“Man, if you got to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” This quote has been the bane of Al Rose’s life, for he believes it has given thousands of musicians – musicians of all sorts – free license to masquerade as jazzmen.
Al is a historian, artist, composer, critic, and jazz concert producer who has fought all of his adult life to preserve the purity of jazz. He scoffs at the “you’ll never know” line, which has been variously attributed to Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Fats Waller. During the course of his long association with jazz musicians, Al has had the opportunity to ask all of those men if they spoke this famous phrase. “Louis Armstrong told me, ‘There’s a lot of people asks me a lot of questions, but that’s not the kind of thing I’m subject to say,’” Al remembers with a smile. “Jelly Roll said, ‘That’s a serious question, and it deserves a serious answer.’ And Fats told me, ‘You know I wouldn’t talk snotty like that to no cash customer.’”
Al says it’s because so many people love jazz that there is such a bitter argument over what it really is, but his own definition of jazz is so precise that it leaves no gray area of uncertainty. It begins with the statement that jazz cannot be categorized by adjectives. There is no such thing as “New Orleans jazz” or “progressive jazz” or “traditional jazz,” he insists. There is jazz and there is music that isn’t jazz. That’s all.
Al’s credentials are in order, lest anyone doubt his right to his firm opinion as to the definition of jazz. After a lifetime of involvement in every conceivable jazz-related activity, he still serves as a consultant to the various New Orleans groups involved in the preservation of jazz, including the Jazz Archive at Tulane University and Tulane’s annual Hot Jazz Classic. He has just completed a biography of Storyville’s infamous black madame, Lulu White, and he’s at work on a novel set in New Orleans during the jazz age. He’s even working as a consultant to BBC on a television special being filmed on jazz in England.
Al – whose real name is Etienne Alfonse de la Rose Lascaux – was born in New Orleans in 1916, the scion of one of the oldest families in Louisiana. He was raised in the French Quarter just a stone’s throw from Storyville, the notorious red-light district whose history Al would grow up to chronicle in Storyville, New Orleans (University of Alabama Press, 1974).
As a child, Al heard the great jazz bands that frequently paraded through the city in those days, including the Tuxedo Brass Band and the Onward Brass Band. Then, Al says, jazz was “a necessity of life because it was a part of every human function in New Orleans.”
And then Al’s father invented a funny kind of confection he called cotton candy, and he purchased a carnival for touring the United States to promote his tasty new product. To attract audiences to his carnival, and thus to his newfangled cotton candy, Al’s father took along a jazz band from New Orleans. Such jazz greats as Baby Dodds and Bunk Johnson played in this band, and when they weren’t playing they helped keep an eye on young Al, who traveled with the carnival. “Baby Dodds was a very mild and quiet person,” Al recalls. “I liked him very much. He was the greatest jazz drummer of them all, and Bunk Johnson … well, he was Louis Armstrong’s tutor, so that should give you some indication of his talent.”
As an adult, Al has had three passions in life: the promotion of jazz, which he has brought to people throughout the world as a concert organizer, record producer, author, and media personality: socialism, which he has worked to establish as a labor organizer, political agitator, and bodyguard to Leon Trotsky; and art, whose mysteries he pursued under the tutelage of the great Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.
In the 1930s, Al began his career as a jazz concert producer, and five years later he met a young trumpet player who had been raised in the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans. During the 1940s Al would pay this jazzman but $200 a night for a performance, although in later years, of course, Louis Armstrong would command thousands for his appearances.
“Louis was a straightforward and serious musician of great humor and a sincere inclination to try to make everybody he was playing with look good,” Al recalls. “It was impossible to hear Louis and not respond emotionally to what he was playing, because of his musical and improvisational skills. I was very fond of him, and I consider him to be possibly the greatest creative artist of the 20th century in any medium.”
In 1938, Al met and came to know Jelly Roll Morton, though by that time Jelly Roll’s life already was disintegrating. “I had great admiration for his artistic integrity and the fact that he was the first jazz musician I ever knew who understood that jazz was an art form,” Al says of Jelly Roll. “He was the very heart of music.”
Perhaps Al Rose’s most enduring friendship with any musician was his lifelong association with Eubie Blake, though he did not consider Blake a jazzman. “Primarily Eubie was a solo artist,” he says, “and his roots were in the music that was played before jazz began, like ragtime.”
Al first met Eubie in 1937. “I was anxious to meet him before he died,” Al remembers with a chuckle. Eubie, of course, confounded the actuarial tables and lived to be 100, and the two men were close friends for almost half a century. Eubie always made the Rose residence his headquarters when visiting New Orleans, and, because of Al’s vast knowledge of musical history, he was one of the few people Blake could reminisce with about turn-of-the-century stage life. Al’s biography of Eubie was published in 1980 (Schirmer/MacMillan).
“Al Rose knows more about American popular music than anybody I ever met,” Eubie once said – a seal of approval he gave to no other musical scholar.
In his work as a concert organizer, Al knew not only the greats but the lesser-known jazzmen as well. In the 1960s he teamed up with Edmond Souchon of New Orleans to research and write the award-winning New Orleans Jazz: a Family Album, the definitive work now being prepared for its third edition by LSU Press. It chronicles the lives and careers of more than 1,000 talented jazz musicians like Johnny Wiggs, Santo Pecura, and Tom Brown, who are unknown outside of the jazz fraternity.
If all this isn’t enough to qualify Al to define jazz, he also has produced more than 100 jazz albums, including several produced to be given away as promotional items by the Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry. Those giveaways are extremely rare today, and they are highly sought after by collectors who know that Al Rose’s name on the label is a solid guarantee that the music is authentic jazz.
Al’s definition of jazz, a definition honed through years of friendship with jazzmen and years of scholarly research, is this: “Jazz,” Al says, “is two or more musical voices improvising collectively in 2/4 or 4/4 time on any known melody and ‘syncopating’ (playing with a delayed beat in order to create a sort of musical suspense). That, very simply, is the jazz form. All music, good or bad, played within this form is authentic jazz. All other music is already a part of some other existing, established form.” Al cautions that this definition does not include ragtime or blues, which he says are altogether separate musical forms.
Rose considers music now heard on Bourbon Street to be “jazzoid – memorized arrangements played in the manner of authentic jazz, but without true collective improvisation.”
Can authentic jazz be heard anywhere? “No,” says Al, “it’s dead. The music now being labeled jazz is a combination of the blues and modern European chamber music. It has no relation to authentic jazz.”
What killed jazz? “First,” Al says, “it was a victim of large record companies that created musical fads in order to sell records. It’s easier to produce large quantities of inferior art rather than great art, and the large record companies conditioned the public to accept trash. Second, our society itself has changed, and the need that real jazz filled in society has vanished. The concept of doing anything collectively has deteriorated to the point that today only the solo performance is valued.”
Al’s deep feelings for authentic jazz and the men who played it come through when he discusses it. “Man,” he says, “that was music!”
Pretty Bad, Baby!
The movie Pretty Baby caused a sensation when it was released in 1977, because it showed a young girl – Brooke Shields – in the nude. Al Rose characterizes the film as “preposterous and without integrity.” Pretty Baby is set in New Orleans’ red-light district in 1917, and it is based on two pages of Al’s book, Storyville, New Orleans. In 1978, Paramount paid Rose $50,000 for the movie rights, then assigned the project to French film director Louis Malle.
Malle sent Rose a copy of the script, and Rose was appalled by its historical inaccuracies. The two met to discuss the movie, and Rose pointed out a number of anachronisms in the script such as the use of a saxophone in a jazz band (unheard of in 1917) and black prostitutes working in a white brothel (“a situation which was impossible and never occurred,” Rose says).
“I had the impression Malle was more interested in the business of movies than the art of movies,” Al says, and he offered Paramount its $50,000 back if it would return the movie rights. Paramount didn’t reply.
In Pretty Baby, Brooke Shields plays the part of Violet, a child prostitute in Storyville. Her main love interest is Ernest Bellocq, the well-known New Orleans photographer of that day, played by Keith Carradine. Though both characters actually existed, Rose says Violet and Bellocq never knew one another. Al had interviewed Violet, who died only a year before Pretty Baby was released.
When the movie appeared, Rose was angered by the distortion of his work and wrote to his friend Arthur Penn (director of The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, and Little Big Man) to ask how an author can protect the integrity of his work after it has been sold to Hollywood. Penn replied, “This is a whore’s business, and you have to make up your mind whether you are one or you aren’t.” Rose has since turned down an offer to make a movie based on his biography of Eubie Blake.
[This article first appeared in the July/August 1984 edition of Louisiana Life: Magazine of the Bayou State. Images courtesy of Wikimedia, Wikipedia, and Songbook. This article can also be found in my Written Work section.]