New Orleans trumpet man Kevin Clark, a four-year veteran of the Crescent City’s vivid traditional jazz scene, has just made a very good record indeed. It’s called New Orleans Trumpet, and it features a wild mixture of traditional and contemporary players attacking an equally various repertoire of traditional jazz war-horses, originals, and unlikely pop tunes, with Clark’s trumpet ringing triumphantly throughout.
Starting with a fresh interpretation of Paul Barbarin’s perennial “Bourbon Street Parade” which incorporates twisted little snippets of conversation and street noise, the basic recording unit swings its way through a program of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Spencer Williams, NORK and ODJB favorites led by the tenor saxophones of Eric Traub and Evan Chirstopher, clarinetist Tim Laughlin, Craig Klein and Dave Woodard on trombones, with rhythm unfailingly supplied by Matt Perrine on electric bass and tuba, guitarist Steve Blailock, the great Freddie Staehle on drums, and executive producer Tom McDermott at the piano.
Vocalists Big Al Carson (“Lucky Dog Blues”), Milton Rich (“A Kiss to Build a Dream On”) and Leigh “Li’l Queenie” Harris (“When You Wish Upon a Star, “Stardust”) add spice to the mostly instrumental proceedings, and Clark’s bandmates in the Dukes of Dixieland—trombonist Ben Smith, Bassist Everett Link and drummer Richard Taylor—are brought in here and there to spell the regulars.
I’d been playing New Orleans Trumpet on my “New Orleans Music Show” on WWOZ ever since its release on Clark’s Viper Records label this summer, and I looked forward to sitting down with Kevin at the Croissant D’Or in late August to find out where he was coming from and how he managed to brew up this particular mixture of traditional jazz, pop balladry and street-level funk. Here’s what he had to say:
I came to New Orleans from Orland, Florida. I have three brothers, and when I was growing up, everybody in my family played an instrument. My mother was a piano teacher, and my father played trombone; he was an elementary school principal, and we had a band that would play in a Nazarene Church—very evangelical, a holy roller kind of groove. That’s where I first learned how to play and read music.
My folks got me the very best teachers when I was little. At first I was going to be an orchestral trumpet player, and I studied with several different people: one was Tom Wohlwender, who played with the Cleveland Symphony before he retired to Orlando. Then I studied with a principal trumpet player in the Florida Symphony—Chuck Gottschalk—who’s now in Naples, Florida. And I studied with a trumpet player who played At Top of the World, which is a hotel orchestra that was a Walt Disney orchestra for over 15 years, and they would bring in different acts like Phyllis Diller, the Four Tops, the Lettermen, the Temptations and all the kind of stuff. It was big band. So I studied with him for a long time, and that kind of got me more into big band swing.
My first gig was with the Ringling Brothers band. I had gone to college for a couple of years and I had an opportunity to work at a theme park called Circus World that was owned by Ringling at the time. It was a steady gig; you’d go there like 9 in the morning and do three circus shows a day, and they had clowns all that stuff. Later, I was on the road with the Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros. Circus, and that’s a tent show.
I worked for Walt Disney World in Orlando for twelve years, in the Walt Disney World Band. I was one of those guys that marched down the street. It was a great job—I made great money, and I had benefits and a big, four-bedroom house with a poop and a nice, new car. But I would be out there playing my ass off, and a person would just blow right by me because they would want to go to Mickeyland or to see Goofy. “Hey, where’s Chip & Dale?” They didn’t care.
So I thought, “I want to do something; I have something to say.” But, at that point, I still didn’t know what it was—I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I wanted to get out of there, you know? I had my own band at night that played at Pleasure Island, which is another Walt Disney affiliate. It’s like if Bourbon Street was in heaven—streets all clean and everything. When I played there I had a band that was into R&B. I was playing and dancing, doing my own choreography, and it was the same groove. I would come out and do a little trick with my horn, and then I would go back into the section. We were trying to get people to dance.
Then I started working for Rosie O’Grady’s. It was like a Roaring Twenties kind of bar with can-can girls but at least it was more of a jazz thing. When O’Grady’s opened, a lot of jazz musicians that were familiar with the traditional style moved to town, so I started picking their brains. And what I realized was that it’s an alternative to progressive jazz, which I’m not—I’m not a progressive jazz musician. So that’s when I got bit with this New Orleans thing, about ten years ago, and once I focused on that, I came here and just went to the Tulane Jazz Archives with Bruce Raeburn and listened to some interviews and to some recordings and asked him a lot of questions about different people.
Then a full-time job with the Dukes of Dixieland opened up, so I had a steady gig. That’s what holds me together financially, and the band is great—it keeps my traditional feet on the ground. We do a lot of touring, and I get a lot of exposure with that.
I feel my niche is with the hot trumpet style, people like Al Hirt, Frank Assunto, George Girard, Tony Almerico and Sharkey Bonano—primarily those guys who were stylistically around Louis Armstrong, who was a real hot player as opposed to the real soft kind of lyrical thing. Murphy Campo is another wonderful trumpet player. I mean, George Girard played just scalding choruses. Connie Jones is another great, great trumpet player.
What I like to do is combine the traditional tunes of yesteryear, the war-horses and stuff like that, with the New Orleans street beat and funk. And then there is the whole shuffle thing like Louis Prima was doing—that’s very exciting and I think it’s a style of music that people are not doing a lot of.
What I try to do on New Orleans Trumpet is cover as many bases as I can. I like to be able to do a ballad and then turn around and do something that’s up-temp and something that’s funky, where I don’t play a million billion notes. I try to be ancient in my approach instead of immature, and that’s difficult.
There’s a nucleus of musicians here now that I didn’t really see when I first got here four years ago. I see a real resurgence of younger players who are really doing some very innovative things and are not afraid to try and do stuff even though it may not be that cost-effective.
The reason I did the CD really wasn’t for financial gain as much as it was for self-expression. The point is that I’m not the best trumpet player, the best writer the best producer, the best anything, but I am who I am and I have something to say, and my experiences here in this city are unique to me. This is like a culmination of the experiences I have had here and the situations that I’ve been in musically, from the Dukes of Dixieland to an R&B band of a little piano bar kind of groove.
What I first conceived this record, I wanted to do all of these different things with the trumpet as the one common denominator. I was talking to Eric Traub, who is on the CD, and I said, “I want something different. I would like to get into a Dr. John sort of groove because he’s so funky, and get in, like, The Meters stuff, and Professor Longhair. Why can’t we do this in the rhythm section while this traditional jazz front line is going on?”
We talked about it and Eric recommended that I get with Freddie Staehle. He’s definitely one of my favorite groove drummers of all time—him and Johnny Vidacovich. So that’s who we ended up with original grooves on it. Freddie was an integral part of that.
We recorded the actualities of “Bourbon Street Parade” on Halloween night last year. The engineer, Tim Staubaugh—he was on the circus with me—and I hit Bourbon Street at midnight with a tape deck. We found the most twisted people that we could find and we would just ask them questions. We interviewed panhandlers and a barker who was trying to entice people into a strip club. We even went into a couple of nightclubs and talked to the people.
The “Lucky Dog Blues” came from me breaking up with my girlfriend. I took
the furniture and she took this dog we had, a little terrier dog. The next morning I work up in bed and had these flea bites all over my ass. So later that day I’m over at Ultrasonic with Steve Reynolds, and I started squirming around. I said, “Man, it’s a drag—it’s like my girlfriend took the dog and left me with the fleas.” And he said, “That sounds like a song.”
I had heard Al Carson sing and thought, “He’s got such a beautiful voice, but her can sound really comedic too.” And I didn’t want “Lucky Dog Blues” to sound serious—I don’t want people to get the wrong idea.
Li’l Queenie did her tunes very rapidly and they were tunes that have such great melodies, so instead of me like trying to reinvent them, I decided I was just going to play them very simply and just let my sound speak for me. I’ve worked on my sound in the practice room since I was 12 years old, and now I’m 38, so, good or bad, this is what it is.
I really want to keep my feet planted in the traditional New Orleans jazz groove as a trumpet player, but rhythmically going in other directions. I want it to always be funky, and on the ballads I always want them to be soulful and expressive, because I think that’s really a side of me that I never want to lose. I would like to do a ballad record, with strings, but then again it costs a lot of money to do stuff like that.
I would like to do more producing. I produced Jack Maheu’s first solo album for George Buck in New Orleans and did a lot of arranging on it. I also have an album that I produced for the Dukes called “The Bobcats Remembered”. There are just so many artists that really should be recorded in this town—Li’l Queenie is a perfect example, and tons of older players. I did this one on my own, with Tom McDermott’s help, and I’d like to sell this and get enough to do another one.
I was talking to Al Hirt and he said, “This music, New Orleans jazz, it comes in waves. It swings like a pendulum, and if you are ready when that opportunity hits you, just ride the wave.” So, I got my surfboard waxed—I’m ready to ride the wave.”
(Kevin Clark’s CD, New Orleans Trumpet, is on Viper Records.)