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Don Suhor: From Dixieland to Bopsieland

Charles Suhor By

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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.

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