Monday, July 09, 2018

Razza-Ma-Jazz! Stalebread Charlie And The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band by Michael Mahin

You've probably heard of jazz music. Skippity-bippity-be-bop and all that. And you've probably heard of country: twang-alang-alang. But what about spasm band music? Sing-taka-taka-pat?

Well, considering that one of the most famous spasm bands of all time was formed by a bunch of kids, I suppose I'd better tell you about it.

Back in 1895, life in the Storyville section of New Orleans was catch-as-catch can, and Stalebread Charlie and his buddy Warm Gravy were often hungry, filling their bellies with fast food, a beignet or a apple nabbed from a shopkeeper and a fast get-away from the cops. They hated to have to steal, so Stalebread started to give some thought to a better way to make some money.

As he pondered, he heard the brassy sound of a trombone and a ragtime tune played on a piano somewhere near.
"Gravy! We'll start a band. We'll never be hungry again!"

They found a piece of stovepipe for a megaphone and filled a can with pebbles. Stalebread sang into his pipe and Gravy gave his can a shake-a shook-a. It was a start, and soon Cajun stopped by with his tissue-paper kazoo and Monk added his pennywhistle to the mix. They weren't exactly a hit at first. Their first earnings were more like bribes. People gave them a few pennies to go play somewhere else.

But they added more boys and more instruments--a washboard, spoons, and a tambourine for percussion, a bass fiddle and guitar made from boxes, and Stalebread Charlie learned to play the heck out of a zither. They learned all the popular songs and spiced them up with their razz-a-ma-tazz, and they learned to perform in front of the popular dance halls, theaters, and restaurants to catch crowds of folks with a few nickels to spare. They became famous--so famous that the great actress Sarah Bernhardt made a special trip down to Storyville just to hear them. She even tipped them with a silver dollar, which must have bought the band a lot of beignets! And they gave themselves a name--

Michale Mahin's forthcoming Stalebread Charlie and the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Clarion, 2018) tells in lively picture book form the true story of one of New Orleans' street waif bands, the famous one led by Stalebread Charlie himself, Emile Lacoume.

The jambalaya of music that was to be jazz was bubbling forth in the streets of New Orleans in the years around the turn of the 20th century. A gumbo of musical ideas added by folks from the Southern highlands and the fertile fields of the deltas, from Africa and the Caribbean, from France, Spain, and Sicily, from Cajuns and Creoles, all came together there as the urchin bands grew up with the music. In fact, Emile's band even helped name the music he helped create. The Razzy Dazzy Spasm band became so well-known that a slightly older group of teenagers--with real instruments, already playing in Papa Laine's Reliance Brass Band--decided to steal their name, but when the spasm boys fought back, the older boys picked a new name, The Razy Dazy Jazzy Band, which helped give a name to the music they all played.

Lacoume's Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band comes back to colorful life in Mahin's pithy account of a seminal period in American music, illustrated with artist Don Tate's lively double-page spreads of the band of boys, their alley-cat mascots, and the people of old New Orleans when it was "the land of dreams." Both Mahin and Tate append special notes filling in the history of jazz and the part played by children's street bands and particularly the real Stalebread Charlie, a.k.a., Emile Lacoume, who went on to play with most of the famous musicians of his time in New Orleans. With illustrated directions for young readers on how to make a homemade kazoo for their own spasm band, this new book is a humorous, historical, and inspirational story of the making-something-from-nothing spirit and love of music, a true piece of Americana also great for reading aloud.

Michael Mahin is also the author of Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters (read my review here).

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home