This article first appeared in the 2016 issue of The Jazz Archivist.
My brother, Don Suhor
, played clarinet and alto sax in a stunning variety of jazz contexts for over fifty-five yearsalmost exclusively in New Orleans
. I always felt frustrated by my brother's lack of concern with legacy. He made a few recordings as a sideman, none of which displayed the range and the uniqueness of his talents. Some of his best work is preserved on tape at a few private sessions, which he was reluctant to attend. Guitarist John Eubanks once commented, "You know how hard it is to get Don into a recording studio."
His career just about defined "low profile." But as bassist Bill Huntington said, "Other musicians knew what a great player he was." Historian/clarinetist Thomas Jacobsen wrote, "He was one of the most respected musicians in the city among his peers... a musician's musician." Trombonist Al Hermann counted him "among the top three or four clarinet players of all time." Vocalist Thais Clark said, "Don Suhor, my man. Anything that I wanted to do when it came to jazz, Don knew." When Don was terminally ill late in 2002, a benefit jam session at Palm Court Cafe organized with a week's notice drew over 250 musicians and friends "We had an amazing response," said Palm Court proprietor Nina Buck. "It was packed. Don was too sick to attend, but at least he knew we did it for him."
If I had been less pious as a jazz journalist, Don might have been a more familiar name in the national jazz community. While chronicling local gigs and tidbits of information for the twice-monthly issues of Down Beat during the 1960s, I didn't want to be nepotistic, so I mentioned Don sparingly. In my 2001 book on postwar jazz in New Orleans, I placed him in context as one of the musicians who advanced modern jazz in the city. In this article I'll trace his rich background of extensive performance in Dixieland, swing, and modern jazz settings and his development of a personal style that assimilated various influences.
Ninth Ward Beginnings
Born August 30, 1932, Donald John Suhor was the third in a family of five children of Anthony Suhor, an accountant, and Marie Porte Suhor, an elementary school teacher. Both were first generation Americans, raised in the Ninth Ward. They married in 1927 and settled in the upper Ninth at 1310 Bartholomew Street. Anthony was the fourth of five children of Antun Suhor, a Craotia-born seaman, and French-American Marie Hondareyte. Had Antun not died at sea at age forty-two, his family would have grown wealthy on his abundant salary as a bar pilot. Marie lived as a young girl with her French parents and two siblings in a house on Douglass Street in the lower Ninth, where they raised chickens and cows. Marie had a natural ear for music. Unable to afford a piano, her parents got permission for her to practice next door at the now-famed Steamboat House on Egania Street. Sunday living room music sessions at our home resembled a Norman Rockwell scene: Anthony struggling mightily to read sheet music on a C-melody sax as Marie played in a lilting manner commonly called "school teacher piano."
Don took up clarinet in 1944 when Marie insisted that he and the two youngest children, Jane and I, should "get some sort of musical education." I grudgingly chose piano, as did Jane. Neither of us had a taste for scales and key signatures, so we soon cried our way out of it. Don chose clarinet because he had heard Artie Shaw on the Swing Era records that our older siblings, Mary Lou and Ben, had bought, and he thought Shaw looked handsome playing the instrument.
Don took beginners' group classes at Werlein's Music Store under Johnny Wiggs, the noted Bixian cornetist and co-founder of the New Orleans Jazz Club. Don's immediate enthusiasm led to serious study with Emanuel Alessandra, oboist with the New Orleans Symphony. He was stimulated by the classical approach, even gamely reciting traditional solfeggio exercises required by the oboist. Pete Fountain also studied with Alessandra. He and Don were among those who entered a Benny Goodman search for the city's most promising young clarinetist when Goodman came to town to play with the New Orleans Symphony at Municipal Auditorium in 1947. The finalists were Don, age fourteen, and nineteen year-old Don Lasday, who later became a versatile reedman and teacher in the city. Lasday played a bluesy improvisation. Don won the Goodman trophy playing, ironically, two memorized Artie Shaw solos from Gramercy Five recordings, rendered with flawless control of feeling and inflection.
Shortly after, Don told meno, announcedthat he was going to learn how to "fake" and "jam," explaining that faking was playing a melody by ear, and jamming was "taking a ride," improvising an original solo based on a song. He dug in with gusto, woodshedding alone or playing along with jazz records. Shaw, Benny Goodman, and local great Irving Fazola were his earliest influences, followed by Buddy DeFranco. His record collection also included Hank D'Amico, Peanuts Hucko, Jimmy Noone, Barney Bigard, Arne Domnerus, and Jimmy Hamilton. He also deeply respected locals Lester Bouchon, Sharkey Bonano's clarinetist, and the ever-expressive Raymond Burke.
At Nicholls High School, 1946-1950, Don was encouraged by the gentle band director/cornetist Charlie Wagner, who once played across the street from Bix in Chicago. Wagner enjoyed talking to Don and fellow clarinetist Paul Vicari, trumpeter Jack Barratini, and other jazz-oriented students about the music and its history. (Barratini (later, Jay Barry) led a jazz and dance combo on weekends with Vicari at a popular neighborhood bar, the Harmony Inn on North Claiborne and Piety. The Harmony, though segregated for white patrons only, featured traditional black bands over the years led by trumpeters Willie Pajaud, Kid Sheik Colar, and others.)
Charlie Wagner was generously permissive in relation to jazz. During marching band practice for football season, Don would occasionally improvise contrapuntally during the trio sections of marches, with Wagner's tacit approval. While the dance band was on break at school events, Wagner sometimes played piano with a breakout group of students who could fake and jam.
Don led a combo at weekend dances at teen venues like the Woodmen of the World (W.O.W.) Hall on Almonaster Street (a block from Luthjen's). They played Hit Parade favorites, popular standards, and songs from the Dixieland repertoire. Don also taught them some infrequently heard jazz tunes like Art Hodes
' mournful blues, "Clark and Randolph" (named for a street corner in Chicago noted as a jazz club site) and the Bob Crosby Bobcats' novelty song, "Don't Call me Boy," engagingly sung by trumpeter Paul Emenes. I plugged Don's group in 1948 as a guest on Roger Wolfe's popular weekly "Dixieland Jazz" radio show on WDSU.
Don also gigged with solid young Irish Channel musicians like trumpeter Al McCrossen, tenor saxophonist/pianist Johnny McGhee, and the Assunto brothers. As with the Nicholls players, the level of talent was uneven. Don told me about an amiable channel guitarist named "Toots," who knew only a handful of songs but would strum away, casually playing wrong chords, often utterly lost. Don's solution on tunes like "Sweet Georgia Brown" was to set a challenge for himself. During his jazz chorus he would visualize the song's structure and chord sequences, regardless of the chaotic background din, and just stop playing when his chorus ended.
At age sixteen, Don sat in with Sharkey Bonano's band at one of their Sunday sessions in a side ballroom of Municipal Auditorium. He worked steadily on weekends with veteran trumpeter Stuart Bergen ("Red Hott") and frequently with alto saxophonist Joe Helwick and trumpeter Dutch Andrus. Bergen was especially fond of "Lil' Donnie" and brought him to jam at New Orleans Jazz Club meetings.
I was three years Don's junior, the awed kid brother, caught up in the local postwar jazz revival, proud of my collection of 78s of Bunk, Louis, Bix, the Bobcats, Wild Bill, and others. On Saturdays I would hang out at Harvey and Orin Blackstone's New Orleans Record Shop on Baronne Street near Perdido. I talked Don into playing along with records in a booth, but he was reticent about sitting in at the occasional Saturday jam sessions in the back room with Johnny Wiggs, newcomer George Girard, Raymond Burke, drummers Freddie King and Gilbert Erskine, and others.
Don was a natural teacher. Neither he nor I knew the meaning of the word "mentor," but over our teen years he mentored me in informal talks about jazz genres, styles, and history, with regular reference to local players and our expanding record collection. Some of his insights might have come from talks with Charlie Wagner and magazines like Metronome, Down Beat, and Band Leaders, and from my collection, Jazz Record and Record Changer. But his understanding of the music grew in a large part from his inquiring mind and keen intuitions.
Don persuaded me to accompany his front-room solo jams. At first I used coat-hanger sticks, cardboard boxes, a pot cover cymbal, and a small stepstool for a woodblock. I was strongly attracted to Baby Dodds
and George Wettling, who were sensitive colorists as well as great timekeepers. Later on, I bought a second-hand drum set from Phil Zito. Don learned dozens of standard tunes from Goodman and Shaw's combo records. Inspired by Goodman, he tested himselfand mewith breakneck tempos on tunes like "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise."
Don took up alto sax in his late high school years and was soon playing in local dance bands. He chose alto sax rather than tenor because he liked the bright sound of the instrument in big band sax sections, especially Les Robinson with Artie Shaw
. But he became enamored of a radically different sound when he heard the dauntingly complex early recordings of Lee Konitz
and the Lennie Tristano
school. Jamming in our living room, I could almost see the wheels of his mind turning as he wove out long, complex solo lines. On clarinet, he raised the bar by playing tunes like "I've Got Rhythm" in the standard key then moving up a half step to improvise in every key.
Self-taught on piano, Don learned chord progressions and played energetic solos. Session players in the Quarter welcomed his backup because of his attention to well-voiced chords and hip comping. Alto saxophonist Mouse Bonati and trumpeter Mike Serpas were also excellent accompanists. Not being trained as keyboard technicians, they refrained from overly busy pianistics, concentrating on spare, laid-back comping.
College Years, the Quarter, and the Army
Don enrolled in the Loyola Music School in 1950. As a freshman he played third alto in the big band amid veteran musicians. Veterans, literally. Many were Swing Era ex-servicemen studying under the GI Bill of Rights. The band, directed by John Whitlock, was a non-credit activity but it carried a modest scholarship and was officially sanctioned by the administration. Not that the administration was ahead of the curve in jazz education; the band was the heart of a student recruitment and campus entertainment troupe called "Campus Capers"a lighthearted name that signaled a less than serious musical intent.
But the Capers band had a solid lineage. They were descendants of the Loyola Moods, a fine postwar student band with skilled swing and modern jazz musicians, among them trumpeters Woody Guidry, Rupert Copponex, Bill Scarlato, and Louis Escobido (also a jazz vibraphonist); trombonist Larry Valentino; saxists Al Belletto, Frank Manino (later, Frankie Mann) and Jack Day; pianist Fred Crane; bassist Oliver ("Stick") Felix; drummer Louis Timken; and arrangers Jack Martin, Jack Day, and Clem Toca.
John Whitlock, ran afoul of the administration by giving most of his energies and time to the Capers group, allowing the concert band to devolve into an unlistenable aggregate of unmotivated students. The Capers band performed for student dances, campus variety shows, recruitment programs, and non-profit organizations and played a fifteen-minute Saturday radio show on the university-owned radio station, WWL. The administration feared that the band's visibility was resulting in the music program being labeled a "jazz school"still a highly negative label in Academe, and a particular danger in the city known for its jazz history.
Whitlock resigned in summer of 1952. I entered Loyola in the fall semester and began four years with the Capers group and the concert band. The latter was given new life by the passionately dedicated George Jansen, trumpeter with the New Orleans Symphony. Paul Guma, Don's highly respected clarinet teacher, took over the Capers band. A fine classical and jazz clarinetist in the Goodman mold, Guma was also an excellent lead alto saxophonist and gifted classical guitarist. But the next year a student director, Nicholls High alumnus Paul Emenes, was assigned to lead the group. Regrettably, Don and most of the other jazz players had graduated or dropped out. A dozen years would pass before the directorship was established as an official faculty position.
Don was edged toward modern jazz by fellow students like pianist Fred Crane, bassists Herbie Hollman and Oliver ("Stick") Felix, and trumpeters Mike ("Black Mike") Lala and Jerry St. Amand. The music school occupied a lovely old three-story house on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and State Street. The practice rooms in the basement were the site of floating jam sessions by the young modernists, much to the consternation of the old Belgian dean, Ernest Schuyten. "It was frowned upon," Don recalled at a 1998 symposium, "The dean would come down and say, 'vot ees dees booogie voogie!' like an old Hollywood movie." 14 Some of the Loyolans gravitated toward the French Quarter, where be-bop was being explored by young modernists at strip joints, out-of-the way clubs, and after hours session sites.
During those sessions, Don's conception on alto shifted from Konitz's ethereal style to straight be-bop. The superb alto saxophonist Joseph "Mouse" Bonati, recently arrived from Buffalo, New York, became his idol, along with, inevitably, Charlie Parker. Don became a hard-swinging bopper among the pioneering modernists who were nowhere on the radar of the press or the general public.
Concurrently, a coterie of black New Orleans innovators was forging ahead brilliantly, but for the most part, separately. The most exciting group was the American Jazz Quintet (AJQ) composed of Harold Battiste (later, Nat Perrilliat), tenor sax; Alvin Batiste
, clarinet; Ed Frank (later, Ellis Marsalis
), piano; Chuck Badie (later, Richard Payne), bass; Edward Blackwell, drums. Despite state and local segregation laws that prevented integrated performances, white musicians heard black jazzmen regularly in white-clientele clubs like the Texas Lounge on Canal Street, where Don and I first heard drummer Earl Palmer. Furthermore, Don, Bill Huntington and I attended American Jazz Quintet concerts at black venues like Hayes Chicken Shack (in 1960, Vernon's). But the converse was not true. Blacks were not welcomed by owners of the clubs where we played. Despite all, musicians like Al Belletto, Benny Clement, and Earl Palmer played at interracial sessions, and sometimes they were arrested.
Don's clarinet style had already come under the influence of Buddy DeFranco
. His continued work with Dixieland groups prompted the development of a full-blown "bopsieland" style, making adaptive use of his prodigious technique in numerous Dixieland settings.The term "bopsieland" merits explanation. A Google search of the term yielded fewer than seventy pertinent hits. It was used most often in the 1950s to refer to modern jazz ensembles in which one or more horns played contrapuntal lines around a lead instrument, or played freely in all-out group improvisation (e.g., the Gerry Mulligan
and Chet Baker
quartet). The term also applies to soloists who bring modern jazz harmonies, phrasing, rhythmic complexity, and instrumental techniques to some degree into Dixieland settings. Among the modernists who have done this effectively in New Orleans were trumpeters Wendell Brunious, Leroy Jones, and Herb Tassin, clarinetists Don Suhor and Tony Mitchell, trombonist Joe Prejean, bassists Chuck Badie, Jay Cave, and Bill Huntington, pianists Fred Crane, Ellis Marsalis, and John Probst, and drummers Bob French, Ernie Elly and Reed Vaughan.
Don's after-hours jazz activities had long been a source of anxiety for our strict Catholic parents, who had originally encouraged music as a respectable hobby. They connected his dedication to jazz, rightly in part, to his lack of enthusiasm for academics. In high school his grades fell below their standard of near-perfection. At Loyola he quickly grew tired of the liberal arts courses required for the BME (Bachelor of Music Education) degree and switched to the Bachelor of Music, finally ratcheting down to the non-degree status of Certificate Student.
But volatile conflicts had begun in Don's early adolescence, when he wanted to move from a beginner's metal clarinet to a Selmer wood clarinet. Our parents noted the expense and wondered: would he stick with it? He did, then fought for permission to play around town for teen dances. All right, but our parents insisted that there be no night clubs gigs and no drinking. Later, night clubs were permitted but not in the Quarter. Well, the Quarter, perhaps, but Bourbon Street and strip clubs were out of the question. I benefited from Don's string of rebellions. As I began playing, the distressing scenes were over, the victories were won. I freely entered dubious environments at an earlier age and more guardedly than Don. We both benefited from the police department's lack of concern about underage drinking. The going joke was, if you were tall enough to reach up and put the price of a beer on a bar, you'd be served.
The parental angst wasn't just a prudish imposition of Catholic values. The Quarter was transparently riddled with viceB-drinking, prostitution, gambling, violence, bribery, drugs, and organized crime. Don's youthful good looks and the passionate energy of his music provided ample opportunities for what one writer called "the more delectable form of sin." Drugs were a particular problem, nationally and locally, in the jazz world. Modern jazz icons like Charlie Parker
, Bud Powell
, Red Rodney
, Stan Getz
, Sonny Rollins
, and Gerry Mulligan were known to be addicts, and many admirers mistakenly thought that heroin was what gave a creative edge to their playing. Don's friend, Donald Guidry, a talented tenor saxophonist, died of a drug overdose. Several others in the local bebop coterie were seriously addicted.
Don was a moderate user, taking "uppers" and "downers" to stay alert and go to sleep, according to the needs of his erratic hours. Beer and Scotch were the chasers. Marijuana, then regarded as hugely harmful, was ubiquitous among musicians. Don was no stranger to pot, but an after-hours incident put his attitude towards drugs and booze in perspective. We were playing a late jam session in about 1956. The bar owner decided to close. Relentless, we moved to another venue, drums and all. Amid the heavy odor of weed, someone kicked off "Strike Up the Band" at a fast clip. I recall Chick Power taking several choruses, then Don stepping up on alto sax, his main instrument at the sessions. After a few bars he turned away, put his sax in the case, and sat down and listened for the rest of the session. He explained later that he had been smoking pot, and as he started his solo he imagined he was playing tenor sax so he started out in the wrong key. When it came to pot vs. his art, the latter won out.
Don was drafted into the post-Korea, peacetime Army in 1954 and stationed at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas (near Fort Smith). He was never an athlete but was physically fit and went through basic training without a hitch. While in band training, he and trombonist Kent Larsen (who subsequently was a longtime member of Stan Kenton
's band) played AWOL late night sessions at the Branding Iron, a Fort Smith club where they were welcomed by local drummer Arnie Peele and a fine pianist named C. J. (last name unknown). The latter had converted from Western Swing to a relaxed be-bop style in the manner of Hank Jones.
Some inexplicable delays occurred before Don was established as a bandsman. Dejected in the interim, he made woeful long distance collect calls, asking that we play his Parker and Konitz records. His service ended with a stretch at Fort Lee, Virginia. He moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived briefly as the stereotypical starving artist. He reported that he subsisted for a time on Cocomalt and crackers. But he had occasional gigs and was jamming with young pianist/vocalist Shirley Horn
, tenor saxophonist Buck Hill
, and others.
New Orleans Career, 1956-1999
Not surprisingly, Don couldn't find work as a modern jazzman when he returned from the Army in 1956 at age twenty-three. He recalled, "The only thing to play down here was Dixieland and strip shows," he recalled. "In order to keep my chops up on clarinet and alto, I chose strip shows." Grim as the local scene was, relocating or going on the road was never an option. I knew of offers that he rejected from the Dukes of Dixieland, Lou Sino, and the Disney World Dixieland band in Orlando. He was, quite simply, attached to the city and his family and not looking for a breakthrough to fame.
During the next forty-three years, Don played innumerable gigs. I'll briefly discuss six that reflect his musical range and the jazz culture of the times: the Dream Room, Prima's 500 Club, the Sho'Bar, the Famous Door, Crazy Shirley's and the Court of Two Sisters.
Don got an unexpected call in the summer of 1956 from Zonia Dill, an attractive accordionist, to play at the Dream Room, then a posh Bourbon Street nitery for listening and dancing. (I later heard Buddy Rich
and Jack Teagarden
there.) Zonia, who specialized in popular tunes and standards, had an unlikely aggregate of sidemen. The bassist was Chink Martin, born in 1886. Reed Vaughan, a premier young modernist at age nineteen, was on drums. The pianist was F. A. Cassanova, a well-rounded classical musician at Loyola with a light jazz touch. Possibly, Zonia's husband, a capable cocktail lounge vibraphonist, was on the band. A straight-ahead swing trumpeter (possibly, Jack Bachman) joined Don in the front line. It wasn't a promising outlook, but Don took the combination seriously. He taught the group head arrangements, signaled solo sequences, and called out chords to the rhythm section on less familiar tunes. Chink Martin played with accuracy and drive but couldn't believe that the drummer would be given solos on the bridges of last choruses, a practice unheard of in early jazz but common among modernists. The combo had unity because everyone was tuned into the musical essence, regardless of styles. And Don would go jamming after hours.
Two strip clubs were among Don's regular gigs in the years that followed. He was with trumpeter Tommy Yetta's pit band at Prima's 500 Club for seven years (1960 to 1967). Twenty-three Well-known strippers like Lily Christine (the Cat Girl), Kalantan (the Heavenly Body), and Alouette Leblanc (the Tassel Twirler) were deemed classy enough to draw sophisticated "slumming" audiences that wouldn't be seen at the sleazier strip joints. The band was ordinary fare, but Don was featured on clarinet during the Cat Girl's signature routines.
In the late sixties, Don led the pit band at the Sho'Bar. Like the 500 Club, the Sho'Bar aspired to appear a cut above the average strip club. In the fifties it had cultivated the brand of a conventionally risqué showplace, with comedian Lenny Gale and red-hot mamma vocalist Carrie Finnell, along with "exotic dancers." Don consciously cast his group in the longstanding local tradition of be-boppers backing up strip shows. The musicians doggedly ignored the drummer's thumping tom-toms, rim shots, and cymbal crashes that punctuated the strippers' bumps and grinds. Don played alto sax almost exclusively. His sidemen were seasoned modernists Bob Teeters, trumpet; Pete Monteleone, piano; and a succession of hard-working drummers that included Smokey Johnson and Joe Morton. All were well acquainted with the unison bop charts in the Parker/Gillespie tradition. Moody ballads like "Flamingo" filled the bill for sultry slow dances. When I heard Don with Santo Pecora's group at the Famous Door in the early seventies, I was surprised by the absence of a trumpeter in the front line. Santo, of course, was a pioneer trombonist with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, widely known in the postwar revival for his work with Sharkey Bonano. As a septuagenarian he played an extremely strong lead, with Don accompanying on alto or clarinet. Each soloed with aplomb and authority in their own style. No one told them this shouldn't work, so it did. Don returned to the Door later in the decade to work with trumpeter Thomas Jefferson.
Crazy Shirley's, located across the street from Maison Bourbon at the corner of St. Peter, was the home of George French's Storyville Jazz Band in the mid-seventies. This was "Dixieland" only if Dixieland is taken to mean "eclectic." Trombonist Freddie Lonzo was the only straight-ahead traditional jazzman. Ted Riley played a fiery, Eldridge-style trumpet that drove band's ensemble. Don was in full "bopsieland" mode, egged on by the rhythm section that was splendidly modernGeorge French on bass, his brother Bill on drums, and Ellis Marsalis or Emile Vinet on piano. Don played with a similar mix of modernists and traditionalists with bands led by banjoist Albert "Papa" French and onetime be-bop trumpeter Wendell Brunious. It was odd, but understandable, that Don, a bopper in Dixieland settings, was named in the "traditional" category in the 1997 New Orleans magazine selection of traditional and modern jazz all-stars.
During a twelve-year span with banjoist Amy Sharpe's trio at the Court of Two Sisters (1988-2002), Don took the group beyond the lunch crowd hits, bringing in longtime favorite Gramercy Five tunes, swing classics like "Seven Come Eleven," and standards like "Crazy Rhythm." Sharpe welcomed the expanded repertoire. "So much I could say about Donhow much I learned from him," Sharpe said. 26 Don appreciated that she had the gift, like Lawrence Marrero, of playing banjo without the nagging, percussive twang so often heard in revivalist bands. Veteran bassist Al Bernard added a solid rhythmic ground to the group.
Thanks to daytime work at the Court, Commander's Palace, and other venues, in some years Don worked more gigs than there were days in the year. He was free to play night gigs with pickup bands and pinch-hit for regular reedmen in groups led by Al Hirt
, Connie Jones, Ronnie Dupont, and others. After clarinetist Pud Brown died in 1996, Don joined the Friday night band at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe, a sympathetic environment for his style. The public brand of the Palm Court was Dixieland jazz, but I heard multi-genre players like the brilliant trumpeter Leroy Jones and versatile drummer Ernie Elly there. Don's ubiquity, though, did not translate into prosperity. Most jobs paid little more than union scale, and he was raising two teenagers during his busiest years. He had no long-range career goals. He simply wanted to improvise every time he went on a gig, regardless of the genre, venue, or personnel.
As noted earlier, Don's improvisation on clarinet initially favored Artie Shaw's well-sculpted solos, with an overlay of Benny Goodman's fiery, freewheeling energy. He appreciated pre-Dixieland players like George Lewis and Alphonse Picou but never came under the their thrall. On our family's first summer motor trip in 1948two adults and five teenagers in a '48 Fordhe played in the car for our entertainment. At my urging he did George Lewis solo on "Tishomingo Blues" but declined to repeat it because he didn't like straining for the traditional tone and vibrato.
During that time Don was constantly fixated on finding reeds that gave him the exact sound he wanteda jazz sound with a "legit" base, which he didn't see as a contradiction in terms. He went through boxes of Rico reeds in compulsive frustration. Thomas Jacobsen, longtime columnist for Clarinet magazine, notes that "the hunt for the 'right' reed is a well-known obsession with many clarinetists." 27 I retrospectively infer that Don's concern with tone was driven in part by his classical training with Emanuel Alessandra and the requirements of the concert bands in high school and at Loyola. He knew that Irving Fazola, Paul Guma, and Sal Franzellla played jazz with a tone approaching the European models, but I sensed that he was pursuing a more impassioned sound, a golden mean, a Holy Grail that he couldn't define. 28
Don took the role of clarinet in the ensemble seriously. The underrated Lester Bouchon with Sharkey's Kings of Dixieland was a fine local practitioner, harmonizing with or weaving contrapuntal lines around the trumpet lead. Don cultivated sensitive front line playing, first with his teenage band then working weekends regularly with various combos, most notably trumpeter Stuart Bergen ("Red Hott") around 1949-1950. This was a good laboratory situation, since Bergen played in earnest imitation of Armstrong and Bill Crais filled the traditional trombonist role splendidly.
At some point, Don simply outgrew his search for reeds that would give an ideal jazz/legit soundpossibly, when alto sax became his preferred instrument for be-bop sessions in the Quarter. But his fondness for alto sax didn't extend to playing in sax sections. After subbing with the excellent Lloyd Alexander big band, he would come home and say, "Yeah, it's really a good band. They play mostly specials [specially written arrangements rather than over-the-counter "stocks"], but you know, I didn't get much chance to play." By which he meant, to improvise, beyond the usual solo space given to the third alto chair. He continued to play occasional big band gigs. When he sightread Lionel Hampton's book at the 1980 Jazzfest, Reviewer Vincent Fumar wrote, "Another New Orleanian, Don Suhor, launched a flighty solo that displayed his best bebop style, and also romped with a series of extremely fast and tricky runs, marked buy squeals and a rich melodic sense."
Sometime in the 1970s, Don developed a more powerful clarinet soundincisive, but not shrill. He told me this had become necessary when amplified keyboards and electric basses grew more common in Dixieland groups. Crowd noises had long been a problem in bars, but ensemble playing over amplified rhythm was more demanding, in terms of sheer volume. Don was fond of the lower register, so admirably modeled by Raymond Burke, and he continued to make abundant use of it during solos on mike.
Two distinguishing qualities marked Don's mature style. On clarinet, he came to have a true New Orleans sound. That phrase has never been adequately defined, but we know it by its incarnations. Don's passionate, unmistakably personal vibrato and confidently projected timbres evoke recognition as a New Orleans musician. His unique sound, steeped in tradition, is seamlessly merged with fleet modern jazz lines.
Another mark of Don's originality was his way of incorporating notes above the normal range of the clarinet and alto sax into his solos. This skill wasn't employed as an attention-seeking gimmick."Showmanship," whether in the form of instrumental hotdogging or strained bodily contortions, was antithetical to his unassuming personality. The notes were simply there, like all others, accessible for unaffected use in melodic improvisation. His fellow musicians were stimulated by his bopsieland synthesis, with few exceptions. When he was subbing with one Dixieland group, the leader whispered nervously, "Think Faz, Don, think Faz!"
Late in 2002 Don, a lifelong smoker, was stricken with lung cancer. I drove to New Orleans from my Montgomery, Alabama, retirement home to be with him during the weeks of decline. I helped organize the January 13, 2002, benefit jam session at Palm Court Café. The last thing I heard at the end of the final set was a shout from the bandstand."We love you, Don!" He died two weeks later at the age of seventy.
Photo credit: Rick Olivier. From New Orleans Magazine 1997. Traditional Jazz All-Stars. Left to right: Eric Glaser, bass; Alvin Alcorn, trumpet; Tom McDermott, piano; Don Suhor, clarinet; Louis Cottrell, drums.