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Storyville Records: A Treasure Trove of Swinging Jazz

Storyville Records: A Treasure Trove of Swinging Jazz
Chris May By

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Since its foundation during the European revivalist movement of the early 1950s, Copenhagen-based Storyville Records has grown into a major repository of New Orleans, big band and mainstream recordings. With something approaching 600 releases in its back catalogue, the label is a treasure trove of jazz that swings.

Founded in 1952 by Danish jazz fan Karl Emil Knudsen, Storyville's original mission was simply to reissue US recordings for Scandinavian revivalist fans, though within a year it was also recording British and Danish revivalist bands and was soon to extend its A&R policy beyond New Orleans and its echoes.

Despite a predilection for funny hats, fancy dress and beery bonhomie, Europe's revivalists were a passionate community, made up of musicians and audiences who believed that they, and they alone, had the hotline to authentic jazz. Big bands were anathema; bop was obscene; and the French critic Hughes Panassie—whose dogmatic adherence to "real" jazz led him to count the indifferent Mezz Mezzrow as a greater clarinetist than Benny Goodman—was the not so secret eminence grise. The expression "tunnel vision" could have been invented for Panassie and his flock.

The most monomaniacal of Britain's revivalists was the trumpeter Ken Colyer, the first bandleader to be recorded by Storyville. In 1951, Colyer signed on as a cook with a British merchant ship, with the purpose of staying ashore when it berthed in Mobile, Alabama and visiting New Orleans. He succeeded in reaching the city and playing with his heroes. Overstaying his visa, Colyer was jailed and deported back to Britain, where he arrived in early 1953—by virtue of his New Orleans pilgrimage now a hero himself. (The religious fervor which Colyer invested in his relationship with New Orleans jazz continued to be felt in Europe through the decade. In 1960, revivalist fans at Britain's Beaulieu Jazz Festival actually fought a pitched battle with modernists in the grounds of the stately home which hosted the event. Colyer himself kept the faith until his death in 1988).

Colyer's band recorded for Storyville during a visit to Copenhagen in 1953. In the few next years, practically every European revivalist band of note was recorded by the label and/or played at the Storyville club. The only notable omission seems to have been the band led by trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton. Many of these recordings are available today in Storyville's engrossing 15-CD series The Golden Years Of Revival Jazz. Like fading snapshots, long removed from their cultural context, the tracks speak of another age, but the passage of time hasn't diminished the crusading enthusiasm with which they were made.

Knudsen's bigger vision: beyond revivalism

That Storyville outgrew its parochial, revivalist roots—to embrace artists ranging from trumpeters Colyer and Louis Armstrong to saxophonists Ben Webster, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, and pianist Duke Ellington's band—is to a large extent due to the determination and wide open ears of Knudsen, who helmed the label until his death in 2003.

Knudsen had a sure touch with revivalist signings—trombonist Papa Bue's Viking Jazz Band sold millions for Storyville in its early years—but unlike the stereotypical revivalist, he loved a broad spectrum of jazz. Towards the end of the 1950s, for instance, Storyville acquired the European rights to the US label Roulette, then riding high with a slew of big selling mainstream recordings such as pianist and bandleader Count Basie's The Atomic Mr Basie (1957). Profits have always been precarious in the jazz business, but under Knudsen's stewardship, and with his wide ranging A&R policy, Storyville early on achieved a degree of financial stability that has eluded most other independent European labels.

In 2005, Editions Wilhelm Hansen, a long established Danish publishing company and part of the Music Sales Group, acquired Storyville from Knudsen's family. Anders Stefansen, who worked at Storyville in the 1950s and returned there in 1992, and Mona Granager, who joined in 1976, continue to manage the label.

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