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mystery jazz seeds

BEN WINDHAM: Hooked on the mystery of jazz

I got hooked on jazz almost 50 years ago. I still have the record that did it: “Slim’s Jam” by Slim Gaillard with Dizzy Gillespie and Orchestra.

I didn’t realize until years later that the “orchestra” was a bop combo that included alto sax genius Charlie Parker. What intrigued me at the time were the interludes in which Gaillard, a guitarist, converses with a “waiter” in an imaginary club:

“Bring me a big bowl of avocado seed soup,” he says. “Nail the seed to the roof. That’ll fix it.”

What that means remains a total mystery to me. All I know is that “Slim’s Jam” gave me a lifelong jazz jones.

From King Oliver to Miles Davis, from Ben Webster to John Coltrane, from Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington to Sun Ra, I just couldn’t get enough of the music to feed my appetite for it.

Mystery was part of the allure. How one music could incorporate such characters — losers, geniuses, addicts, visionaries, thieves, innovators — and sometimes pack them all in the same band — was a never-ending source of fascination.

So were the many strains of the jazz genre — European art music, blues, country, gospel, show tunes, ballads, marches and tangos. The kitchen sink.

In five decades of hard-core jazz addiction, I figured I’d heard it all. But never discount the things you can learn from your local thrift store.

That was where, a couple of weeks ago, I ran into a 10-inch record titled “At the Jazz Band Ball” by Preacher Rollo and His Five Saints.

I’d never heard of Preacher Rollo. The tunes on the cover indicated it was an album of Dixieland jazz, which is not my cup of avocado seed soup. I’m turned off by the images of straw boaters, striped suits and red-faced, out-of-tune trombonists that I associate with that kind of jazz.

But this album looked a bit different. The cover drawing showed a drummer dressed in the black jacket, wide-brimmed hat and string tie of an old country parson. Or maybe Deacon Mushrat in the Pogo cartoons popular at the time.

The liner notes, such as they were, identified the drummer as Rollo Laylan, “a fervent advocate of ‘spiritual unity’ in any musical enterprise.”

Stricken with polio at age 8, Laylan took up drumming to strengthen a withered arm, the notes said. They referred to his success later in bringing Dixieland jazz to Miami, of all places.

I was intrigued. And the price was right. I decided it was worth 59 cents to look into Preacher Rollo.

I wasn’t prepared for what I heard when I got home.

The trombonist and trumpeter were typical second-tier Dixielanders and a lot of the tempos were too fast — Buddy Bolden, who some say invented New Orleans jazz, preferred a pace and volume “where you can hear the whores dragging their feet” when they danced — but the drumming on the album was undeniably sharp and snappy.

The piano player, meanwhile, was schooled in the fine art of Harlem stride. And the clarinetist was out of this world.

I checked the album again. There was no hint as to the identity of the sidemen — the Five Saints.

There’s nothing I like better than the challenge of a good mystery. I started digging and came up with a story that reminded me of why I fell in love with jazz all those years ago.

I still don’t know how Laylan got the name Preacher Rollo. Maybe it was a promotional gimmick. Or maybe it was because Laylan had a preacher’s mouth on him.

In any event, he turned out to be a natural musician. A native of Genoa, Wis., he knew the works of Stravinsky and Bartok as well as he did his jazz roots.

Though some said his right arm was little more than a paddle, he became so proficient on drums that he played with the bands of Paul Whiteman, Bunny Berigan and Jack Teagarden, among the most famous ensembles of the 1920s and ’30s.

He also edited a book on the Gene Krupa drum method that was published in 1938.

After World War II, in which he saw Air Force service, Laylan located in Miami, where he put together a Dixieland band. His inspiration was New Orleans socialite physician Edmond Souchon, whose radio broadcasts and proselytizing helped spark a nationwide rebirth of interest in “authentic jazz” in the post-war years.

Laylan deserves full credit for overcoming a crippling disease. But he also was an example of how a physical infirmity can make a person mean.

He could be rude and dictatorial, and he tried to cheat his sidemen. At one point, the Miami musicians’ local had to demand that he put his players’ salaries in escrow just to ensure they got paid.

Laylan also told some monstrous whoppers. His often-repeated claims that he invented radar and sonar did not hold up to scrutiny.

Yet he had a knack for getting jobs for his band. And he seems to have won the loyalty of at least a few of the people he played with.

One was his longtime pianist, whose style caught my ear on the junk-shop album. Her name was Marie Marcus.

She got into music even earlier than Laylan, at age 4. By the time she was 13, she had played her professional debut at Boston’s Jordan Hall.

Her family thought she might have a brilliant career as a classical pianist and sent her to the New England Conservatory of Music. But then Marcus got a taste of jazz and as far as classical music was concerned, that’s all she wrote.

She dropped out of the conservatory and moved to New York in the 1930s, where she found work playing piano for mobster Dutch Schultz.

After hours, she would head up to Harlem to hear the great Fats Waller tickle the ivories at Tillie’s Chicken Shack. Many nights, hers was the only white face in the audience.

A friend talked Marcus into playing for Waller.

“I was scared to death,” she confessed years later. “When I finished, Fats pointed to his heart and said, ‘For a white gal, you sure got it here.’ “

He even agreed to give the audacious Marcus some lessons in stride piano playing.

Later, she moved back to Massachusetts, to the Cape Cod area. She began wintering in Miami Beach, where she hooked up with Laylan.

Her playing on my thrift shop find, “At the Jazz Band Ball,” recorded in 1953, shows she still had plenty of the heart that attracted Waller. But no one on the album shines like clarinetist Tony Parenti.

Parenti was an authentic jazz giant. How he found himself in the journeyman company of Preacher Rollo and the Saints is one of those stories that make jazz so addictively fascinating.

Parenti, son of a Sicilian-born cobbler, was born in New Orleans’ French Quarter and spent much of his early life there. Learning music the old-fashioned Italian way, through solfeggio, where notes are hummed or whistled, Parenti prepared himself to become a player long before he ever acquired an instrument.

Unlike many famous New Orleans jazzmen, he was an excellent sight-reader and could play from complicated scores.

He performed in his hometown with classical ensembles, theater bands and hotel orchestras but the lure of the Crescent City demimonde proved irresistible. At night, he would sneak out to French Quarter whorehouses or to clubs on Elysian Fields Avenue to play jazz.

He also developed a taste for booze and a compulsion for gambling that would dog him the rest of his life.

In the late 1920s, Parenti moved to New York, where his playing created a sensation in the emerging jazz fraternity. He became a top studio musician and an in-demand sideman for heavy hitters like Eddie Condon, Baby Dodds and Hot Lips Page.

But Parenti, who had more than a passing physical resemblance to Artie Buco, the emotional restaurateur on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” also got in trouble with bookmakers over gambling debts.

In May 1950, he decided it would be good for his health if he left New York and took an extended vacation in Miami.

Laylan was one of the first musicians he met there. The Preacher wanted to make a Saint of the newcomer but Parenti got another offer that he couldn’t refuse.

A couple of characters named Charlie and Sam Friedman asked him to put together his own combo for a club they owned.

There is a James Ellroy flavor to the story. Parenti played at the Friedmans’ club for five months, drawing big crowds — until the U.S. Senate’s Crime Committee sent a task force to Miami.

At that point, Charlie and Sam skipped town. Parenti, in his memoirs, says he did a little investigating on his own and found that his employers were “the two biggest members of the S.&G. Syndicate, which was supposed to be in control of all the illegal race horse bookings in Florida.”

“Imagine me playing there and not knowing this!” Parenti wrote.

Whoa, imagine that! Especially when Parenti was a regular at the Miami horse track. Music, obviously, wasn’t the only thing he improvised on.

In any event, Parenti decided that Miami might be a little too hot for his continued good health and he planned to leave right away — “at least with the thought that I had done a good turn towards pioneering basic jazz in a virgin territory,” he wore dissemblingly.

But on Parenti’s last night at the Friedman club, Preacher Rollo collared him. Would Parenti change his mind and join the Five Saints?

Feeling the hot breath of both the feds and the mob on his neck, Parenti may have sensed sanctuary as a sideman for The Preacher. He said yes.

Given the background of some of its members, the band’s name, The Five Saints, seems like a sick joke. There’s a photo of Laylan from the period, wearing a devilish grin as he bashes his drums in front of an oversized Confederate flag.

Plato Smith, a New Orleans musician, worked with the band for a week in 1950 when the regular trumpeter was out.

“I remember Tony Parenti as a fine player and a nice person — and an inveterate gambler at the race track,” Smith recalled. “As to Laylan, he was a strange man — moody, as I recall.”

Moody or not, Laylan and the Saints took Miami by storm. They landed a recording contract with MGM and a nationwide radio booking. The addition of Parenti made the group the hottest attraction in town.

“The movement snowballed. Today Be-bop is dead and Jazz is king again,” crow the liner notes for “At the Jazz Band Ball.”

It wasn’t a long reign, however. Fed up with The Preacher’s high-handed ways, Parenti engineered a coup in 1954, taking Laylan’s entire band.

It was only a few days before The Saints found they had leaped from the frying pan into the fire. He may have been a brilliant musician but Parenti was a bomb as a businessman. He had no connections, no contacts, no bookings.

The band went back to The Preacher and Parenti went back to New York.

He fell in with his old gang, the hard-drinking, hard-living Dixielanders like Condon who ruled 52nd Street during the early 1950s.

Parenti also fell back into his old habits.

“He was always broke or in hock and never had anything to show for his labor,” wrote jazz historian Al Rose. “I was paying him $60 plus transportation for the evening . in his mind, that broke down to 10 $5 bets, breakfast and money to get to the track.”

They were a tough bunch, those old New York Dixielanders. When someone told Condon that Parenti had died from cirrhosis of the liver, Condon replied, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he had cirrhosis of the feet.”

In truth, it was throat cancer that took him out. Parenti died at age 71 on April 17, 1972, at Mount Sinai Hospital n Manhattan.

Marie Marcus, his piano-playing compatriot in Preacher Rollo’s band, lived for many more years. She died on Oct. 10, 2003, of complications from a stroke.

She had long since returned to Massachusetts as a permanent resident and was regarded as a local treasure. Her obituary called her Cape Cod’s “first lady of jazz.”

Preacher Rollo, at last sighting, had quit the music business and was working out his twilight years at a Radio Shack.

“While it is not established without a doubt that Laylan has died, some of the musicians who worked with him relish the thought of a definite confirmation, simply for their own peace of mind,” musical iconoclast Eugene Chadborne wrote in the “All Music Guide.”

Aaah, jazz. The music. The stories. The mystery. Nail the seed to the roof.

Muriel Grossmann

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