A riot of colors swirled around the parade start area next to the Gospel Tent of the final day of Jazzfest 30.
The afternoon sun gently smiled down on the revelers, who assembled under an azure blue sky to pay tribute to a dozen fallen heroes of New Orleans music and culture over the past year, the most recent and famous of which was trumpeter Al Hirt.
As the lineup began its assembly, the somber purple banner of the Original Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club, with its establishment date of August 13, 1928 proudly displayed, led the heraldry, followed by the bright gold Lady Wales banner, “Established 1995” and bearing the slogan “Bring It On Down,” and the colors of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with its distinctive silhouetted parade logo.
Grand marshal Wanda Rouzan, dressed in a white suit with a gold sash across her breast and her slogan “A Taste of New Orleans” inscribed in purple, took her place at the head of the line. The parade began slowly, taking shape next to the Gospel Tent, a procession of gold tasseled umbrellas with black and gold stripes and white and gold doves, Lady Wales umbrellas festooned with purple and gold bows and topped with golden doves, men wearing feathered headresses of the same colors, then more umbrellas, this time black with pink bows.
Whistles from the marshal signaled the start of the parade, the Tornado brass band began to play “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” and someone in the crowd shouted “Open this mother up!” Past the Gospel Tent, the 40-voice choir of John Lee and the Heralds of Christ cut into the soundscape singing “Free At Last.” A photograph of Al Hirt’s face danced above the line, stapled to a wooden stake, marching alongside Johnny Adams, Donald Harrison, Sr., Raymond Myles, Louise “Blue Lu” Barker, Alvin “Red” Tyler and others. In death Hirt was able t0 create an interracial communion celebrating New Orleans music that was largely denied him life.
Hirt’s passing from liver ailments at age 76 on April 27, between the two weekends of Jazzfest 30, brought his lengthy and sometimes troubled career into a complex perspective that reflects his status as a both beloved and belittled figure who was literally a walking symbol of New Orleans. The record company that engineered Hirt’s rise to international success, RCA Victor promoted him with the nickname “The King, ” and Hirt lived up to the billing, earning and spending fortunes, lavishing his friends with gifts and enjoying life to its fullest. Walk into any bar in the French Quarter that’s been around for more than a decade and you’re likely to find a dusty autographed photo of a younger Hirt framed on the wall. Ask any veteran cabdriver about Hirt and you’ll get an anecdote whose personal and often eccentric nature argues for its accuracy.
Outside of New Orleans Hirt was basically a Mardi Gras icon, the chief reveler whose ample girth and hearty laugh implied the unlimited good times associated with. the Big Easy. Unfortunately, much of his recorded legacy sounds like the soundtrack to some forgotten early-1960s spy movie, RCA in fact recently reissued the 1962 hit album Our Man In New Orleans, a spirited traditional jazz set couched against hyperactive big band arrangements. This is music for swinging guys 15 years before Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin came up with the joke.
Hirt was a jester in the showbiz world of post World War II style, a contemporary of the Rat Pack, an icon of the 1960s television variety shows (he even briefly hosted one under his own name), an entertainer and pop musician who spent most of his career trivializing his considerable musical talents in recording contexts of almost surreal banality.
The one glaring exception was the Allen Toussaint-graced pop instrumental “Java,” a clever and charming novelty hit rifle with aural faux-exoticism, from the oriental piano phrase that drops into a showbiz intro to the hopping, ska-like rhythm of the theme. Hirt’s trumpet is phrased against a sax section in a slick, witty antiphony that shows off his technical mastery with great subtlety. The tune is an almost anonymous engram in American subcounsciousness — everyone who’s ever heard it can whistle it after the first line, but they won’t all remember the name, or who recorded it. This is true fame, and Toussaint recognized it himself when he acknowledged Hirt’s version of the tune as one of his favorite covers of his own work.
The parade rook Al and his friends bouncing past the crafts tents as Tornado played “It Ain’t My Fault,” people in the growing second line clapped hands in time and whistled along, past the WWOZ Jazz Tent. Hundreds of onlookers took spots along the grandstand steps to watch the parade go by, the second line merged with the crowd on the apron and everyone seemed to be dancing at once. The parade appeared to be engulfed by the huge Fair Grounds crowd as it approached the narrow gap across the main track to the infield, then almost magically reassembled on the track, the revelers moving in a more agitated fashion dancing that shuffling, balls-of-the-feet second line bounce, hankies waving, arms flailing as they marched a quarter mile down the main track where Hirt won and lost thousands of horse races.
Hirt’s showmanship derived mostly from vaudeville, where physical overstatement and a proclivity for performing like a circus act were virtues. These elements, central to his fame, were cruelly at odds with tremendous natural ability.
“He had an outstanding technical capability of playing a melody and being able to elaborate on it in a Harry James-style,” said longtime New Orleans R&B and jazz trumpeter Charlie Miller. “I remember listening to him on the radio when I was a kid and you couldn’t help but be impressed. He had a talent for playing with tremendous dunamics in every register that was even more of a physical than a musical talent.”
Hirt’s technical chops were impeccable. A natural on the instrument from age six, he was winning ctywide talent contests by age 14 and was a relatively well-known local figure, even playing the call to post before the horse races at Fair Grounds Racecourse while still attending Jesuit High School. Hirt’s favorite trumpeter was Conrad Gozzo, a well-regarded section player with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman among others. The well-liked young Hirt was also a local football star. His classical training at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music would later typecast Hirt stylistically in his studio recordings, but he went on to play in big band groups where his technical facility was equally prized.
In the 1950s Hirt, then nicknamed “Jumbo,” cemented his local reputation as a regular at the famed Raymond Beach Bar the Neutral Corner. where the stars who played the Blue Room at the Roosevelt (now Fairmont) Hotel would go to party after their sets. Hirt was a noted civic fixture, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful at the racetrack by day and entertaining them in the clubs by night. The notorious Louisiana politician Earl Long even hired Hirt to write a campaign song.
Hirt established himself as a Bourbon Street mainstay playing traditional New Orleans jazz at his own club during the 1950s and ’60s. Hirt recorded a series of Dixieland revival albums for Audio Fidelity, and this is the music which remained closest to his heart even when he achieved success as a pop musician.
The 1960s provided Hirt with a roller coaster ride of fame and trouble. At RCA, under the direction of that well-known student of New Orleans music Chet Atkins, Hirt made dozens of inoffensive, highly popular recordings that anticipated the current era of candy floss “smooth jazz.” Atkins and studio cronies like Boots Randolph and Harg “Pig” Robbins may have made great country music, but their take on the music of New Orleans remains insulting to this day and did as much to discredit Hirt at home as it did to make him a star elsewhere.
Perhaps most disturbingly, these Nashville-recorded slices of musical Wonder Bread reeked of a racist agenda, the nostalgia for the “old”south in which the wild strains of Negro music were sanitized for polite white listener consumption.
Hirt himself was not personally a racist — he clearly loved black music and musicians, helping Dinah Washington get bookings and giving Wynton Marsalis his first horn — but he was the standard bearer for white Dixieland at a time when New Orleans still practiced a tenacious form of segregation, and he allowed himself to be made available as a white alternative to Louis Armstrong by Armstrong’s manager Joe Glazer. His very presence on the scene was a lightning rod for the racial conflict that emerged in the 1960s. In 1970 Hirt was riding on a Bacchus parade float when a bystander hurled a brick into his face, resulting in injuries which kept him from playing. When he returned to the scene his popularity had waned and Hirt went back to his favorite role as a local New Orleans celebrity until a series of personal and financial setbacks put him on the skids.
Hirt is hardly the only musician of outstanding talent whose legacy was compromised by a music industry that has all too often catered to the public’s worst tastes, but his case seems particularly tragic because he had so many of the characteristics that define American legends.
The parade reformed in the infield as may more onlookers swelled into the second line ranks, wowing their hands in the air and yelling “Hey!” slowing down, then speeding up, chanting “Kick that ass” past Congo Square. Finally the principals assembled in a fenced-off circle in the center of the infield where members of the ReBirth and Olympia Brass Bands and the Dukes of Dixieland joined forces.
Top-hatted King Richard, the Olympia grand marshal, sounded his whistle and the players began the dirge “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” then “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” They closed the circle even tighter and launched into “Amazing Grace,” a wondrous interlace of four rubas, five trombones and numerous trumpets, saxophones and clarinets. They reprised “Closer Walk” and achieved an amazing polyphony on the second chorus.
After a moment of silence followed by two boisterous cheers, King Richard’s whistle blew again and the score of musicians high stepped along to’ “I’ll Fly Away,” “Down By the Riverside” and a song all too appropriate to Hirt, “Didn’t He Ramble.”
One of the trumpeters in the circle was Kevin Clark, who in addition to playing with the Dukes of Dixieland, has inherited the cherished role that Hirt once filled as the bugler during the Fair Grounds horse race meeting.
“He was really concerned with what was going to happen to traditional jazz,” Clark said of Hirt. “He always had a story, usually with an off-color bent, and the way he talked, with his gruff, raspy voice, every- thing he said sounded funny. He could say he was going for a bowl of gumbo in a way that would make you laugh. He led three lives in one and spent three for-. tunes in one lifetime. He was an inspiration as a trumpet player, but one of the things that impressed me the most about him is that he always had rime to talk to me.”
As the musicians dispersed, a man turned to his wife and said “I guess now A1is officially gone.”
But, for the many people of New Orleans who came into his large orbit; not forgotten. Not by a long shot.