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Don Suhor: From Dixieland to Bopsieland

Charles Suhor By

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Shortly after, Don told me—no, announced—that 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.


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