Monday, October 22, 2007

Walking with Legends

Walking with Legends: Barry Martyn’s Jazz Odyssey
Edited by Mick Burns
LSU Press

As interviewer and subject, Mick Burns and Barry Martyn made a good match. Both were Englishmen and traditional jazz musicians whose love of authentic New Orleans style jazz kept luring them back to the Crescent City. Sadly, Walking with Legends, the resulting book culled from a series of conversational interviews with Martyn, would be Burns’ final book, having passed away in February of this year.

Martyn’s story is in some ways familiar—that of the outsider who is adopted by the venerable surviving musicians of New Orleans jazz history, bearing some similarities to Tom Sancton’s story of coming of age while a student of George Lewis. Martyn however, had professional experience as a musician in his native England before meeting his NOLA heroes. Again, his experience of American jazz statesmen was by and large quite welcoming. Even fresh off the boat in New York, he remembers cold calling the hospitable Zutty Singleton:

“I told him my name and that I was a drummer from England. He said, ‘You here in New York? Come on over.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. You must be mistaking me for somebody else. I don’t actually know you.’ He said, ‘Well, how am I going to know you if you don’t come on over?’” (p. 18)

In New Orleans, he continued to find the jazz greats to be welcoming and accepting, at least as far as segregation would allow. Martyn would actually make history and get some ugly phone calls for being the first white member of the African-American musicians local. New Orleans had long attracted European acolytes like Martyn and the Swedish Lars Edegran. The trend would become even more pronounced when Martyn returned for good in 1985, leading him to quip: “There were a lot more European musicians, especially English. They all stuck together; it was like the Raj.” (p. 122)

Burns shapes Martyn’s words into a very entertaining narrative, well capturing his humor. In addition to legitimate laughs, the book, though short, is chocked full of fascinating details you will not find elsewhere. Who knew British Trad man Ken Colyer was a conservative? According to Martyn:

“Contrary to what most people think, he was very right-wing, politically; he was dead against trade unions. One of his great heroes was General George S. Patton. I had quite a few things in common with him, but I liked him more as a man than as a musician.” (p. 83)

Ironically, Martyn essentially produced clarinetist Barney Bigard’s With Louis and the Duke in largely the same fashion Walking was produced, serving as the Mick Burns for the Ellington and Armstrong sideman. Mr. Burns sent me a very nice email when I reviewed his book on New Orleans Brass Bands, Keeping the Beat on the Street, which I still recommend as an excellent resource on the NOLA brass band scene. He organized a number of fundraising concerts for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. His connecting material in Walking is often quite witty. As a writer and advocate for the music he will be missed, but his collaboration with Martyn is a lovely little coda on his career. It is a very entertaining read.