A Conversation with Vic Hobson

Creating Jazz Counterpoint: New Orleans, Barbershop Harmony, and the Blues by Vic Hobson is a comprehensive study of  early jazzmen Buddy Bolden and Bunk Johnson confirming their rightful place as pioneers of New Orleans jazz. This newest volume in UPM’s American Made Music Series relies on oral histories and unpublished archival material to describe the music of the early years of New Orleans jazz.

Below, Hobson expounds on his interest in early jazz, difficulties in performing research while being based in the UK, and solving some historical mysteries surrounding early jazz. 

What got you interested in New Orleans jazz?

I first heard New Orleans jazz listening to my father’s Louis Armstrong records as a child. But I can’t say that at the time that they were the main influence. I was part of the rock and roll generation. I learned to play guitar, and could play a handful of Chuck Berry licks. There was quite a blues scene in the UK when I was young, so that what really got me into music.

In later years I started taking an interest in jazz, and I had switched to playing bass. What really intrigued me was that the blues was a part of jazz too. The more I tried to understand the relationship the more I realized that nobody knew the origin of the blues and how these two types of blues related.  Given the importance of the blues to twentieth century music making, it seemed that this should be possible to find out.

My chance came in mid-life when I studied for a PhD at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK. The more I looked into it, the more I found that the earliest evidence of the blues came from New Orleans. This raised further questions: how did New Orleans jazz musicians learn the blues? How was this related to the ability of New Orleans jazz musicians to improvise collectively and produce what has been called “Jazz Counterpoint?” So it was my interest in the blues that led me to New Orleans jazz.

Did being based in the UK make it difficult to write this book?

I couldn't have written this book without time spent in the United States, but mainstream music education has changed significantly in the UK over the last fifteen years or so, and the jazz research environment is improving.

When I first began studying at the UEA there was no jazz as part of the curriculum. By the time I left (having taught there for a couple of years) jazz was on offer to all of the students. I established a jazz archive at the UEA (mostly books and magazines) as an outreach partner of the National Jazz Archive. The National Jazz Archive recently received considerable funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to make the materials accessible, so it’s getting easier to study jazz in the UK, but we have a long way to go to catch up with jazz education in the States.

So how much time have you spent in the States working on the book?

Bruce Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive in New Orleans, suggested that I spend some time in New Orleans in the archive looking at the oral history files that they had of interviews with New Orleans jazzmen. So as New Orleans struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina I made my first trip to New Orleans. I tried as far as possible to spend a month or so every year in New Orleans. These visits also introduced me to Lynn Abbott who has written extensively on the blues and barbershop. On my way back from my first trip to New Orleans I met up with Lewis Porter, who runs the Masters Program in Jazz Studies at Rutgers. This led to me writing an article “New Orleans Jazz and the Blues” for Jazz Perspectives, which made it possible for me to establish some of the historical background for the book.

Following that, I received a scholarship to the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. The Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has the Alan Lomax collection that includes all his notes and recordings of field trips through the southern states recording bluesmen, as well as his interviews with New Orleans piano player Jelly Roll Morton. It was a very useful five months.

This was followed up with a Dianna Woest Fellowship to the Historic New Orleans Collection (2009). They had recently acquired the personal archive of Frederic Ramsey Jr., who had been the principal editor of Jazzmen (1939). This book was one of the first American books on jazz and established New Orleans at the center of the development of jazz. Ramsey had also spent much of his life working on a book about Buddy Bolden, the legendary “first man of jazz.” This book had not been published, so I had access to all his research materials, as well as the original interview notes from Jazzmen.

Did your access to the archival materials enable you to resolve in the book any of the historical questions around early jazz?

Yes, I think my book does resolve a number of questions. I am reasonably confident that a number of the myths about Buddy Bolden can now be resolved. There is only one surviving photograph of Bolden and his band that first was published in Jazzmen, and this photo has given researchers quite a bit of fun over the years trying to figure out why some of the musicians are posing as left-handed; some have seen ghostly imprints of other instruments; others have suggested that the picture is a photo-montage. Having had access to the original Jazzmen notes it seems that the photo is a “tin-type.” The technology was already a bit dated by the turn of the century, but it was still in use. The legend of Buddy Bolden also tells of how Bolden’s last gig was on Labor Day 1906. Newspaper reports of the event say that an African American musician died of heat exhaustion on the 1906 Labor Day parade.

None of this, of course, would matter very much were it not for Bolden’s legendary status as the first man of jazz. The book does confirm why Bolden has been seen as the first man of jazz and also explores how he and other New Orleans musicians transformed the vocal practice of barbershop quartet harmonization to their instruments to produce blues inflected jazz. Critical to this is the role of Bunk Johnson in the early years of jazz. Bunk first came to prominence with the publication of Jazzmen. He claimed to have started jazz in New Orleans with Buddy Bolden. His claim to have played with Bolden has been hotly disputed. In fact, the original Jazzmen interviews confirm that he played regularly with Bolden.  This has profound implications for his recorded legacy in which he tried to describe musically the early years of jazz in New Orleans.

So does your book explore the early years of the music itself?

It seems to me that very often jazz researchers either engage with historical research or they engage with musicological research. Because jazz counterpoint and the tonality of the blues derived from the social practice of barbershop harmonization, I found it necessary to combine both history and music theory to explore the origins of New Orleans jazz. I was very conscious, of course, that not everyone is musically literate. What I have tried to do in the book, is to present the musicology in a way that if the reader gets the gist (rather than the detail) of what is being said then they can still follow the argument. It should be said that a good number of New Orleans musicians were not that familiar themselves with music theory, and it wasn’t an impediment to them playing the music. 

Readers who have a similar limited background in music theory will find the book accessible as well. For those readers who are interested in the musicology, I hope that an understanding of barbershop harmony and its application to the instruments of a jazz ensemble will provide a useful theoretical basis for further research around the development of jazz more broadly.