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Don Suhor: From Dixieland to Bopsieland

Charles Suhor By

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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.

Stylistic Changes

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 1948—two adults and five teenagers in a '48 Ford—he 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 wanted—a 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 sound—possibly, 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 sound—incisive, 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.

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