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Don Suhor: From Dixieland to Bopsieland

Charles Suhor By

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The parental angst wasn't just a prudish imposition of Catholic values. The Quarter was transparently riddled with vice—B-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.

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