April 26, 2012

Joe Muranyi: The Last All-Star

Clarinetist Joe Muranyi passed away on April 20, 2012, and was the last surviving member of the Louis Armstrong All-Star Band. Joe was born in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio on July 14, 1928. Joe was of Hungarian descent and the ethnic influence played a role in his early musical development.
JM:        Hungarians had a natural affinity for music like Italians, Irish, something like that. And in recent years, the past 20 years or so, I’ve gone there a lot and I find that I was basing my opinion of Hungarians on my parents and my family. But music was a very important part and you know I’m getting to the age where I’ve had thoughts and funny thoughts and I cheer up easily. And I’m an emotional being. Of course we all are. But the other night, there was something about “Pennies From Heaven.” The song came up. And I’m thinking about myself, you know, at what age did I start thinking about the music and considering music and whatever. And I remembered that I learned “Pennies From Heaven” [sings] every time it rains it rains — to this day I mean I know the words very well — directly connected back to when I was six or seven. And so I used to go to the movies on Saturday morning for a nickel in those days, you know, in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, Bellair, Ohio, way far away like that. Steel mines and coal mines and a lot of the immigrant beau hunk you know and all that kind of stuff. Polacks and Italians. So I used to go to the movies. I might have seen it there, and maybe I heard it on the radio. My parents at that time didn’t have a gramophone, so I learned “Pennies From Heaven” because I liked it and by ear. And the words and all. And they used to stand me up, that’s the only one I remember, stand me up onto the chair, like seven years old, and I would perform.
Diverse influences continued as Joe progressed from a child musician to a working artist, where he found himself balancing education from the classroom and the bandstand.

MR:        Well in reading about you it seems like an interesting trip from balalaika orchestras to Lenny Tristano to Louis Armstrong to what you’re doing now.
JM:        Well that balalaika is one of those things, you know, you say something that off-beat or not in the normal events in the course of normal events, and that triggers up. Yeah. When I was going to college, you know, I went to Columbia and Manhattan School of Music, I sort of gigged around. I played with, I actually played with an old time Italian band, you know a street band sort of. We didn’t play in the street, but it was in Springfield, Mass. in some Catholic church basement. And that was an experience you know. You had no music, these old guys, it’s like New Orleans or something. And they played standard classical repertoire and they had flute, clarinet, oboe, you know, it was like, the balalaika were like the violins and the violas and all that stuff. And they played classical stuff and Glinka and things like that from the Russian days. And they also played Russian folk songs [sings] which was ethnic again. It was kind of fun.
MR:        Well it’s a great mix for your ears to be doing all that kind of stuff, right?
JM:        Oh yeah. I love so-called ethnic music you know. I used to have quite a collection of Klezmer stuff, which I like very much, and there again, the earlier the better. In the twenty-something it was just wonderful. The new Klezmer bands well they’re fun and stuff but they don’t have the level of anything like the old timers did.

One thing I love about interviewing veteran jazz artists is the anecdotes and offhand comments they make along the way. There’s a well-worn phrase in jazz called “every tub.” I’ve heard it used before, and the meaning never seems to stick with me. Joe reminded me of what the phrase means:
JM:        We were in this place and we go down, there’s a restaurant in the place, in the bowling alley, and we’re going to have something to eat. And it was Pops Foster. And I knew who he was, I loved him and I respected him you know. And he looks at the menu and he said “is this every tub?” I said, “Pops, what’s every tub?” “Oh,” he says, “don’t you know what that means?” I said, “no.” He said, “every tub on its own bottom, do we pay or does the boss pay?” And then you know there’s a King Oliver record called “Every Tub.”
MR:        Sure there is. And a Basie record too.
JM:        Yeah, yeah. And there’s — I think I heard Louis Armstrong say a couple of times, you know an ensemble when you start playing? “Every tub.” You know, it’d be every guy on his own, you know, going to improvise.
MR:        So he meant everybody was paying for their own food?
JM:         Everybody on his own.
MR:        Everybody on his own.
JM:         By every tub means every tub on its own bottom. Everybody on his own.
MR:        That’s cool.
JM:        Okay? And that could apply to paying or it could apply to improvising. You know we’re not going to read music or don’t play the melody, unison. Improvise, yeah.
While most people recognize Joe Muranyi’s name from his association with Louis Armstrong, he also had an association with other artists, including the Eddie Condon gang, the Village Stompers (of which he was a founding member), and also as a producer for RCA Victor. He had strong opinions about jazz education and what he saw as the unfortunate separating of jazz styles and the audience for jazz and its musicians.
MR:        You expressed some feelings about jazz education before we started today.
JM:        Oh yeah. Well I don’t think there’s anything wrong with somebody going to a conservatory to study music and to study jazz. But I’ve never yet met a program, I mean just consider what they produce. They produce people that know about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Pops and everything like that. And I guess some courses they treat history. But forget it. And then they all play the latest thing — oh about the definition of jazz. It’s got to have freedom, yeah. And I like the idea of modern jazz and what they produce but I don’t actually like the music you know. It’s a very curious thing. As I said before, if somebody just asked me do I like jazz, I say no, because I know what they’re thinking and I don’t like it. And let’s put it this way: jazz is so compartmentalized. There are so many aspects. And America’s got this bad history of antagonism between the styles of jazz.
He treasured his stint with Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars, and added his opinion about Satchmo to the thousands of pages that have been written about America’s greatest jazz artist:
JM:        I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it and for me jazz is the music that Louis Armstrong plays. It’s very simple, you can understand, you know when I say that you know what I’m talking about don’t you?
MR:        I do until, but Louis Armstrong played a lot of music after the twenties and thirties also that may not have been really jazz. He jazzed it up.
JM:        Well his music, jazzing it up, what is jazz? Jazz is a feeling. You can play the straight — now Louis Armstrong, you know, he was the same man when he died as he was when he was young you know. That flame in him never died. And he could play the straight melody and melt your heart and that’s jazz. You could tell the difference between somebody very square and somebody swinging. Now this gets into the definition very much, you made a good point there. You say well “Hello Dolly” time is, you know, it’s certainly not as interesting as “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” or “Potato Head Blues,” you know, naked creativity. The situation was completely different. But he never lost his fire. He always showed something. Louis, he was a saint. And it was the biggest thing in my life, and I’m going to get teary, I’m near to. He was a wonderful guy. And he could be a bastard and he could be, oh a terrible, he could hurt you so badly and nobody in the world could do that. But anyhow the point is I liked him and he liked me. And the thing is I’ve never yet, and you know I’ve talked to people for a hundred years, “you ever see Louis?” And you know you hear the most interesting things. And most everybody that got to know him or knew him a little, Louis was his best friend. You know Louis had this quality. He was very gregarious and very good with people and he liked people, and he would really go out of his way and you would think well the big man doesn’t have time for that, but he did make time.
And so we bid farewell to Joe, and thank him for his contribution to the uplifting music of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars.

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