Preservation Hall proprietor Larry Borenstein once remarked to Clive Wilson that the New Orleans jazz scene has always had a “resident Englishman.” In his new memoir, Time of My Life: A Jazz Journey from London to New Orleans, English trumpet player Clive Wilson recounts vivid tales of coming to New Orleans and witnessing the early days of Preservation Hall, the legendary musicians he learned from, and the last days of a bygone era of New Orleans jazz.
Early in the book you say that when you were a young jazz fan in England, you thought you couldn’t go to New Orleans because you didn’t like rice.
The only time we ate rice in England in those days was as a dessert, as rice pudding. I never liked it, it made me feel bad. So I said to myself, “Well I’ll never go to New Orleans; all they do is eat red beans and rice!” Then I tried Chinese and Indian restaurants and of course they used rice. So then I thought, “Oh, this rice is okay! So I can go after all!”
What was the jazz scene like in England when you were growing up?
It was sort of homegrown. It wasn’t top-down like today, like pop music. The people wanted it and so eventually the promoters started promoting it. It started with skiffle, I think, around 1950, and within a few years traditional jazz became very popular in England.
You came from a very different musical background, though.
My parents just didn’t like any popular music of any kind. I did hear some classical music, though. I remember, really, the first time I heard pop music was Harry Belafonte singing the “Banana Boat Song.” I think that was 1956. The first jazz record I heard was the Bunk Johnson Band with George Lewis, recorded by Decca. I was 13 years old and I heard this record and I wondered what on earth it was. It was like magic to me; I’d never heard anything like it. It gradually mushroomed from there.
You never saw yourself as a professional musician?
No, no, not until much later. I was here in New Orleans for three years and I still just thought I’d be a great amateur. You know, with a day job. In fact, when I was here, and this applies to everybody that came here in the ’60s, we were just here to listen and learn. We were not here to take gigs. We got to know all the musicians personally, and they would take us around with them. They took us under their wing, you know. They were very protective of us, too.
You came just after legal desegregation?
The situation didn’t change overnight, but legally, I wasn’t going to be arrested for sitting in with bands. Gradually it changed. By the ’70s things were changing quite fast, but in the ’60s, for example, on Esplanade there was a coffee shop where they used to do poetry readings and black and white would go there, including professors from UNO and Tulane. The police would regularly raid them and arrest everybody because they were mixing. They just didn’t like it. They were very down on homosexuality as well. Anything they thought might be homosexual, they would jump on it. Everything’s loosened up so much now.
Did you feel a bit nervous at first, coming into the predominantly African-American New Orleans music world as a white outsider?
No, no. Not at all. Me and a couple of others who had come here were at Preservation Hall and Dixieland Hall every night of the week unless we were invited to go to a private job. All of the musicians knew us very well and we knew all of them very well, we knew their families and everything. The only way you could hear some of the older musicians was to go to their houses and actually visit them in person, so we did that with quite a number of people.
There wasn’t much of a barrier between professional and social worlds?
We would all go out and eat together and drink together and we’d listen to them every night. Preservation Hall in those days was not like today. It was like our front room. We just went there after dinner and hung out for three or four hours and the Jaffes were very kind because we were students of the music, so they let us in for free. I couldn’t afford it otherwise.
You joined the Young Tuxedo Brass Band?
Yeah, that was a real surprise and also an honor. Andrew Morgan took over the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and I got a phone call one day and he said, “Can you make two funerals with me at the weekend?” I said, “I’ve never seen a funeral, let alone played in one.” He said, “That’s okay, come on!” We get there and it was a pick-up band with three trumpets: Reginald Koeller, me, and Kid Thomas. They looked at me and said, “You’re leader.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Well, you’re Morgan’s trumpet player!” They didn’t mind at all. There was no ego there.
Clive Wilson is playing Satchmo Summerfest with Clive Wilson’s New Orleans Serenaders Friday, August 2nd at 1:30pm on the Fidelity Bank Stage