Summer of 1954: A jazz ‘pilgrimage’ to New Orleans

Local teens take trip of lifetime to experience ‘The Big Easy’
Guest Columnist

Lifelong musician Tommy Griffith of Austin, a native of Taylor, leads the New Orleans Jazz Band of Austin and other groups. In this story, he remembers a ‘life-changing’ adventure with the first band he ever played with—a group of young Rockdale men more than 60 years ago. Lifelong musician Tommy Griffith of Austin, a native of Taylor, leads the New Orleans Jazz Band of Austin and other groups. In this story, he remembers a ‘life-changing’ adventure with the first band he ever played with—a group of young Rockdale men more than 60 years ago. In July of 1954 I was a resident of Taylor and went to New Orleans with Ken Harris, Gordon “Gooch” Harris, Clifford Simms and Bill Cooke, all of Rockdale. We were members of a traditional Dixieland jazz band Ken had organized in 1953. The band was "Kenny Harris and the Dixies."

Ken, Bill and I had all just graduated high school, Gooch had just completed his sophomore year in high school, and Cliff was the “old man” of our group at 25.

Bill's father allowed him to use The Rockdale Reporter's 1953 Ford station wagon, so off we went early on a Friday morning. It's a 10-hour trip, more or less, which put us there mid-afternoon. We checked in to the Hotel Senator, a French Quarter hotel that probably dated back to the early days of the 20th Century (only building I have ever been in that had DC electricity!). Fortunately we were able to get the only room that accommodated five people. That’s right—one room with five single beds!

WE ROAMED around the French Quarter, stopping only to eat at a White Castle, probably the first fast-food establishment in the Quarter. This was to be the first of many trips to White Castle, to enjoy their 20-cent hamburgers— small bun, small meat patty, one slice of dill pickle in the middle—and birch beer, which had even more of a wintergreen taste than root beer. I liked it a lot.

There were several bars in the Quarter which featured genuine Dixieland bands. I don't remember how many we peeked into that first night, but we ended up at the Famous Door—so called because it had been visited by many celebrities whose names were listed on the two marquees on either side of the entrance. They featured two bands which played alternate sets, meaning “seamless” entertainment. Santo Pecora (trombone) and his band alternated with George Girard (trumpet) and his group.

As with many New Orleans jazz establishments, the bandstand at the Famous Door was elevated and directly behind the bar. Being early arrivals, we took the best seats in the house—at the bar. We held that position for at least an hour, nursing our drinks and letting the hot jazz swirl around us, until the bartender (who would rather have had more free-spending customers occupying those stools) suggested that we might enjoy the music just as well from a table further back, a recommendation we accepted.

ON SUNDAY afternoon we went to hear Tony Almerico and his band which played at the Parisian Room, a large, nondescript room located on Royal Street, upstairs over antique shops and the like, accessible by a stairway between two storefronts. I had a special reason for wanting to go there. I had been exposed to traditional jazz by listening to that Almerico band on New Orleans radio station WWL.

They had a live broadcast on Sunday afternoons, and a pre-recorded broadcast on Sunday night (which I listened to on the car radio while my parents visited friends in front of First Baptist Church in Taylor). One of the featured performers was Sam Dekemel who played the bugle (yes, the bugle). When Tony Almerico found out that this bunch of teenagers from Texas played his kind of music, he invited us to “sit in” with the band. And we did. Wow, what an experience!

ONE NIGHT we went into the Old Absinthe House, 240 Bourbon Street, a bar whose name refers back to the days when absinthe, a powerful and often deadly narcotic, was in some use in New Orleans. The establishment we visited was the original building (as I understand) and consisted of two rooms—a bar in the front room and a piano bar in the back room. It was amazing to see that the walls and even the ceiling of the front room were completely covered by business cards, given to the place by patrons over the years.

Featured in the back room was a wonderful pianist/vocalist named Fats Pichon. In addition to his talents as a singer and player, he was quite adept at writing clever parodies to popular songs, several of which he performed while we were there. He told us he wrote at least one parody every day. (I hope at least some of those terrific compositions were preserved.)

ONE DAY we luckily struck up a conversation with a man who told us about a new bar on the other side of Canal Street, near the St. Charles Hotel, called Curly's Neutral Corner. “It is operated by an ex-prizefighter,” the man said, “and there is a new musician in town playing there that I think you'll like. He's had his band together for only a few weeks. He plays trumpet and his name is Al Hirt.”

That night three of us went to hear this new guy. There were maybe a dozen or so patrons in the place. The bandstand, behind the bar (as usual), was decorated to appear like a boxing ring, with ropes and corner posts. Crowded onto the bandstand was a seven piece band, led by a giant of a man who played trumpet. We couldn't believe what we were hearing! At one point, Hirt left the bandstand (the only way to get on the stand was a door at the back which led out onto the street) and came in the front door. The band was playing all the time, and he came around to each table and played a couple of choruses, right in our faces. What a thrill! Hirt, of course, and another New Orleans resident, clarinetist Pete Fountain, went on to world-wide fame.

AS ANYONE who has visited New Orleans will tell you, there are places you must go and experiences you must have. We visited the Cafe Du Monde on Decatur Street for beignets and strong chickory coffee; we walked around Jackson Square with its iron fence covered with art work and the sidewalks populated by caricaturists, jugglers and small musical groups; we ate at Tujacque's restaurant on Decatur Street. There is no menu— everyone eats the same five- or six-course meal, served by several different waiters.

We were charmed by the atmosphere of the city—the look, the smell, the “feel” of it. And fortunately we went there at a time when it was still safe to walk anywhere in the Crescent City, day or night. All these elements, and especially the music, combined to make this absolutely one of the highlights of my life. I think Ken, Gooch, Clifford and Bill would agree.

KEN AND Bill had summer jobs in Rockdale and had to be back at 8 a.m. Monday (Bill also had to have the newspaper's vehicle back so they drove all night). Gooch, Cliff and I were able to stay two more nights. Then we walked to the New Orleans train station and bought tickets to Hearne, Texas. Finally at Hearne, we used the last of our money to buy bus tickets to Rockdale. I caught a bus on to Taylor, but not until Gooch ran up the street to where his mother worked and secured enough money for my ticket!

A great experience for three of us about to embark on college careers, and Gooch who would do so two years later, and Cliff, our very wise elder—but not much “elder.”

Editor's note:

Tommy Griffith, pianist, is a lifelong musician who lives in Austin and leads the New Orleans Jazz Band of Austin, and other groups, and is active in the Austin Traditional Jazz Society.

• Ken Harris, who plays clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, piano and bass, is a retired band director who lives in Crawford and continues to compose and arrange music for high school stage bands.

• Dr. Gordon Harris, PhD, is head of the petroleum engineering department at the University of Wyoming, and is a consultant to oil companies around the world.

• Bill Cooke, drummer, is publisher emeritus of The Rockdale Reporter.

• The late Clifford Simms, trumpet, was a noted expert on thoroughbred race horse bloodlines, was a Rockdale historian, and worked many years inventorying properties owned by H.H. Coffield and later the Coffield Estate, throughout Texas and beyond.

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