Lyrics, Letters and the Forgotten Lives of Ben Irving

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Click to watch at PechaKucha.org

Pecha Kucha Knoxville recently uploaded the PowerPoint and Audio from my November presentation about my great-grandfather. This was a 6 minute, 40 second truncation of archival work I’d been doing about over a thousand postcards he sent from the road in the 1930s and 40s. It is an ongoing project that has been as rewarding as it has been educational and surprising regarding both my family history and a different era in American cultural life.

Here is my respectful sales pitch: If you enjoy what you see above, let me know. I am always happy to bring this lecture (in any reasonable length) to present at your company, school, civic organization, for any interested parties. Feel free to contact me at sonicgeography [at] gmail. I presented an hour-long version of this talk, which included a handful of his original song lyrics, more news clippings, and personal history at the Kimball Farms Lecture series in Lenox, MA in November. I have an audio recording available for anybody interested in the extended version.

Anyway, I’ve hinted at this postcard collection before, but until now I haven’t been completely comfortable with sharing. But now that the cat’s out of the bag and I did this presentation for over a thousand people in Knoxville, I’ll be a bit more forthcoming with Ben Irving’s story.

I assume you’ll watch the video-slideshow at the link above (WordPress doesn’t allow embedding of iframe codes; apologies), but the long and short of it was that my great-grandfather, who went by his stage name Ben Irving in most of his professional life, was a prolific musician on the Hartford jazz circuit of the 1920s. When the Depression hit, he moved his young family (including my grandmother, then a toddler) to Brooklyn and hit the road as a sales representative. In his time, Irving got to see so much more of America than most anybody in his position, including parts of the country that were still mired in dark history and summarily unfriendly to Jews. Assuming that his wife and daughter would probably never see any of these places, he sent home multiple postcards from almost every city he visited.

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A few years ago, when I inherited the postcards, I began bringing selections with me whenever I traveled to particular cities in North America. I began to re-pose and re-create the shots, better terms as ‘rephotography’ (see Kalin 2013 for a great overview of this). I cataloged these attempts in a handful of entries (including in FloridaNew Orleans, Mobile, and Chattanooga) all of which are tagged with ‘Re-Photography’ and I included in my PechaKucha talk. I recently created a new tag (‘Ben Irving’) for the posts I make about my ongoing work focused on (or directly inspired by) my great-grandfather. Stay tuned for a pair of new entries that follow his postcards (including an overdue AAG 2017 retrospective), coming very soon.

 

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The Wooltown Jazz Band (Netherlands) and New Orleans

It’s been almost six weeks since I’ve posted anything here, which I can fairly blame on dissertation revisions and my teaching schedule. Also, to be fair, I have been accumulating posts in my drafts folder that I haven’t had any time to complete. This is/was one of them, which in the interest of getting some new material out there, I’ll post in it’s relatively raw form.

photoEveryone has their favorite mechanism of procrastination, and here’s mine. My colleague’s husband, who happens to be a prominent local techno DJ and producer, clued me in to a phone app that helps catalog your record collection. How I hadn’t foraged for an app like that already after over a decade of accumulating records is beyond me. So, in between stretches of writing, editing, and self-doubting, I’ve taken to updating my collection on Discogs. In the process I’ve rediscovered a few great pieces that I’d either forgotten I had or just hadn’t listened to in a while.

One such 7″ was a single called ‘New Orleans (USA)‘ by the Wool Town Jazz Band (site in Dutch/auto-plays music).  I think I may have actually bought the record in New Orleans in a dollar bin somewhere. It looked interesting. The band pictured on the back were clearly not from New Orleans (or, for that matter, the United States), but they obviously wanted to give the impression that their sound and style were authentic. I found this odd, since New Orleans is the city classically associated with jazz, but traditional jazz has somewhat gotten away from the city. In the century-plus since the genre’s big bang, jazz has quantum-leaped to other urban bases like Chicago and Paris (1920’s), Tokyo and Jakarta (1950’s) and over the past few decades, the farthest reaches of Scandinavia and more.

When I rediscovered this record, I decided to do some light research to see if they were still around. Impressively, they still are! They originated in Tilburg, the 6th largest city in the Netherlands and named after the city’s historic claim to fame, wool (hence the nickname Wooltown). I found their website (linked above), and sent an email to their general contact inquiring about the band’s status and if they remember how the ‘New Orleans (USA)’ record got made. It bounced back. Undeterred, I quickly found an email listed for Annet Verkuil, their vocalist. She forwarded my message along to Frans van de Camp, the band’s original drummer (who recently rejoined after a decades-long absence!). Frans wrote me back with a fairly extensive state-of-the-union on the Wool Town Jazz Band, which I thought I would share here. His message is slightly edited.

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Thanks for your interest in our band and music.

I received your email through our singer Annet. I was part of the Wooltown Jazz Band in earlier times, from 1971 till 1976 and rejoined The Wooltown Jazz Band 2 years ago, I play the drums.

The Wooltown Jazz Band celebrated its 60 years jubilee a year ago. The band has a strong local following but the number of gigs has decreased, and, unfortunately, so has the interest of the public in jazz in general. In the Netherlands the focus of the public has shifted towards more popular music such as pop music. Apart from modern jazz, which is also only played by very few bands but has its own niche in the market, New Orleans Jazz is no longer in the limelight to the extend that it used to which is regrettable.

There are still many old style jazz bands in our country but they all have only very few gigs a year. Moreover the average age of the players gets higher every year and the youth associates jazz with old people, which doesn’t do much to raise interest in this music as well. There are very few younger players that take an interest in jazz, although jazz is taught at the music schools and conservatories. Unfortunately jazz isn’t hot anymore.

the-wooltown-jazz-band-wat-zegt-orgajan-dr-van-artone-special-productsThe great European Jazz Bands have a hard time to get by. Mister Acker Bilk’s jazz band has stopped after his death, the famous band of Kenny Ball continues with his son, but they don’t play in the big concert halls anymore. There are only very few really famous jazz bands in Europe still around, one of them is the British Big Chris Barber Band. I’ve been a keen follower of this band since the early 70’s and attended nearly 100 concerts. Chris has been a great example to me and with the great musicians in his band he shows how this music was meant to be played. It sounds awesome but Chris Barber will turn 87 next april so how long will he continue? There is no follow-up. In our country we still have the Dutch Swing Collage Band which started in the last year of the second world war. I think it might be the oldest jazz band in the world still playing. Of course the personnel has changed during the years but this band, too, consists mostly of elderly players. They play very well of course, but they don’t appeal to the younger generation as they used to and, unfortunately, our band is in the same boat.

But we try to keep this old style jazz music alive as much as we can and still have a lot of fun playing it.

I know the Wooltown Jazz Band played in New Orleans some years ago. How has New Orleans recovered since this terrible storm Katrina and has the city been able to revive its musical tradition? We saw the heart braking images of the devastating effects of the catastrophe on TV. In Europe New Orleans has long been considered the place to be if you are a jazz musician but since Katrina you don’t hear that a lot. I think that’s because New Orleans has been associated with old style jazz.

I know Chris Barber played there and devoted an LP to it which sounds nice. He also toured with Wendell Brunius, a famous trumpeter from New Orleans.

I’m sorry I can’t give you any more positive news but that’s how it is at the moment.

I think the Wooltown Jazz Band would like to play in New Orleans but it would take some organizing as many of the band’s players play in other bands as well.

It was not as enthusiastic as I’d been expecting (if I’d been expecting a reply at all; I had no idea if the email addresses I’d found were up-to-date). That being said, from my own conversations with music fans in Paris and elsewhere abroad, it doesn’t seem that jazz is really going anywhere. It may be true that traditional/dixieland-style jazz is in a lull right now in the Low Countries, though. It’s always sad when talented musicians need to slow down, but it’s a welcome change when somebody like Frans is able to pick his sticks back up after so many years away from the group. Even if they need to retire the band soon, they’ll be able to look back on their incredibly long run with quite a sense of accomplishment.

Also, on a more personal note, seeing Wendell Brunious’ name brought back some great memories from around the first time I visited New Orleans in 1998. An old friend of mine, who went all-state with trumpet, got to meet and perform with Brunious. From what I remember, he had a private meeting/lesson with him on a Youth Jazz trip, but my memory could be faulty there. It was how I first discovered Wendell, who is still based in New Orleans and still the real deal.

Thanks again to Frans and the rest of the Wool Town Jazz Band, and congrats on still being around after 62 (62!!) years. For anyone who understands Dutch (or has a lot of patience and is decent with translation bots), here is a comprehensive-looking history.

Okay, back to the grindstone; talk to you all soon.