jpt is honored to share some of the recollections he is currently weaving into a book (the latest in a series of memoirs of his life and work), and we are running a curriculum vitae to document the remarkable range and variety of his jazz life [Chronology: parts I & II, Birth-Age 23, jpt Archives Nov. 2007; part III, Age 23-mid-1960s, below; part IV upcoming]. Over the next issues we will continue the record of his work and hope to run more episodes from his memoirs. He is still playing with a jazz quartet, now more often clarinet than soprano sax, but always in the vein of the pure Creole New Orleans style.

Now the story continues. . .

By Henry Blackburn,
Copyright 2008

Bing and Lee: Jazz Limited and the Victory Club

Thursday, July 3rd, 1947

A long day at Wesley Hospital led me to decide against taking the train to the University of Chicago All-Campus Dance on Chicago’s South Side. The evening began, thus, unpromisingly.

I tracked back to the Brass Rail in the Loop, but Jimmy McPartland’s band was off for the night. Alone after an unglamorous steak dinner, I stuck my head momentarily into an old-time dime-a-dance hall just to catch the scene, and then walked a good mile north on South State Street. Shops faded into stores, stores into clubs, and clubs into holes-in-the-wall. The frequenters of each ensuing area looked tougher and tougher. I patted my wallet oftener and oftener. But this was tame compared to what I would encounter later that seemingly inauspicious evening.

On a side street, I saw a flashing sign in blue neon: “Jazz Limited,” which I had noticed from the trolley line passing it the night before. Assuming it to be a record shop, I investigated the intriguing title and made a marvelous, serendipitous discovery. At 11 East Grand Avenue on the Near North Side was an appealing stairwell leading down to a cellar in which was an intimate club, offering the best traditional jazz to about 85 folks in a nearly ideal, civilized setting.

Entering, after a quick appraisal by the handsome woman at the portal, and her extraction of a hefty cover, I found on the right a short bar, in the foreground, a dozen or so tables and some comfortable chairs. Behind and above, as backdrop to the stage, was a Dali-like abstract sculpture. The stage itself was a small platform with a curved back wall from which reflected nicely some eloquent sounds as the band kicked off a tune.

Five men of varied ages, all youngish, play for half an hour and knock off for 15 minutes, and go at it from 10 p.m.’til 3:30 a.m. “Play” is an inadequate word. They emote, improvise, inspire, and preach, all with great fervor. Certainly the music they play, like that of New Orleans’s funeral bands, might boost a soul heavenward with greater dispatch than ever would formal incantations or mere prayers. 

The jazzmen appeared content, thoughtful, and on occasion, excited. Who wouldn’t be inspired to play in such a calm, dedicated setting with such an appreciative audience and the absence of excess noise, commercialism, and “corn.”

The lead cornet, Doc Evans, is a short, plain, balding man with an honest, sweet smile, who tilts his head slightly, turns his friendly face toward heaven, closes his eyes, listens to his fellows, and then rocks out with lilting tones. His is a fluent message that even the neophyte can grasp.

The older and quite distinguished pianist, Don Ewell, plays in polished, driving phrases, closing every solo with a sublime expression of happy satisfaction. The drummer, Freddie Kohlman, having a morose, “Alfred-like” countenance in a huge head, jabbers away rhythmically as he drums, perhaps feeling left out by the others who can use their lips more creatively. The trombonist is tall, also balding and smiling, giving a perfect contrapuntal backing to the others’ rides. I fail to get his name.

The club’s owner, Bill Reinhardt, is the seriously focused clarinetist, and, I suspect, has never been seen to smile. He, too, is tall, but somber and sallow. His tone is tremulous but true. His solos rarely draw applause, but are simple, straightforward, natural, and unhurried, like breathing. He is particularly rich in the ensemble.

Bill’s wife, Ruth, is the elegant oriental woman who met me at the door; the “Dragon Lady” incarnate, both in bearing and demeanor. Surely, she’s the key to the club’s economic success. It is clear that she misses nothing going on in her presence. She seems to allow that jazz can be learned, appreciated, savored best as only she presents it, by its finest exponents. And she tolerates no chatter or nonsense to detract from attention to, and respect for, the music.

I had no way of knowing at 2:00 a.m., when leaving this lovely discovery of Jazz Limited, that my evening had, in fact, hardly begun.

Leaving the club at the same time as I was an elderly gentleman calling himself “Bing” who took up with me ingratiatingly on the street above, impressing me with the fact that he had “a huge record collection of jazz from the very beginning.”  I had no reason to doubt him, only to wonder about his apparent need for my company. When abruptly he asked if I would like to meet Louis Armstrong’s former wife, Lil Hardin, “right away, this very night,” I suddenly became interested and accepted his invitation. Off we stumbled afoot, generally toward the west.

Bing, my bushy-white-haired, gregarious companion, jazz buff, and record collector, led us a short distance to the Mark Twain Bar, a run-down joint with a fittingly moldy clientele. And there on Samuel Clemens’s very stage was Lil Hardin Armstrong herself, seated gracefully at the piano, accompanying herself singing.

Lil’s playing was solid, her voice high, clear, and pleasant. Bing beamed with pride at my wonderment and then became voluble beyond comfort: 

“Aren’t you glad you met me?!” he insisted.

[He was a type of jazz hound that would become familiar over the years, but he was the first of the type in my young experience.]

At the break he beckoned Lil to our table and introduced us. Her laughing eyes, light-brown and velvety complexion, and delightful manner were totally charming, her voice with the softest detectable New Orleans lilt. We chatted a bit about the Crescent City and about her “ex,” Louis, and then she excused herself gently, to escape, she claimed, the noisome pantomime act to follow, performed awfully and to deafening Spike Jones recordings. More likely it was to escape Bing—and Bingo!

At any rate, it was the end of a lovely interview. I was entranced; a little in love, at 3 a.m.

Bing then proposed further adventures to his no-longer-quite-so-skeptical protégé: “We’ll go see the worst places on North Clark Street and find some real jazz for you at the Victory Bar!”

By this time he was in high spirits from the several drinks he had milched. I began to distance myself, unable to enter into his late-night abandon, or for that matter to enjoy any longer his company. Oppressed by his cloying, I was suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue and sleepiness.

Back out on the street, Bing’s wispy white hair, now noted to be yellow-streaked, stood out crazily in the wind. His eyes had become a bit too joyous; wildly so, I thought; his cheeks red as cemetery roses. Too-hearty guffaws came from a shockingly edentulous mouth. But now that we were seriously into his guided tour, I decided to see it through, at least as far as the Victory Club.

We arrived next at “Low Class Harry’s” where the clients appeared medieval, straight out of Brueghel. According to Bing, however, they were “some of the best folks in this world.” In my crisp, tan rayon suit I was immediately accosted by a classic drunk: cap, grime, stubble, spittle, tremor, whine, and all, who begged for change “for a flop,” a cot for the night. I gave him no money but quieted him with a cigarette. As we left Low Class Harry’s, we encountered an angular, thin Hispanic woman screaming at the top of her voice to everyone and no one from the middle of the sidewalk, lashing out with her purse at imaginary adversaries.

Directly across the street from Low Class Harry’s was High Class Harry’s, which I judged to be a tiny notch up the phylogenetic ladder and in which we sought shelter for “just one more quick one, Henry.”

Finally, we arrived at the promised destination, Bing’s pièce de résistance, the Victory Club, which stretched deep and narrow into the block off North Clark Street. The din and stench, not to be described, hit us full face as we entered this dank, dark hall, crowded in the pre-dawn with unimaginably depraved humanity.

I shuddered as we worked our way to the rear toward the music and away from any possible flight. A huge black woman banged out “Caledonia” on a long-given-up piano from the stage high above the bar. A drunken Native American in a red plaid shirt stalked about with a murderous glare. Poles, Filipinos, Blacks and many other ethnicities, all seemingly mad drunk, appeared to derive no pleasure from each other’s company, from the music, or from the booze. They seemed simply blind, mean drunk and deeply involved with their personal demons.

A wild-eyed whore with jet-black bangs, immense breasts on a withered frame with pitiful pipe-stem legs, stood in the middle of the passage, weaving, swinging her purse viciously at all who came near. Taking a circuitous course around her we propped ourselves at the bar just under the piano on stage, where we were to remain ’til dawn.

Soon a pianist, drummer, and clarinet player mounted the stage to open the set. Strung out along the 70-foot bar, seething in this melting-pot inferno, were a line of whites and blacks and yellows and reds, in which most seemed not the slightest interested in the music. One or two started dancing tipsily, alone. Bing actually encouraged me to jig with an aggressive woman who, he whispered to me, “is a nice half-blood squaw.” Thank you, very much.

Lee Collins came to the bar and zeroed in on us before joining the set. After Bing’s introductions, he reminded me that Lee had played and toured, not that long ago, with Jelly Roll Morton, all the while insisting loudly that Lee was the “best trumpet player in the world—after Louis!” Lee took the drink we proffered with him up on the stand. And indeed, his playing became inspired as the night wore on, while the woebegone clarinet and haphazard piano detracted from his swinging lyricism.

Tone clear, ringing, open, controlled. Execution flawless, accidentals breathtaking, range amazing, ideas unending! Only years later did I fully appreciate the greatness of this musician—and the tragedy of his descent into alcohol and emphysema. The latter did him in after a final glorious recorded tour of Europe in the early ’50’s.

Personally, Lee was gracious in that soft, egalitarian, familiar New Orleans manner one comes to know and love. But over the course of the evening he became more and more obsequious, soliciting drinks from us. Bing ordered them unendingly; I paid for them. Then the music was over, the bar closing.

Outside the colorful Victory Club, dawn came in black and white. Nocturnal orgies became morning stupors. It is awesome how life sustains itself for years on end in such an environment. But maybe it really doesn’t. Vagrants milled around the precinct station nearby, each in his private torture, left unmolested by the police.

Now, Bing sagged perceptibly and began to rue the day’s work ahead. He looked quite pale and ghastly as we parted, both mumbling to the other, “Thanks —great night, man! See ya’!”

I never saw Bing again. But with Lee Collins, other, finer Chicago moments were to come. ###

Back to top ^


Musical Chronology. A Sometimes Painful, often Ecstatic Life on the Fringe (1931-2008)
Copyright 2008 Henry Blackburn

[See Nov. 2007 jptArchives for: Parts I & II, Birth-Age 23; Henry Blackburn's medical career cv]

PART III. Age 24 to mid-1960s

Heard Bechet and Luter in concert while an intern in Paris in 1949-50, but was much more caught up in French classic culture than in Le Jazz Hot.

Took clarinet lessons from Mozarteum first clarinetist in Salzburg 1950-52, during military service in Austria, playing chamber music and concert gigs with the “Salzburger Burgermeisters Orkestra.” Returning to the states in 1953, found little opportunity and much superior competition for chamber work from Twin Cities amateurs; reverted to jazz.

In a Minneapolis VA Hospital residency, organized the “Dixie Docs,” playing standard jazz arrangements of the more painful variety (“Johnson Rag and Jazz Me Blues”), for medical Bacchanalias.

Got clued in to the local scene, and met the Hall Brothers and Charlie Devore at Jim McDonald's "Dixieland Record Heaven" in south Minneapolis. Failed to progress on clarinet and failed to recognize the talent and drive of the early Hall Bros. Band.

In the '50s I met the Twin Cities “Amatooters” (including Al Washburn who once played with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, Henry Rhame, Sandy Couper, Rex Beach, Peter Folliott, Henry Christian, Bill Robertson, Cubby Davis, and Ted Herman), who for 20 years played the annual Marine on St. Croix Volunteer Firemen’s Ball. We had jazz orgies on pontoon boats floating down the St. Croix, in and out of the river (and martinis). Shades of F. Scott! At the ball one summer, Butch Thompson, then age 15, gangly, pimply, came on stage with his clarinet and played some fine Goodman licks. We soon got him together with Charlie DeVore and the Hall Bros. who immersed him in New Orleans and Jelly Roll. And the rest of Butch is history.

Age 30+: In Brady’s Garage on Oak Street, just off the University of Minnesota campus, for several years played all-night Saturday jam sessions with the young Hall Brothers and sundry sitters-in. We were guarded by campus police who kept out the riffraff and dispensed beer. The atmosphere was that of an illicit speakeasy and the music was occasionally hot. I played trumpet, trombone and again back to clarinet, with little notable success. There is a tape made there of my first wailings on soprano, winter '60-'61.

Serendipitously, on waking one morning, I knew that the straight soprano sax was my instrument, due to its lead qualities, and went out and bought a reconditioned vintage Conn for $60 at the downtown Schmitt Music store, fell in love with it, ate and slept with it and found in it what little I have to say. Fall 1960, age 35.

For many years of the '60s to '80s I was a regular with another “Dixie Docs” band of Abbott-Northwestern medical staff and hangers-on, lovely guys all (John Haugen, Dexter Lyon, Herb Plass, Fred Rosendahl, Dick Rogers, Roger Lundquist, John Bradley). We played staff parties and lakeside events and made a recording famous mainly for its cover portrait in phony newsprint, bootlegged on local radio without benefit of ASCAP or other approval.

At Preservation Hall on its opening day in October,1961, I met Dick Allen and hung, with Allen Jaffe, the famous music case sign above the gate at 726 St. Peter St., and that year rediscovered and fell in love with the distinctive, original, real, and lovely sounds of New Orleans jazz with its classic proponents: George Lewis, Papa John, Slow Drag Pavageau, Kid Thomas, Kid Howard, Kid Punch, the Humphreys, Percy and Willie, Billie and DeDe, Joe Butler, Sweet Emma, Sing Miller,  Manny Sayles, Narvin Kimball, Louis Cottrell, and so on and on.

Formed Doc Blackburn’s Creole Jazz Band for a six month run at George Conroy’s Bar and Restaurant, Highway 12, St. Paul, in 1962. Was almost fired for playing “Closer Walk with Thee” when a drunken Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day requested “Danny Boy,” but was quickly reinstated when the restaurant’s accountant found it to be in the black for the first time in history during Lent (due mainly to funny people coming to see the funny doctor play the funny horn). Butch Thompson, Ron Sambo Strang, Augie Kepp, and Frank Gillis were successively our pianist, with Tom D’Andrea on drums, Gene Paulsen on tuba or Paul Thompson on stand-up bass, and Jerry Mullaney on trombone. We made a small run of platters from a tape that isn’t too bad, and I began to learn a little about improvisation, band leading, and club owners. Torn away from these pursuits by a burgeoning academic career, with travels.

During travels made firm friendships with Claude Luter and with Marc Laferriere in Paris, with hot nights sitting in at the Slow Club on Rue de Rivoli, and lifelong exchanges of letters, records, instruments, and model trains!

Acted as entrepreneur-agent, with colleagues, for the first successful tour anywhere of the Preservation Hall Band, to Minnesota first in 1963 and again in 1964 and some years later, to the Guthrie Theater and the University and Afton House, and for recording of the longest-selling New Orleans jazz record in history, of Sweet Emma’s band with Willie and Percy and Big Jim, still selling in CD. Founded Twin City Jazz Sponsors, with Charlie Devore, Jim McDonald, Bill Rogers and Dick Nowlin to support that tour and recording, guaranteeing concerts for sponsors and giving them all profits, a deal nobody could refuse, that worked for some years to bring the Preservation Hall and other New Orleans bands to the area.

In the mid-1960s the Emporium opened in Mendota with the Hall Brothers, providing a home and sustenance and celebrations of the music for 25 years, in the happiest period of trad jazz in the Cities, along with a great Creole restaurant and an unequaled series of notable guest artists. I was happy to sit it on occasion during the period of my greatest professional and least musical activity.

next issue: mid-1960s to present . . .


Back to top ^

jptArchive Issue 5

Copyright 2008- WJ Schafer & WC Smith - All Rights Reserved

The Journal of Provincial Thought
Pigasus the Journal of Provincial Thought flying pig copyright 2008 William J. Schafer
jptArchive Issue 5
jpt's Jazzterisk

jpt is privileged to present fascinating new jazz treasures important to buffs, performers, scholarsand to lovers of a lively read. We are grateful to Henry Blackburn for opening to our viewers the vaults of his priceless experiences with the music, its legendary personalities and their times, richly documented all.

We really should be charging cover. Eds.

Previously in Jazz Lines [Nov 2007, jpt Issue 4, Archives]:

Henry Blackburn with soprano sax, copyright 2008 Henry Blackburn, in the interstices of an extraordinarily busy and productive 60-year career as a pioneer heart researcher -jptArchives, found time to master the nearly untameable soprano saxophone (as well as its cousins the clarinet and alto sax), to become proficient and widely experienced in playing New Orleans jazz, including many pilgrimages from his Minnesota home to the Crescent City. A jazz fan from youth onward, Henry has heard the best of golden age musicians, played with many of them, marched the streets of the city in brass bands, played at or near Preservation Hall, led his own bands around the Twin Cities and accumulated a lifetime of jazz memories.
Henry Blackburn
sitting in again with