From the Orient to New Orleans:
Over the last 27 years, the 18-piece New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra has become one of the most dedicated and provocative champions of traditional jazz.
“Even prior to Marco Polo’s famous voyage to China and his return with a staggering array of wonderful stories and exotic treasures, the Western world has held a certain fascination for the mysterious ways of the East… ”
Harry Souchon could barely say the words. The year was 1969, and the late jazz scholar was trying to get through the script for the New Orleans Jazz Club’s weekly radio program. This particular show, however, was proving to be challenge.
Souchon’s assistant at the club, Jack Stewart, had somehow persuaded him to devote a show to the Oriental foxtrot, a novelty genre of the 1920s that injected far-flung narratives and exotic musical themes into traditional dance numbers of the era. Souchon struggled to sound convincing as he read the extravagantly purple prologue Stewart had written. He winced as dropped the needle on records like “Rebecca Came Back From Mecca” and “(Lina the Queen of) Palesteena.” As someone who had devoted much of his life to the preservation of traditional jazz, Souchon was simply horrified.
“He thought that the script we gave him was too much and got really rattled,” Stewart recalls with a laugh. “He managed to do it, but you can hear the devastation in this poor man’s voice. He was loathing it.”
He winced as he dropped the needle on records like “Egyptian Ella” by Ted Lewis, “Song of the Orient” by Arr Hickman and “Arabianna” by the S.S. Leviathan Orchestra. Little did Souchon know at the time, but out of his horror would emerge a New Orleans institution and one of the city’s most dedicated and most provocative champions of traditional jazz.
The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra performs American popular music from the first third of the century, with a special emphasis on New Orleans vernacular music. Although the fox-trot still figures prominently in their repertoire, you’re just as likely to hear two-steps, rags, marches, jazz compositions, blues numbers or other styles of the era. “Most of the revival orchestras either play ragtime or 1920s music,” says New Leviathan cofounder Stewart, who plays flute, soprano sax and clarinet with the orchestra in addition to serving as its archivist. “We do all the way from ragtime through the early 1930s. Most of these bands do 20 years of music; we do 40.”
The band practices every Wednesday evening at its Julia Street headquarters. From a window above the former Precision Auto Repair Shop on Julia Street, the sweet, lilting sounds of a bygone era fill the street. Occasionally, a pedestrian Stops and stares in astonishment, no doubt imagining who or what could be responsible for the anachronistic serenade. This is no ordinary garage band.
Historic Precision Hall, as the band wryly refers to it, has been home to the New Leviathan for nearly 20 years. Located in a 19th century row house owned by Stewart, who also owns the childhood home of Jelly Roll Morton, the dusty, unfinished space serves as the band’s office, rehearsal hall, library and recording studio. On this particular night, the band is rehearsing songs for their forthcoming CD, which will be a collection of the band’s personal favorites.
The forthcoming record’s theme, or lack thereof, is a bit of a departure for the orchestra. Previous releases have tended to focus, in sometimes obsessive detail, on particular styles or periods. Their first two LPs, From New Orleans to Constantinople on the s.s. Leviathan (1975) and Old King 7itt (1977), were anthologies of Orientalia. I Didn’t Mean Goodbye (1980) shifted the focus to New Orleans’ Tin Pan Alley tradition, while Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man (1989) highlighted New Orleans’ hot music of the teens and ’20s. Their most recent release, The Nina, the Pinta and the S.S. Leviathan (1992), used an eclectic batch of songs to tell the story of Columbus’ discovery of America, which somehow involved his being mistaken for ’20s band singer Russ Columbo by adoring Cubanolans while on a group-rate tour of the New World. “It was clever, too clever for the general public,” says George Schmidt, New Leviathan cofounder, banjo player and vocalist. The New Leviathan features 18 members, among them lawyers, doctors, teachers and even a rocket scientist. While many have performed with the orchestra for 15 years or more, only Stewart and Schmidt remain from the original incarnation of the band.
The New Leviathan has never had an outside booking agent or manager, and they handle every aspect of business themselves, with responsibilities for bookings, costumes, record sales, equipment, PR and other necessities divvied up among members. Trombone player John Craft is the band’s managing director, trumpet player Greg Merritt their musical director and trumpet player Pete Wolbrette their recording engineer. “We’re based on libertarian anarchist principles that have been forced on us by Jack Stewart,” Schmidt explains.
A contractor, historian and noted preservationist, Jack Stewart was a grad student at Tulane in 1969 when he and his friend Justin Winston, perhaps better known to New Leviathan fans as Faruk von Turk, the “rediscoverer of the Oriental fox-trot,” collaborated on the New Orleans Jazz Club radio program “The Oriental Foxtrot’s Influence on Jazz Music.”
“It was a parody of what passes for musicology in jazz,” Winston says. “You can take any genre and use the same kind of analytical approaches and it makes just as much sense. So it started out as a joke.”
“It was not a great paying job,” Stewart adds. “We had to have some fun.”
The radio show might have been an elaborate joke, but Winston’s fascination with the Oriental fox-trot was more than tongue-in-cheek. “There’s a lot of overlap in jazz and Oriental fox-trots, because both are old dance music,” explains Winston, who for many years hosted Von Turk’s Oriental Fox-trot Museum on WWOZ. “The same musicians turn up and they’re doing the same kinds of things. That was basically what I realized.”
That overlap of jazz and the Otiental fox-trot also caught the attention of jazz fanatic Schmidt, who heard a tape of the show and, like his friends, found himself mysteriously attracted to the quaint genre. Since many pioneers of jazz could be found on Oriental fox-trot recordings, Schmidt wanted to know whether they improvised on the fox-trots or played them like they were written.
To answer that question, Schmidt was struck with an inspiration: Why not dust off the charts and see for himself what they sounded like? Winston, curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the time, had amassed a stack of Oriental fox-trot arrangements, so Schmidt called on friends and friends of friends and assembled a motley collection of bohemians, most of them students or grad students at Tulane, to play Oriental fox-trots.
“George and I thought it was the greatest thing we’d ever heard,” Stewart recalls. “Of the people gathered to try this out, it was about half and half. Half thought it was wonderful, half just thought it was just over the top, really loony.”
While those early sessions succeeded in satisfying Schmidt’s intellectual curiosity, it also gave the musicians an idea. At the time, a ragtime revival was taking the nation by storm thanks in large part to the film The Sting and its soundtrack of Scott Joplin compositions. Locally, Lars Edegran founded the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra to showcase the style. In typically reactionary fashion, Schmidt proposed that they start a revival of their own, a revival of a style not worth reviving, the Oriental fox-trot.
One of the musicians, Bruce Pollack, secured the use of Dixon Hall on the Tulane campus. The band worked up a playlist, assembled period costumes and printed flyers that were distributed all over Uptown reading: “Mysteries of the East Revealed.” The performance, dubbed “An Oriental Extravaganza,” was a smashing success. The band introduced curious fans to unknown classics such as “Palesteena,” “Mid the Pyramids with Omar Khayam,” “In Siam,” “Oriental Girl,” “Poppy Time in Old Japan” and “Oriental Moon,” an Oriental fox-trot co-written by actor William “Fred Mertz” Frawley.
“I think the audience realized it was sort of a joke, sort of not, because the level of musicianship to play Oriental fox-trots has to be fairly high,” notes Winston, who has remained a close associate of the band but was never a member. “The show was real and people laughed where they should laugh and applauded where they should applaud.”
“Everybody enjoyed it so much we just stuck together,” summarizes Schmidt, with uncharacteristic understatement.
In the years, since, the New Leviathan has carved a comfortable niche for itself in New Orleans and developed a cult audience across the country and internationally. Among the small but fanatical legion of early 20th century music devotees, the New Leviathan is legend. Over the years, the New Leviathan has appeared on Saturday Night Live and performed for the Coca-Cola Co.’s centennial in Atlanta and Neiman-Marcus’ 75th birthday in Dallas. They packed the Saenger Theater for a special midnight show called “The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra Plays with the Biggest Organ in New Orleans.” Woody Allen tapped their rendition of “Lazy River” to appear on the soundtrack to his 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway.
They have appeared at festivals including the Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Festival, the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival and at festivals in Europe.
“If you go outside of New Orleans, there really are people who are interested in what you’re doing and they’ll even express an interest,” Schmidt says. “They won’t just look at you glassy-eyed, like they do here.”
One reason for the bemused reaction among locals is the band’s steadfast iconoclasm, an outgrowth of approaching the history of music through commercial arrangements of the day. Over the years, the band has amassed a collection of what Stewart estimates to be 20,000 orchestrations, artifacts that reveal popular music that doesn’t always jibe with conventional wisdom. “At one time, these people who were interested in jazz music were journalists,” Schmidt says.
“They weren’t musicologists or musicians, and they would make assumptions about musical forms that made no sense. They were politically correct, but they certainly weren’t musically correct. The history of popular music in America has not yet been written.”
One of Schmidt’s favorite targets is the Afro-centrism he perceives on the part of jazz writers and scholars. “When they asked Louis Armstrong about his influences, he said, ‘I used to listen to John McCormack. That’s where I got my phrasing,’ ” says Schmidt.
“McCormack was an Irish tenor! If you listen to ‘West End Blues’,” Armstrong’s got this great introduction which one musicologist says is strictly Italian. He starts out with the recitative, which is where the person who is singing leads himself into his plaint in the aria. That’s just what Armstrong is doing with ‘West End Blues.’ Armstrong was dependent on the Western canon. He took it and kicked it right in the ass, but he was dependent on it.”
Stewart, currently at work on research for a history of New Orleans music from 1840 to 1990 and a biography of bandleader “Papa” Jack Laine, agrees that the story of jazz is more complicated than some would care to admit. “Everybody wants their person to have invented jazz,” he says. “Some people want Blacks to have invented jazz. Some people want italians. Some people want Jelly Roll Morton to have invented jazz. Some people want Buddy Bolden. That’s too simplistic. It’s like shattered mosaic. You see all this stuff coming from all these ways. If you listen to ‘Milneburg Joys’ by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings with Jelly Roll Morron, it’s as if Leon Ropollo is singing an aria on the clarinet and Jelly Roll Morton is playing the basso ostinato accompaniments behind him. In opera it’s called basso ostinato, in jazz they’re called riffs.”
For now, as the band nears its 30th annivetsary, the subversive in Schmidt is happy to remain on the periphery of popular tastes. “We’re rather arch,” he says. “If we start out with ‘Lina the Queen of Palesteena,’ we’re not going to end with some rock and roll piece, which is what they want. Sorry folks, it’s going to be 1929 for the whole night. It’s not going to devolve into some kind of orgy with the lights blinking. With the New Leviathan, you get what you pay for.”