Jazz:  New Orleans 1885-1963    (Samuel B. Charters)
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Jazz:  New Orleans 1885-1963    (Samuel B. Charters)
B1577. SAMUEL B. CHARTERS. Jazz: New Orleans 1885-1963 - Index to the Negro Musicians of New Orleans. New York, Oak Publications, 1963. 173pp.; Index; Photos. (Pictorial thick paper covers)


“An Index to the Black Musicians of New Orleans. This series was started because of a feeling that a market exists for books on the factual aspects of jazz and its recordings. Samuel Charters is an American music historian, writer, record producer, musician, and poet. He is a noted and widely published author on the subjects of blues and jazz music, as well as a writer of fiction. Charters first became enamored of blues music in 1937, after hearing Bessie Smith's version of Jimmy Cox's song, ‘Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out’. He moved with his family to Sacramento, California at the age of 15. Charters says that he was ‘playing clarinet, playing jazz steadily all this time; I had my first orchestra when I was thirteen . . . I had no natural abilities, but I soldiered on, and it was this that directly lead me to the beginning of the research’. After being kicked out of Harvard for political activism, he received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956.

In the 1940's and 1950's, though he was mostly immersed in in studying and playing jazz, Charters also purchased numerous old recordings of American blues musicians, eventually amassing a huge and valuable collection and beginning to understand that blues and jazz were connected in the history of black music. In 1951, at the age of 21, he moved to New Orleans, where he absorbed the history and culture he had previously only read about; he lived there for most of the 1950's, moving back and forth between Berkeley and New Orleans. He served for two years in the United States Army (1951–53) and began to study jazz clarinet with George Lewis.

Charters was always interested in politics and had wished to play a role in public life, but because he had run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee while in the Army in 1952, he decided that he would have to engage in politics without holding any sort of office. ‘For me, the writing about black music was my way of fighting racism. That's why my work is not academic, that is why it is absolutely nothing but popularization: I wanted people to hear black music, as I said in The Poetry of the Blues . . . It's where I say, you know, if by introducing music I can have somebody look across the racial divide and see a black face and see this person as a human being -- and that's why my work is unashamedly romantic’. Charters always thought of blues as containing within it a small and pure strain of folk poetry, something that ran through the lyrics of early artists such as Charley Patton or Blind Willie McTell, but which was lost in the later, more commercialized, blues. ‘I really got bored with all those damn guitar solos. To me, they all sounded like B.B. King, and what I really wanted to hear was great text . . .’ The poetry of the blues, then, Charters thought of as profound human cultural expression that could connect all people who love poetry.”

- Ned Ludd

“Samuel Charters was a prolific record producer, historian of jazz and ragtime, an early explorer of the terrain of world music, musician, poet and novelist, but he was best known as a pioneer writer on the blues. THE COUNTRY BLUES, published in 1959, was the first book-length study of the genre, and its vivid portraits of musicians such as Barbecue Bob and Leroy Carr fired the imagination of a generation of readers.

TOGETHER WITH BLUES FELL THIS MORNING (1960), a differently angled study by the British writer Paul Oliver, THE COUNTRY BLUES and the LPs that accompanied both books did much to create the interest in early blues that burst, in the mid-60s, into a full-scale blues revival. Lost figures of the blues’ past, including Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, were traced, and given the opportunity to make music again for a new audience. Charters had been there first, too, making a southern field trip in 1959 to record elderly blues artists such as Furry Lewis and Pink Anderson, and younger ones, among them Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Charters was born in Pittsburgh, son of Samuel Charters III and his wife, Lillian, and took up jazz clarinet in his early teens. The family, musical and middle-class, moved to California, where Samuel III worked as a railway engineer. Later Samuel IV would play guitar in folk groups such as the Orange Blossom Jug Five and the Blues Project. Making music led him to investigate it, and in 1951, after college and military service in Korea, he moved to New Orleans, where he spent much of the decade in research that would lead to Jazz: New Orleans (1963) and other books on jazz.

After the publication of THE COUNTRY BLUES he worked as a record producer for Prestige and Vanguard, recording both veterans and up-and-coming blues players. Many of the albums he produced have proved to be important documents and often the most sympathetic portraits of the musicians concerned. The 1965 Vanguard Records three-volume series CHICAGO / THE BLUES/TODAY! focused national attention for the first time on musicians such as Johnny Shines, Otis Rush and JB Hutto. He also produced albums by Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and by the psychedelic rock band Country Joe and the Fish.

He was now publishing steadily. After THE POETRY OF THE BLUES (1963), his bestseller, he looked again at THE COUNTRY BLUES and found it, as he told me, ‘purple, romantic, exaggerated … I would not defend many of the things I said there. It needed an overhaul’. He duly expanded it into two books, THE BLUESMEN (1967) and SWEET AS THE SHOWERS OF RAIN (1977). The latter was written in Sweden, to which, in despair at the politics of the Vietnam-era US, he had moved with his second wife, Ann, also a musician but better known as a scholar of ragtime, a professor of literature and an expert on the writers of the beat generation.

I met him in 1975, when he was promoting THE LEGACY OF THE BLUES, a set of 12 albums he produced for the Swedish-based Sonet label and an accompanying book. During a long conversation ranging over his career, he explained: ‘My books pretend to be scholarly analyses but none of them are. They’re all political tracts. Throughout all my books, I was attempting to make the black expression an alternative to the suffocating dead weight of white American culture’.

Sam’s ears were equally tuned to frequencies other than jazz and blues. In 1958 he made the first recordings of the Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence; in 1972 he took the first of several trips to southern Louisiana to record cajun and zydeco artists; and in 1974 he conducted an African journey that generated several albums and the book THE ROOTS OF THE BLUES: AN AFRICAN SEARCH (1981).

Charters had another life as a poet and novelist. In 1973, while on a visit to London, he bought a notebook, wrote poems about parts of the city and left them in boxes on window-sills, or attached to fences and doorways. Other work, more conventionally published, included several volumes of poetry, LOUISIANA BLACK: A NOVEL (1986) – about revenge for a lynching – and his last book, THE HARRY BRIGHT DANCES: A FABLE (2014), set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1950s.

In 2000 he and Ann donated their huge archive of recordings, photographs and papers to the University of Connecticut, where Ann had taught. He wrote little about blues in his last decade, but when interviewed for the BBC4 documentary BLUES AMERICA (2013) by its director, Mick Gold, he talked as genially and illuminatingly as ever, and as politically. ‘I’ve been on the streets fighting, and I wasn’t fighting so somebody could play a longer guitar solo, I was fighting so that somebody could express some criticism, a voice to comment on what’s happening in America today’.”

- The Guardian, 26 March, 2015