The Journal of Provincial Thought
jptArchive Issue 6

The story continues. . .

By Henry Blackburn,
Copyright 2008

Muggsy Panics

Monday, July 7, 1947

          In summer 1947, between junior and senior year in medical school at Tulane, I went on a national shopping tour for internships in metropolises far from  New Orleans. A little voice told me that four years in the Crescent City would suffice, lest I get caught up forever in its Elysian excess, taunting illusions, and particular madness.

          Alone in strange new cities after dark I became an inveterate jazz club prowler. And in Chicago’s Near North that summer was one of the few long-running, well-established jazz clubs in the country, Jazz Limited, presided over by Bill Reinhardt, clarinetist, and his Chinese-American wife, Ruth. Dubbed “the Dragon Lady” by some musicians, she was a beautiful, highly respected, imperious, especially parsimonious, and widely detested club manager. 

          On my second visit midst the cool blue lights and Daliesque décor of Jazz Limited, the audience was being treated to the driving horn of Muggsy Spanier. This night the tight little club band swung hard. It was a splendid evening of inspired jazz led by the Irish pixie, a living legend, and his seemingly happy cornet.

          After the closing set, when Muggsy came down to the bar for a drink and a smoke, I went over to thank him for the music. Introducing myself as a medical student from Tulane, I volunteered: “I just completed a rotation at the Touro, where they still speak of you, Muggsy!” 

          Muggsy paled. With almost palpable fear, he pushed away his drink and stubbed out his cigarette, turning to plead desperately: “You won’t tell The Chief, will you, son?”

          Not long before, Muggsy had been a patient at the Touro Infirmary and almost died there from a peptic ulcer with a massive G-I hemorrhage,  related, of course, to his heavy drinking and smoking. “The Chief,” Alton Ocshner, the more famous of all New Orleans surgeons, often presented the following sort of choice to such a person in extremis:

          “I am happy to operate tonight to stop this terrible hemorrhage” [or, as the case required,  “remove your lung cancer”; whatever be the urgency].

          “We will put you back in shape, my good friend. But—you must swear to me that you will not return to the boozing and smoking life that gave you this ulcer! What shall it be?”

          At death’s door, Muggsy gratefully swore an oath of abstinence before the great surgeon, who then was able to spare his life! Penitently, and in homage to Dr. Ocshner, Muggsy soon wrote and recorded the tune “Relaxin' at the Touro.” [Are there lyrics, anyone?]

          But here was Muggsy in Chicago, a few short years later, drinking and smoking as of old!

          I assured him that his confidences and return of bad habits were safely secret with me, and he relaxed. We made plans for an immediate pilgrimage to hear Lee Collins in that tawdry corner of the Near North, the Victory Club. (See the last story).

          En route, Muggsy prepared me for this new encounter with the trumpet player he said rivaled the great Satchmo. That night  I was reintroduced to Collins, this time formally, by my new friend the noted cornetist. Lee vaguely recalled meeting me with Bing a few nights earlier, but now in the company of Muggsy, I approached with appropriate humility and not a little awe. 

          In the course of that evening and between sets, Lee and Muggsy must have put away a fifth of bourbon. The two immortal horn men became quite mortal, in fact, maudlin. On the sidewalk outside the club in the pre-dawn they jigged and jived in the alien language of confirmed musos: plosive, gutteral, gleeful banter, gruff but adoring insults. Soon, of course, the jivin’ became faux merriment and more than a little sad.

          During a subsequent year when, as a penurious intern, I would occasionally escape arduous hospital duties and go out to visit Lee Collins at the Victory Club, I knew that of the two $5 bills in my pocket, Lee would get one of them, in drinks. I would have to live off the other for that night and for the rest of the week.

          But in the year that we shared tales of New Orleans and jazz, and I modestly supported his habit, Lee introduced me to the world of the New Orleans musician, expatriate from traditional jazz origins, and in his case, marooned on its bleakest shoals. Musically, on occasions during this 1948-49 period at the Victory Club, precious moments of his soaring greatness were heard—but mainly shades of past glory. And always on my nights there, Lee said the right things to the right people at the bar to cordon me from the bullies and battered B-girls who plied their trade in that deeply integrated institution. In its long, dark, narrow corridor, ensconced toward the rear, one could be fatally trapped if a fight or a fire were to break out.

          But I felt secure under Lee’s protection; everyone knew about our symbiotic partnership, drinks for protection, New Orleans chit-chat for bursts of authentic New Orleans sound. One evening when Lee encouraged me to sit in, a wandering photographer snapped this now moldy picture, still nostalgically displayed on my study wall. I imagine that I hardly acquitted myself famously, but Lee was a soft touch and it was a thrill to play with him. He proffered no musical advice, out of kindness, I’m sure.

Lee Collins (left) and the author at the Victory Club, North Clark St., Chicago, Fall 1948.

Lee Collins and Henry Blackburn

Click here to enlarge image

(Note Lee Collins autograph across bottom of his jacket)

          Sitting in with Lee was the only real playing I did in Chicago, since practicing horn in the interns’ quarters was impossible and my heavy work schedule would accommodate little outlet.

          Bill Price told later how he helped rehabilitate Collins in preparation for a successful European tour in 1951, during which a classic album was recorded. I wish that I, too, had been able to help him, and that I had heard Lee when not in his cups!

          During my Chicago year, that year of the famous “Dewey Wins” headline in the Tribune, the attractive hazard of the Victory Club was complemented on alternate free nights by more anodyne experience at the upscale and correct Jazz Limited. Some who performed there would, in fact, become musical heroes, some even colleagues in later years.

          For example, Don Ewell with his driving piano and kind nature would join me in numerous venues arranged in New Orleans and Florida over the years.

          Sidney Bechet, with steam pouring from the bell of his horn the first time I heard and watched him up close, was to become the musical influence of my life and of many others’ lives. The passion Bechet poured into his golden Buescher that one evening stayed with me until I found a soprano passion of my own years after. There too, at Jazz Limited, I was witness to Bechet’s famous temper, in his dark rage at the Dragon Lady’s reneging on part of his contract!

          Doc Evans, mild-mannered, oft-swinging regular cornetist at Jazz Limited, became the central jazz figure of the Twin Cities a decade later, and director of the Walker Art Center Jazz Summer Concerts. He kindly engaged me as second clarinet for a season with his Bloomington Civic Orchestra.

          Bill Price, heard gigging mightily at Jazz Limited at his tender age then of 22, later became a popular Twin Cities player with his band, the New Yorkers, and a friend and sponsor of the Hall Brothers Jazz Emporium.

          Freddy Kohlman on drums and his fellow Orleanian, Manny Sayles, on banjo, brought a Crescent City authenticity to the Windy City spot. They, too, became musical colleagues and warm friends in much later years when I was an occasional agent and performer with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. 

          Art Hodes, the folksy regular Jazz Limited pianist, the gentle and profound musical scholar, continued to pop into our musical lives in Minnesota over the years.

          Most of the trad jazz greats of the day, hired under whatever unfair practices of the proprietor, nevertheless could be heard and met in Jazz Limited’s quiet, intimate ambiance. What a privilege that was. How inadequately we appreciated those traditional clubs barely hanging on around the Jazz world.  Among the old favorites—Jazz Limited, Nick’s, Earthquake McGoon’s, The Hangover, The Metropole, Mitch’s, The Emporium of Jazz, Pol’s Club, Stampen, Preservation Hall, Riverwalk, The Cajun, Caveau de la Huchette, the Blue Note, the Slow Club, Blues Alley, Club Vieux Colombier, and Café Baronne—only a handful survive.

          And what fine nights there were at Jazz Limited, including this particular memorable evening when Muggsy, the non-anonymous alcoholic, was seriously intimidated by the young med student’s proximity to The Chief, the Almighty Doctor Alton Ocshner!

          Waiting for the dawn outside the Victory Club, Muggsy and I hailed a cab that dropped me off on the lakefront at Erie Street near the hospital and took Muggsy on to his room on the south side of Chicago. We parted happy: “Great evening, man. Thanks. No, not a word to The Chief, but please, Muggsy, stay well!”

          Though I rarely played a note the year of internship, such encounters determined that Chicago would not be counted a total loss musically. ###

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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]
[See Jan. 2008 jptArchives for: Part III, Age 24 to mid-1960s]

PART IV. Mid-1960s-approximate present

Served happily as Master of Ceremonies for Preservation Hall Band concerts through the 70s and 80s at numerous medical meetings and twice at the National Academy of Sciences. Forty years of collaboration with those beautiful musicians, first as their physician-on site, years as a friend, and then occasions as a fellow musician on tour.

Became an entrepreneur of jazz concerts arranged for meetings of international scientific medical societies, 1960s to the present, with performances in Japan, New Zealand, Italy, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Finland, Moscow, Sydney, Melbourne, Osaka, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Malmo, Lake Tahoe, Mt. Snow, New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, San Francisco, San Diego, Anaheim, and Atlantic City.

Played in the New Orleans funeral cortege of George Lewis in 1967, and in those of Willie and Percy Humphrey in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Infinitely sad and moving.

Happy visits and jams with the superb and hospitable Osaka New Orleans Rascals in Osaka first in 1968 and throughout the 1980s and ’90s, at the New Suntory Club, as they maintain still the finest New Orleans sound in a lovely 40-year tradition, living and playing with their true vision and spirit of New Orleans.

Participant in the first New Orleans Jazz Festival in fall, 1970, due to Allen Jaffe’s kindness to me and Woody Allen, with concerts of Percy Humphrey’s band in Congo Square, in parade bands and jams at Buster’s Restaurant and Napoleon’s Bar. Ecstatic jams till dawn with pick-up bands including Tommy Sancton.

Honorary member, Preservation Hall Band, since 1970.

Visiting guest with the Geoff Bull Orchestra, Sydney, Australia in 1977 and again for Australia Day Festival in 1983, and with the New Orleans Rascals at the Kobe Jazz Fest in 1985. Numerous happy and memorable visits  at the New Suntory Club with the Rascals in Osaka, Japan.

Summer Bohemian Grove sessions in the redwoods in California, from 1977 to date, playing with Bill Carter, Butch Thompson, Tom Stockton, Rex Allen, Jim Cullum, Duke Heitger, John Royan and other Bohemian notables and guests.

Honorary member, Olympia Brass Band, since Mardi Gras, 1978.

Leader of the Creole Jazz Band in the Twin Cities (otherwise known as the Egghead Quintet: two academic department heads, one engineering department head, one business VP, one college dean and one pro musician), CDs “Creole Jazz” Vols. I and II,  released in 1998.

Member Bill Evans New Orleans Band, playing regularly at Chang O’Hara’s Bistro in St. Paul, with Evans, Charles DeVore, Mike Polad, Doggie Berg, Dave McCurdy, Dave Faison, Butch Thompson, and Steve Pikal. CD release, “Let the Great Big World Keep Turning,” 1996

Co-leader with John Beach of the Blackburn-Beach Blues Band, with Dave Ray (of Koerner-Ray-Glover fame), Dave Maslow, Paul Lagos and Mary Leinfelder. CD release, “Blues in my Heart,” 1998, reviewed by Dan Emerson in the Strib.

Leader of the Blackburn-Balluff Creole Quartet, issuing a CD, “Creole Love Songs,” of Bechet and other lesser performed tunes, released at Chas. Devore’s Dakota gig, Xmas 2002, with young clarinetist Tony Balluff and old cronies Bill Evans and Dave McCurdy.

Volume II of the Creole Quartet is a CD “Doobooloo,” after the Bigard-Luter Vogue record of 1961, including three vocals by Stacy Richardson. Both Creole Four CDs reviewed, beyond wildest dreams of sweetness, by William Schafer in the Mississippi Rag, November 2005.

Refound a lost love of 45 years earlier, the clarinet, when a 2005 hand injury reduced reach to the lower saxophone keys.

Author of published vignettes, “The Healing Power of Jazz,” “To Sit In or Not to Sit In.” and “West Coast Jazz Legacy.” (Mississippi Rag), article on George Lewis in British jazz journal, and a musical memoir: “Creole Love Songs. Seventy Years On the Fringes of Jazz. 1938-2008” slated for publication in 2008.


Rex Float with Rex (my surgery chief Alton Ochsner) in first post-war Mardi Gras in 1946, and on Rex Float again in a band with Jaffe for the 1986? Mardi Gras.

Play annually at Florida Mardi Gras and other parades with the Perseverance Band out of Orlando, with Kid Dutch Uithoven and Bill Barnes and crew. CDs pending.

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jptArchive Issue 6

Copyright 2008- WJ Schafer & WC Smith - All Rights Reserved
asterisk made of sax, trombone, cornet
Henry Blackburn with soprano sax another prize session with-------------
Henry Blackburn--------------
Pigasus the JPT flying pig, copyright 2008 William J. Schafer