[Dixielandjazz] Al Hirt not jazz-partly his own fault?

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Thu Jan 25 10:48:57 PST 2007

To some extent, Al is to to blame for the not-jazz rap. He switched 
from a 6 piece Dixieland combo (called "Swingin' Dixie") around the 
late 60s to using an organ and sax that could render pop stuff to a 
wider audience (plus bass and drums, of course and keeping Pee Wee 
Spitelera on clarinet so he could do Dixie stuff, too).

He then gave interviews in which he flat out denied that he was ever a 
jazzman. This was, again, for commercial reasons though it was partly 
true inasmuch as he earlier had classical training, then FOCUSED on 
powerhouse lead in big bands and pyrotechnic demonstration solos. he 
was also doing fine jamming in swing style in, among other settings, 
the Dawn Busters band and its Jive Five breakout group on WWL's morning 
show in New ORleans. I played my second union gig with Al at the 
off-night at the Famous Door when I was 19 years old in 1954--he was 
doing swing standards and flashy demo stuff.

He didn't even try to cash in on the late 40s jazz revival in N.O., 
preferring big band work.  When the local revival waned in the early 
and mid-50s, He was actually working as was Pete Fountain for a local 
pesticide company. He turned to Dixieland around that time with a good 
band at Dan's Pier 600 and benefited from the surprise national fame of 
the Dukes until his own "discovery" in 1959 that brought him 
international fame. His Dixie bands at his club (he bought the Pier 
600!) got better and better, I thought.

The purists hated, HATED his eclectic style, fast tempos, technical 
displays, etc. The critics couldn't pigeon hole him so they attacked 
him. How dare he highlight his skills, and (gasp!) MAKE MONEY playing 
hybrid jazz? Long story short, he made non-Dixie hits like "Java" and 
"Cotton Candy" (not his best work, trivial stuff in fact, but big 
winner$ commercially). Then he cranked out the "I'm not a jazzman" 
theme, carrying it off with a certain amount of credibility--remember 
his past and his backing into a Dixie gig--and modesty. He said he was 
embarrassed when he was voted top jazz trumpeter in the Playboy poll 
and called Miles to apologize! He went too far, of course, even 
declining to play the first Jazzfest in 1968 because, his agent said, 
"he is no longer a jazz musicdian."  In fact Al got better and better 
at jazz after his fame peaked as he played locally and on tour using 
modern rhythm section players like Fred Crane on piano and Bill 
Huntington on bass. I didn't follow him closely but 've seen videos 
where Al and the group are jamming their butts off in the 80s--to me, 
his best jazz ever. Al's history is told in outline and anecdotal 
detail in my book in jazz in postwar New Orleans.

Charlie Suhor

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