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Don Suhor: From Dixieland to Bopsieland

Charles Suhor By

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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 modern—George 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 Don—how 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.

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