Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 25, 2020

more than six hours of interviews with pioneering jazz trumpeter ARTHUR BRIGGS

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Trumpeter ARTHUR BRIGGS is a legendary name to lovers of pre-WWII jazz….although he is not as well-known as Louis Armstrong or King Oliver or Bix Beiderbecke because he did most of his recording in Europe, and I don’t believe there has ever been a North American compilation of his European recordings. He was a virtuoso player with a wide range (often praised in the European press for hitting those high C’s!), great technical facility, great harmonic invention (he was given an intense classical training), and a rawness and drive to his playing that justifies the Armstrong and Oliver references.

He was the toast of many European capitals in the 1920’s (for many Europeans, he was THE face of Jazz, the man they could see in person, regularly if they wished, a first-rate player and personality who chose to live and work in Europe!) and had a long career as a performer and later as a teacher, interrupted by a few years in a German concentration camp (I wonder if his experience had anything to do with John A. Williams’ novel CLIFFORD’S BLUES, which I have not re-read since it came out in 1997….although a number of the specifics in that book do not match Briggs, I am assuming the Clifford character is a composite with a large dose of fictional invention added).

The experience of jazz musicians (and especially African-American jazz musicians, such as Briggs) who worked primarily overseas as expatriates has always fascinated me, especially those pre-WWII figures like Briggs or Sam Wooding or Danny Polo who recorded extensively overseas. Even figures we don’t think of as expatriates (Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, for instance) spent a good bit of time in Europe and recorded a good amount there. How exciting it must have been to see Arthur Briggs Savoy Syncops Band at some Paris dance-hall in 1925, or Lud Gluskin’s orchestra at some swanky Swiss resort in 1928 (and let’s not forget those farther afield, such as Buck Clayton’s years in Shanghai, China, in the mid-1930’s). What stories these Americans in Europe must have had to tell…. Well, imagine my surprise when I recently stumbled across more than SIX hours of tape-recorded interviews with Briggs posted online at the Rutgers University Institute for Jazz Studies website. This is a man who worked with such legendary Black pre-jazz figures as Will Marion Cook (whom he knew well), who was in the post-James Reese Europe version of the 369th Regiment Marching Band, who describes in detail the playing of Freddie Keppard in the 1919-1921 period not documented on record, who knew and remembered as if it was yesterday legendary-but-obscure African-American music figures such as Cricket Smith, who knew and worked with Sidney Bechet before Bechet ever recorded, and who has a life and work experience more interesting than any movie or book could contain. Fortunately, you can hear him tell his story, in interview with the very knowledgeable James Lincoln Collier (who did a fine book on Duke Ellington, among many other things). It had me on the edge of my chair! Put it on while you are homebound during the quarantine….you’ll have to re-start the player every 45 minutes as each side of the interview cassette-tapes are presented separately. You’ll be a richer human-being after listening to this!

1982 interview in Paris of ARTHUR BRIGGS by Jazz historian James Lincoln Collier, archived by Rutgers University, Institute of Jazz Studies:

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Arthur Briggs And His Savoy Syncop’s Orchestra – I’m Coming Virginia (vocal by Al Bowlly), recorded in Berlin, Germany, 1927 (video incorporates footage from an Austrian 1925 silent film in which Briggs and band appeared, Das Spielzeug von Paris, directed by  Miháli Kertész, the man who later emigrated to the US, changed his name, and became the Michael Curtiz who directed CASABLANCA and JAILHOUSE ROCK):

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An amazingly thorough survey of Arthur Briggs career (“correcting” some of the statements he made in the audio interview above–I’ll let this research speak for itself–everyone to some extent fictionalizes their personal narrative to make it more interesting or to fit some personal agenda….he’s not the first or the last), from the Black Music Research Journal, University of Illinois Press:

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If you want to see the entire 1925 Austrian silent film Das Spielzeug von Paris, with an English translation of the inter-titles, here it is (Briggs is only in a small section of it, in a club scene, but it’s quite interesting otherwise):

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