From New Orleans to Singapore To Vancouver . . . My Mini Jazz Odyssey
Basin Street Blues is one of the most popular New Orleans jazz tunes. You probably know the one that begins “Won’t you come and go with me / Down that Mississippi . . . “ (Louis “Satchmo’” Armstrong’s version). There’s been a minor controversy over the lyrics, as some versions, like Armstrong’s, don’t mention people of different races having a good time together, while some do. That sort of interracial socializing was probably unique to the entertainment district of New Orleans in the decades following the emancipation of slaves after the Civil War.
Armstrong sang “Where all them folks goin’ to the St Louis cemetery meet.” But in his own version recorded much later after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “The Reverend” Ray Charles sings the same part: “Where all the light and dark folk meet,” the style of its English suggesting that the lyrics existed before Armstrong’s re-written version came out.
Re-writing or “editing” of lyrics, or any widely published material for that matter, concerning sensitive issues like race and religion is common practice, as even I as a translator can attest, having come across, for example, evidence of tampering with old documents concerning Nikkei communities in Canada and the US. But not to digress. “Satchmo’” has been commercially very popular for a long time, so my guess is that he and/or his record company decided to play it safe over the sensitive black/white issue. “Reverend Ray,” also a fine musician and a proud man, probably let the original lyrics speak for themselves.
Fast forward to the early 1990s in Singapore, another international city at another cultural crossroads where, while working as a magazine editor, I began to pursue my interest in jazz guitar, playing Sunday night jam sessions at Harry’s, one of the city-state’s first genuine live jazz bars complete with a seasoned American house band. I’d play just one or two numbers, then receive valuable technical pointers from guitarist Rick Smith and bassist Christy Smith (no relation—the former being Caucasian, the latter African-American
Practically all the big jazz artists, who came to town to perform for a thousand or two Singaporeans and expatriates in big concert halls, would drop by to jam at Harry’s. Wynton Marsalis was one. Those who came when the music started in the evening to listen and play comprised black and white Americans; Chinese, Indian and Malay Singaporeans; Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese, Hong Kong Chinese, Brits, Frenchmen, Germans, Scandinavians and other nationalities and races. Everyone loved jazz.
One evening I brought along a photographer to take photos for a magazine article of the up-and-coming local lady pianist Mei Mei Shum performing. As soon as we walked into the bar on the banks of warm and breezy Singapore River, the lensman, who happened to be a Nikkei American, said out loud, “Wow, I’ve never seen so many black and white people together in one place.” Even in modern Singapore . . . it struck me right then. This must be something like the spirit in the jazz dives in New Orleans’ French quarter way back then: “where all the light and dark folk meet.”
Even after we moved to Vancouver in 1997, I would drop by Harry’s the three times we went back to Singapore for short visits. I would meet old friends and jam, feeling I was, musically-speaking, “home” once again. Unfortunately, Harry’s closed for good about two years ago.
For 14 long years after we moved to Vancouver, I looked for a live jazz spot holding jams, or “open mike” sessions where I could enjoy both the music and the company and feel “at home” like I did at Harry’s. I did find live jazz spots here and there, some of them quite enjoyable, but sometimes a bit too classy and none quite as cozy and home-like as Harry’s. I did get to know lots of nice musicians young and old, played in fun jams here and there, but nothing quite as deeply satisfying and instructive.
One night I was chatting with a black pianist visiting from Chicago, whom I met in an open mike session at a pub. “I was at this place called C… last night and it was really great,” he told me. I’d vaguely heard of the place but had never checked it out. So I went there the following Monday, the weekly jazz jam night. As soon as I got to play one number and got off the small bandstand, the Hong Kong Chinese owner behind the bar called out: “Brother, what do you want to drink?” I knew right then I was “home.” I’ve been going there just about every Monday now for over a year. I’d finally found my Harry’s equivalent in Vancouver . . .
The crowd of diners, merrymakers and musicians is the usual Vancouver mix of Anglo/Celtics, Quebeckers, Ukrainians, West Europeans, Haitians, Colombians, Japanese, Hongkong Chinese, Filipino and so on, as well as black and white Americans, though not as many as back at Harry’s. Our love for jazz is almost palpable and most important, like at Harry’s, the love and respect for the music on the part of the players young and old are strong enough for us to leave our egos at the door. Who is better than whom might be an objective reality, but it is best forgotten when one’s playing.
Recently, a personable and hard-working waitress there, an Edinburgh lass, left for an extended trip of Brazil, Argentina and other South American countries. Chances are she may not come back, at least not for a while. So the musicians took up a collection for her, and on her last Monday night, presented the money to her on the bandstand, complete with a send-off song. She was almost in tears. Just a bunch of guys and gals who love music and each other company…what I call IBM, for International Brotherhood (Sisters included) of Music.
Coincidentally, the name of one musician who’s helped me out in many ways in Vancouver is Mr Harry Aoki, a pioneer in ethnic music and jazz as many readers know. There are of course many other creative fields in which community members are active. The joy of doing truly fun things together with like-minded souls is indeed universal.