrate Watters. He had a great band. Two-beat gave them a rocking rhythm but still with a lot of drive.

     
     
Conrad's first gig, Pasadena Elks Club - 1949
     

Ertegun introduced Conrad to a young Los Angeles band, the Canal Street Stompers, who needed a trombonist. With some trepidation, he sat in with them in somebody’s dingy basement in Hollywood.

"I’m a big New Orleans fan. By now, I have a huge record collection -- Kid Ory, King Oliver, Jelly Roll, the Armstrong Hot Fives. I’m a purist. In those days, Chicago style was ‘modern jazz’ in my mind. Well, the first number they called was ‘Careless Love.’ I played the Ory solo note for note. When we finished, I looked at them and they looked at me and we realized we had a fit.

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