Anniversaries aren’t always happy affairs and this one has more than its share of melancholy. Forty years ago, on February 25, 1974, Frank Assunto, New Orleans trumpet player and leader of the Dukes of Dixieland, died of a heart attack at the untimely age of 42. Frank’s older brother, trombone player Freddie Assunto, died a similar early death eight years before, felled by cancer and heart disease when he was only 36. But it was Frank’s passing that marked the end of an era, the end of the band that spread their particular style of jazz around the world as the original Dukes of Dixieland.
For much of the ’50s and ’60s, the Dukes were considered by many to be the number-one jazz combo in the country. Ed Sullivan called them that in 1958 during one of their several appearances on his TV show; you can hear him do it today on YouTube. Playboy magazine’s annual Jazz Review listed them that way for eight years in a row. They were frequently introduced as at the top of their class in many national radio, television and on-stage appearances. But the Dukes also had their critics.
For serious jazz fans, and true aficionados were extremely serious in those days, the Dukes were just a bit too cute, too slick, too fancy-looking in their sharp clothes and hats and shiny shoes to be taken seriously. Jazz fans then—locked as they were in an ongoing struggle between devotees of modern and traditional jazz—weren’t that receptive to the Dukes. For many on both sides in that dispute, the critics said, “They’re too ‘commercial.’” The fact is that despite their obvious first-class musicianship, the Dukes suffered from that age-old New Orleans disease of wanting to be entertaining.
No wonder that one of their most outspoken fans was another New Orleans “entertainer.” Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong would seek out the Dukes when he was on the road, come and sit in with them, even visit at their homes.
“The Dukes of Dixieland … was the first white band whom me and my band played on the same stage with, which was a great thrill to me,” Louis is quoted as saying in the book Louis Armstrong in His Own Words.
Armstrong and the Dukes had in fact been scheduled to travel and play together in Moscow and elsewhere in Eastern Europe as a part of Satchmo’s “Jazz Ambassador” role for the U.S. State Department. It’s the famous trip that never happened. Armstrong effectively killed it because of his anger at President Eisenhower’s tardiness in dealing with the Little Rock, Arkansas, civil-rights confrontation, where black children were cursed and spat upon when they attempted to integrate an all-white high school. Louis subsequently “forgave” the president after he did speak out but memories of the incident are alive to this day, though it is rarely mentioned that the Dukes were inadvertently also involved.
Frank and Freddie Assunto started their musical careers by playing in their high school brass bands under the tutelage of their father, Jacinto “Papa Jac” Assunto. According to Frank’s son, Deano Assunto, a printer by trade who has become the family record keeper, Papa Jac started his career with a business degree but went back to school to study music after a successful run as a trombone and banjo player with the pit band at the Orpheum Theater.
When he graduated with his music degree in 1947, Papa Jac became a professor of music at Redemptorist High School, where son Frank was a student. Although Freddie was a graduate of another school, St. Aloysius, his dad used him with the Redemptorist band for parades and football games, so the two brothers were playing together.
They also played together in a jazz band they gathered to jam in the driveway outside their house Uptown on Gen. Taylor Street, while their father was rehearsing with a group of professional musicians inside. At first, Papa Jac didn’t know the boys were out there playing since he was focused on his own band. “That’s how they got started with the Basin Street Four, Five, or Six,” says Deano. “It would depend on how many guys showed up to play that day.”
One of their first gigs, in 1946, was at a restaurant called Mama Lu’s. “It was out on Hayne Boulevard in the New Orleans East area,” says Deano. “When they played, they got three dollars and it cost them as much to get out there as what they got paid. But when they took their break, what they got was all the seafood they could eat.”
The big break for the Assuntos was a traveling talent show, the Horace Heidt “Pot O’ Gold” radio program. With a seven-piece combo they called The Junior Dixieland Band, which also included a youthful Pete Fountain on clarinet, the Assuntos captured first place in the regional contest and came in second in the national competition. Beyond that, Heidt wanted the band as a regular part of his show. Papa Jac nixed that idea, what with Frank still in high school, but he did let the boys tour with Heidt for six weeks. It was apparently during this period that the Assunto brothers decided to become professionals.
They initially kept occupied with minor gigs and a monthly appearance at sessions established by the recently organized New Orleans Jazz Club. Their big break came when mazzman Sharkey Bonano decided to take his Kings of Dixieland band on the road and left open what had been its regular engagement at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street.
It was then that the Assuntos decided they needed a new name. They’d worn out the Basin Street title. They felt too old to remain the Junior Dixieland Band. And as much as they admired Bonano, they were too young and inexperienced to call themselves Kings. So, the story goes, that while kicking around various possibilities in a family discussion, it was their mother, Mama Josie Assunto, who suggested: If not the Kings of Dixieland, why not the Dukes?
Thus, in December of 1950 the family-spawned Dukes of Dixieland opened at the Famous Door.
What was supposed to be an engagement of a few weeks lasted for three-and-a-half years.
Also performing with the Dukes during this early period was Freddie’s girlfriend, Betty Owens, a former child prodigy who was soon to become Mrs. Freddie Assunto.
Betty was known as “The Duchess” when she sang with the band.
As their daughter, Jan Assunto Robicheaux, tells it: “She was at McMain [High School] when she was singing on Bourbon Street and the principal got wind of it. You know, Betty Owens is singing on Bourbon Street. What was she? Fifteen? They would sneak her in the back door, and you could tell by the way those photos are, she wasn’t in blue jeans and t-shirts by any means, she was ‘decked’—they all were—and they would sneak her in the back door, and I mean she had just enough time to get on stage, sing her song, and get back out. Because they really wanted her to sing.”
“She completely added to their own thing,” says Deano. “The Dukes were good and talented but when you looked at Betty and you heard her voice, your heart stopped. You looked over there and you wanted to know what this was all about. And that was her.”
The band was “decked,” as Jan put it, thanks to a family connection in the clothing business. “They had a relative who was part-owner of Southern Tailoring, the big tailoring company down here that made nice suits and things like that,” says Deano. “So that’s where they got all the nice outfits from.”
If there was someone in the family to help with their clothing, there were also friends to help with their repertoire. Paul Barbarin, the noted Creole drummer and songwriter, decided these young guys were going places, so he gave them a couple of his songs, which he urged them to record.
That’s how the Dukes became the first to put “Bourbon Street Parade,” a Barbarin original, on record, in 1951. It was for a small local label, but it wasn’t long before the Dukes were signed for bigger things. They ended up with contracts with companies like Decca and Columbia and, most significantly, the small-but-influential Audiophile label.
By 1955, “The Duchess” Betty was pregnant with her first child, so she was replaced by another Assunto. Papa Jac left his teaching job to join his sons on the bandstand. He remained with and recorded with the band for the rest of its days. Betty still appeared sporadically but her primary role now was as wife and mother.
These years were the beginning of a strenuous regimen that kept the band on the road roughly two-thirds of the time. Like another hometown boy, Louis Prima, the Dukes hit it big when they played Las Vegas, so Frank and Freddie both moved there with their families in 1956.
That same year, the head of Audiophile Records, Sidney Frey, was in Las Vegas on a special mission. He was anxious to get a jump on the bigger companies in putting out the first stereo recordings. While searching for the right kind of group, he happened on the Dukes. The rest is history.
The Dukes became the first jazz band to record in stereo and the first to record in hi-fi. Eventually, they sold over one-million albums for the Audio Fidelity label. Frey knew almost from the start that he had struck gold with the Dukes. In New York in 1959, he publicly presented them a check for $100,000 as an advance against future royalties.
It was around this time that the Dukes standardized a couple of the practices that led die-hard jazz fans to question whether musicianship or showmanship was at the top of their agenda. When they signed a big contract with Audiophile, the band’s manager, Joe Delaney, felt they needed to start looking special. According to Deano, Delaney told them: “We got to make ourselves flashy. Let’s do something out of the norm.” That led to some highly stylized band uniforms.
And it was Sidney Frey, according to Deano, who played a major role in establishing the kind of music the Dukes would play. “My father did not trust Sid Frey,” says Deano. “For some reason he just didn’t trust him…They raised their asking price and Sid Frey said he’d pay it. My father says—and I have proof of this next statement—he says, ‘Well, he’ll pay us all that money. He wants us to dress like that. We’ll dress like that. We’re just going to oom-pah-pah to death.’”
They did not, however, stick to “oom-pah-pah” and, in the end, recorded not only regular pop hits but even a few Beatles numbers—this despite the fact that, as Deano put it, “Once the Beatles came in the early ‘60s, it really put a hit on Dixieland jazz, on jazz in general.”
The Dukes were getting a lot of work in Chicago and the Assunto families moved to that part of the country. That’s where they were when the first tragedy struck. “We were living in Niles, Illinois; they were in Glenview,” Freddie’s daughter Jan recalls. “This was ‘65 and he would just lay on the couch and we knew something was up…That wasn’t my Dad. He never had two feet on the ground at the same time…So we moved back to Las Vegas and the doctors said he had cancer…It was a hard, hard time. Changed everything for my Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was never Uncle Frank again.”
“It just ate at him,” Deano said. “For eight years [until his own death] my father did the best he could to help the family, keep us going…help Jan’s family…but it just ate away at him that his brother was dead.”
Of their many recordings, the best arguably are from sessions they did with Louis Armstrong in Chicago and New York in 1959 and 1960, available today in a three-CD import entitled The Complete Louis Armstrong and the Dukes of Dixieland. These may not be the best records that Armstrong ever made, but they may very well be the best recorded.
In the first liner notes, jazz and social critic Nat Hentoff wrote, “It seems to me that on this album, Louis Armstrong, acting as a catalyst, fused the Dukes into as cohesive a unity as they’ve ever achieved on record.”
In an interview he did in 1967, Frank Assunto said, “Traditional jazz, in my estimation, can only be played by people who are old enough to have lived it…We’re not really a traditional band by any means. We’re what I call a New Orleans-oriented jazz band. I tell a new guy in the band, ‘Look, man, I hired you to play your horn. You figure out what the heck to play…This is a jazz band. It’s not a prison. So have a ball. Play good, that’s all.’”
“The reign of the Dukes of Dixieland died the day before Mardi Gras in 1974, with the death of Frank Assunto. And that’s the way the Assunto family lives it,” says Deano in his role as family historian. “We celebrate their life, though. We celebrate because they left a very rich legacy. For all of us kids. And for the nation.”
Today, Frank, Freddie, Betty and Papa Jac Assunto are all buried in the same plot together at Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.