George Lewis: ‘I like my music peppy’
George Lewis talks about New Orleans-Style Music,
the different instruments, clarinets and
clarinet technique, reeds,
and other matters…
– I know how I like my music. I guess a lot of people could say I’m wrong, but I like my music peppy, and I like four beats to a bar. If you’ve got six men playing together then you’ve got a full band, enough to fill in everything. Somebody should be going all the time. It’s a conversation, just like I would tell you ‘no’, and you would respond ‘yes’, do you know that? Somebody should be underneath, somebody on top. That’s the sort of music I came up with, and play. It should not be just one ensemble chorus, and then everybody takes down except the rhythm. You don’t have a band then. You have a quartet.
That’s what Dixieland music is. Dixieland music is what white people play here, for most part. Ain’t none of us playing it. Few of us could play it, because we don’t rehearse, in the first place. Dixieland music is rehearsed, where everybody gets up, plays one chorus, and then they take down and all play solos. But when I came up, music was more like a conversation. Kid Thomas has the idea of it, even though he plays very little lead on the trumpet. Thomas just plays the chords, but he’s up there all the time, or he’s doing something underneath, even just one or two notes, you know what he’s doing. He has the right idea of this type of music. Who would I have in my “All Star” band? Buddy Petit would be the first one, of all the men I’ve played with, and on trombone I’d have Yank Johnson. Bass would be Chester Zardis, because he knows that music, he came up with it. On banjo I’d take Lawrence Marrero. His brother John was supposed to be the better, but I’d prefer Lawrence. On piano, they didn’t have too many piano players, but they had one guy called Tink Baptiste – I would like him. On drums, well, I don’t know, there was Irving Joseph, Papa John’s nephew; and then there was Roy Evans, he was good. From out of town, Kaiser Marshall played good drums. Now, about the different instruments: the rhythm is the most important thing in the music; it ain’t the horns, it’s the rhythm. When Lawrence Marrero was living, and Slow Drag could hear better, and Joe Watkins was playing, we had good rhythm. I don’t believe there’s a band in New Orleans that had the rhythm they had. They say I worked Joe Watkins hard; I didn’t work Joe hard, he worked his own self hard. And then, if you’re the leader of a band, you’ve got to work your men hard. Like Elmer Talbert, he was working all the time. You can hear that on some of the records, he’s underneath, or doing something. It hasn’t got to be fancy because you listen at the rhythm of it, that’s what counts.
I like the snare drum – if you’ve got a drummer who can play press rolls. But you don’t hear a lot of press rolls today. I like a bass, and I like a banjo, of course. You’ve got to have a banjo. But I like a banjo player who brings out the tone. I like chords, not the fancy stuff. The banjo player should not just smother the strings, smother the note, he should bring the tone out right. And something else I don’t like is a plastic head on the banjo – sounds like someone is striking on a dish pan or something. Most of the banjo players around here only play on the after beat (second and fourth beats in the bar). The banjo player should be steady. That’s what Lawrence Marrero was. Lawrence had the wrist, Lawrence had the fingers, and there’s only one person I really can play with now, and I like to hear him playing, and that is this boy way out in Minnesota there, Mike Polad. He fingers the banjo right rather than just smothering it. Most banjo players can’t get the tone now. They used to make any banjo ring and get the tone. It’s supposed to cut through just like an E-flat clarinet. So many things are changing in the music. You take piano players, for instance. They’re playing melody all the time, but they’re supposed to be playing chords. For a piano player I would take someone like Alton Purnell, even though he was contrary. I think he got the music better because you could hear the rhythm. The bass is an important instrument in the band. There were many good bass players here – Simon Marrero, Duck Ernest, and Chester Zardis, who’s the best one living. I play a little bass, you know, in one or two keys. Not very much, one or two notes, that’s all. But I like a bass. I always had loved the bass, and I always said if I had to give up clarinet, you know, earlier, bass would have been the instrument I would like to play. But now I wouldn’t want that toting. If I was to learn bass, I’d want to learn it the right way, I can tell you that. There were a couple of kids on TV the other night playing bass; I wish you could have heard them. They were playing on this great composer – high-class music. It sounded good. I like classical music. When I started out that’s all my mother would hum, that’s all she knew; she had heard French opera since she was 16, and she liked the French opera, high-class music. She would hum a lot of the tunes to me when I first started out on my fife.
The bass is what I call a “feel” instrument. You don’t have no frets between the notes, so you feel for that note and you become accustomed to it so that you know just where to put your fingers. It’s the same with the trombone; the trombone is a vamp instrument. Some of the trombone players here don’t get to the proper note, though. They’re always a little bit out. And the majority of them never play a note further than that much away from their lips, with the slide in all the time. They’re playing mostly with their lips, in other words. Well, the trombone’s got seven positions on it. You’re supposed to go down and make that pedal note. But very few go way down there now. Willie Cornish did, Yank Johnson did, old man Joe Petit went far down. And many others. That’s why they call it tailgate. They never carried the melody, those old-timers. But now you hear a trombone carry the melody and sing just the way Tommy Dorsey and them other trombone players did. I played the other night with Earl Humphrey and I was surprised. I mean, I’m not going above Jim Robinson’s head when I say that Earl plays a lot of trombone. He has ideas, you see. Now he is playing a real tailgate. And he still could be very good, even today, because I noticed how he played the other night. I would take him above Jim. Of course Jim can really play, fine tone, but Jim plays the melody on his trombone. And Louis Nelson plays a good trombone, but he plays nervous trombone, you know, on his out notes. That’s because he never come up playing this music. He came up playing big band music, you understand. The trumpet should stay in the staff, not range up high. Chris Kelly didn’t make no high notes. He played in the range, stayed right in there. Buddy Petit never ranged with the high notes, and he was the best trumpet player I ever heard in New Orleans. I’d rather want a fellow stay in the staff than go up high, because if I’m trying to play there and then he comes up, then you get in one another’s way. If the trumpet player stays in the range, and plays the melody, and if he has got ideas too, then you have got a good trumpet player. Buddy Petit had, and Bunk. I played saxophone for about three or four years, but I didn’t say I liked it. The first saxophone I ever used was a C Melody. My father bought it from some people he knew. It was brand new. I just got rid of another sax a couple of years back. It was an alto. I didn’t play tenor because I couldn’t get the right tone. Most saxophone players around here used to play clarinet, but when they tried to get back to clarinet they couldn’t get the embouchure right. Something about the saxophone slow you down. I just stuck to my clarinet.
When I play music, I like to have people around, especially people dancing, because then you don’t think so much. It gives you a spirit because someone is patting his feet, you see, and it gets your mind off what you are doing. You want to do it right, but most of the time if you worry you do it wrong, you see. You get too tense to play right. I’ll tell you something, I’m not reading music when I play, and I imagine my fingers know what they’re going to do before it gets up here (pointing to his head). And the older I get, the more I pay attention to what I’m doing. Sometimes, now, when I’m going to make a high note, I can tell beforehand that I can’t make it. I know when I feel that way, that I can’t make it, and so I don’t try for it. When I play clarinet, I like to go in and out from high to low register, and from low to high. I could do that well. I know I ain’t the best, but that is what I could do. Because that’s the beauty part of the clarinet, you know, going from high to low, high to low. I like the low register. Of course, the high register is fine too. It’s the trill notes which appeal to some people’s hearing and it appeals to mine, too. You should weave in and out, in variation, when you play. And sometimes I stick to the lead, too, so the band will not get lost. Carry some of the melody, variate some, play some of the melody and variate some more, you see. That’s the way I learned myself, and that’s the way I play the music. If you play for recording, my idea is, if you play the tune three times – sometimes even five and six – you lose it. The musician will lose an interest in that tune, you see. He ain’t getting it, for some reason. So forget about it. Go on to something else. Because the first time you play, in my estimation, that numer is the best one. Now the big companies have – what do you call that man? He’s in there supervising, and you start playing, and he stop you. And you start again, he stop you again. And then you sort of lose it. That tune’ll sound worse. Every time you play it, it’ll sound worse and worse. Now about my playing sharp sometimes, which some critics say. Of course, some critics don’t know sharp from flat, you know, don’t even know what they’re hearing, but it’s true I might overpower the horn sometime, when I feel good. But you’ve got to tune to that piano, you see, and the piano is according to the weather, especially in New Orleans. Or some of the strings of the piano may be missing, and that puts the others out. So the more you pull out the joints on the clarinet, or the more I use the tuning roller, the more air begins to escape. The horn is getting flatter and flatter. The top notes or the bottom notes, you can’t get them all. So sometimes you have to be a little sharp, you see. I always breath from the abdomen. You see the vein come out on my forehead, but mostly I breathe from the abdomen. I have noticed that if the drummer is pulling you, and you’re playing so many notes, you start to feel it right in the stomach, you feel a pain. Now they’ve got some fellows that blow from the jaw (puffing out his cheeks) but I never could blow that way. When I first started out I used to hold my lips over my teath when I played, but now I don’t do that because my lips would get sore, very sore. I used to play the jitney dance at The Music Box at St. Charles and Canal, where Rubenstein’s Store is, and my lip would be bleeding all the time, so I learned to catch the top of the mouthpiece with my teeth, and I would pucker the bottom lip like that (lower lip projecting forward slightly). Eventually my bottom lip got a groove on it where it became hard, you see. Now, for tonguing, you should tongue the horn, I tongue my horn, but don’t ever make it pop. Sometimes I make it fuzz (indicating a growling tone), I may do that, but I never pop a reed. I never liked that (slap tonguing) I like a pure tone. What put me on playing a tone was, when I first started playing clarinet, quite naturally you screech and squeak, you know. And the gentleman who lived downstairs would call, “Hey, up them stairs there, who’s got them birds?”. So I learned to blow softer on it, and I got a very good tone on it. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, so I blowed sort of soft, you see, with a stiff reed, and that’s where I got my tone. I play a different tone, although I say it myself, from any clarinet player. I use a Lavoe reed. It’s supposed to be French. Sometimes I get a Vibrator. But I always liked a stiff reed. Bill Russell bought me a plastic reed once, and they were expensive then, but I never could use it. I tried it but I just couldn’t get the right tone. It was, well – did you ever hear Paul Barnes? – not powerful enough. I don’t like a plastic reed. Before I had my teeth out in New York in ’45 I used a No. 5 reed – as hard as plank. It was the hardest you could get. In New York I had to get false teeth, and every year I was getting older and I was losing strength. So then I went down to a No. 4, and 4’s kind of hard, it’s all according to the grain of the wood. And now (1968) I’m using a 3,5 or a 3. I found out that just testing the reed doesn’t mean that the reed is good; you can pass it along your fingernail at the end to see if the reed is split, of course. When my daddy was living he tried to make a reed for me out of a goat’s horn. Couldn’t play with it though. Couldn’t get anything out of it. He just took hold of the reed and saw how it was made, tried to make one like it. He didn’t play himself. None of my folks ever played music. I had one reed, I’ll tell you, on my first trip to Japan in 1963, which lasted for three months. Never changed it. That was exceptional though. Normally they didn’t last that long. Then again, if you don’t play regularly, you can’t get the tone from a reed. They get wet from saliva, and then it will get dry rot if you don’t use it. I don’t like to scrape a reed because it gets too soft. I’d rather use a new reed. You’ve got to get used to a new reed first, because the cane is sweet, and it makes you salivate. Sometimes I trimmed a reed with a reed-cutter, or put a half dollar on the edge and burn it up to rim. I’ve got a reed-cutter in the back somewhere, but they split the reed too often. One out of two reeds they cut, and it ain’t any good any more. For me, I’d rather burn them. Before I start playing a job, I’ll make a high G or whatever note, and if I can’t get it, then I’ll pull my reed down to make the reed a little stiffer. If I still can’t get it then I’ll change my reed. The mouthpiece of the clarinet I’m going to use tonight is a Selmer, and I have one in my case which is the mouthpiece belonging to my old metal clarinet. I used to like to use a wide lay mouthpiece. With a wide lay it makes a soft reed seem harder, and of course reeds get softer with use. If you’ve got a close lay you can use a hard reed.
I like a wood clarinet best, but once I used a rubber one – hard rubber. And I got the same thing out of the rubber clarinet as I did the wood. Now, about metal clarinets, a lot of fellows say the tone is different from wooden ones, but I didn’t find any difference in tone. I did Burgundy Street Blues, the original Burgundy Street Blues we made for Bill Russell, with a metal clarinet. It is at the Jazz Museum on Bourbon Street now, it was a “Harry Pedler” make. The only way the tone is different is if the clarinet is a cheap one – wood or metal. Of course, a metal clarinet won’t crack like wood ones. The one I used the other night cracked. They tell you if a clarinet don’t crack it’s no good. The weather will crack it. I’ve had clarinets that split and I’ve gone on playing them with sealing wax in them.
When I was starting in New Orleans, all clarinetists played Albert systems. All of them. I never saw a Boehm. Sometimes I played a Boehm when I was younger, but I never did like it. I play an Albert system clarinet, a French Selmer. I didn’t like the tone of the Boehm system – it was too keen. If you listen to the radio and you hear a clarinet you can tell it’s a Boehm system because the tone is so light, you know. It doesn’t have the body. It’s not as deep as the Albert, but the Boehm system is faster. They’re much heavier in weight, of course. Boehms, they have more keys, more mechanical, and it helps you to make so many things where with the Albert system you’ve got to do it with your tongue or with your fork fingering, you see. (Demonstrates middle finger of left hand held down while all others raised.) The Boehm system is much easier to play. You see kids playing them all the time in Mardi Gras parades, but the tone is not so good. The speaker key on the Boehm is underneath, and you can find some Alberts like that, too, but I don’t like them because the moisture seeps in easily and it leaks. When they make a clarinet, or any instrument, all those keys are supposed to be used. But I’ve seen fellows here pull keys off, so they can close up that hole, but I never do that, because I know it’s for some use, and I do use it sometime. For a final word of advice? If you like the clarinet, or whatever instrument you play, keep on playing it, keep it up. Don’t expect to play it in one day, and don’t expect to become popular in one year. In time you can become popular. I consider myself as a beginner from the time I started till now. The only thing is, I don’t know how long this music is going to last.
Said George Lewis in 1968, short before he died.
– Tom Bethell: A Jazzman from New Orleans
– Thank You, Lasse Collin, for making me aware of this wonderful interview
– Learn more about clarinets and music history in the section for Clarinet Science