Jazz-loving penfriends, New Orleans joys

Val Wilmer
Thursday, June 13, 2024

The New Orleans revivalist movement was in full swing in California when a London teenager wrote to its stars. Val Wilmer was that fan. She tells the story, with photographs by Carlos Flores

The New Imperial Jazz Eagles, Los Angeles, 1950s. New Orleans musicians Mike DeLay (trumpet), Edgar Mosely (drums) and Polo Barnes (clarinet) used a marching band name for their revivalist group
The New Imperial Jazz Eagles, Los Angeles, 1950s. New Orleans musicians Mike DeLay (trumpet), Edgar Mosely (drums) and Polo Barnes (clarinet) used a marching band name for their revivalist group

I was 13 when I ran on to the pitch at Crystal Palace to get the goalkeeper’s autograph, and 14 when I waited for Richard Burton outside the Old Vic stage door. Around the same time, I found a book about jazz in the local library and cut out some of the photographs, formal portraits of black men in suits; King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. Shameful, I know, but the purloined prints served as backdrop to a life-altering correspondence with a musician who had played in the bands of both leaders, and with other great names in New Orleans jazz.

The postwar revivalist movement, spearheaded in part by the 're-discovery’ of trumpeter Bunk Johnson, was still in full swing when jazz reached out and discovered me. From the monthly Jazz Journal, I learnt that a number of veterans had settled in Southern California, finding a ready-made new audience for their music among a young, mainly white, intelligentsia and Hollywood workers. Enthusiasm for the early sound crossed the pond at the same time, sweeping up youngsters like me in its wake.

What was there not to like about being young and collecting autographs? What was there not to like about jazz? As I persevered with my listening, I was befriended by elders, among them discographer Brian Rust and the writer Max Jones, who set me on the right track. Within a year, thanks to Brian, I had received a letter from drummer Baby Dodds and a Christmas card from clarinettist Omer Simeon, both of them key figures in early jazz. Dodds started out playing on the Mississippi riverboats before recording with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven. Simeon was a star of Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers.

As I acquired addresses, I wrote to everyone, and almost everyone wrote back. I soon boasted letters from historical figures, some of whom were there at the point when ragtime turned into jazz. Most prolific of my correspondents was Paul 'Polo’ Barnes, born in 1901, and better-known as a clarinettist in his later career. In the 1920s, he played saxophone alongside Simeon and Barney Bigard, in the reed section of King Oliver’s band, in a line-up that also included trumpeter Henry 'Red’ Allen and the great New Orleans drummer Paul Barbarin. He toured again with Oliver in the 1930s, in the often raggedy ensemble of the King’s final years, and was a key figure in providing data for an Oliver biography, providing the authors with access to his daily journals from that era.

Brian Rust co-authored that biography, and kindly passed on Polo’s address. Living in Los Angeles, Barnes was working at a day job like most of the musicians, but also had a regular gig at a place called the Blue Bird Cavern where Johnny St Cyr often joined him on stage. St Cyr was another of the great names of early jazz, an alumnus of the Morton and Armstrong recording bands that gave us such classics as 'Black Bottom Stomp' and 'Potato Head Blues'. Discographies list him playing banjo, but it was a unique instrument of his own creation, a banjo with guitar neck attached.

All the musicians were members of the Southern California Hot Jazz Society, an enthusiasts' conclave run by journalist Floyd Levin. I never imagined the flood of letters and snapshots to follow my tentative overtures, but Polo was an industrious correspondent, whose thoughtful letters demonstrated concern for a teenage fan. His predilection for writing began early, hence his fastidious record-keeping, and it was an attribute he kept up for the rest of his days.

Polo played in the Young Imperial Jazz Eagles, a mixed-race band with a white woman pianist and two New Orleanians, Edgar Moseley on drums, and Mike De Lay, trumpet. With his crinkly hair and fetching smile, De Lay looked, to my young eyes, just like a jazz musician should be. A decade younger than Polo, he, too, grew up in a French-speaking New Orleans household, where the family drank wine with their meals. With a cornet thrust into his hand as a child, he played for dances organised by his aunt at Old Economy Hall, a famous jazz landmark, and sat in on Paul Barbarin’s rehearsals.

The local picture appeared open and encouraging. Visiting musicians sought out sessions at the Cavern, and some of them took up residence in Los Angeles. Pianist Alton Purnell, for example. He became part of the scene in the wake of a concert tour with clarinettist George Lewis, forming a band soon afterwards, with Polo on clarinet. It did not occur to me then that these musicians might be taking a break from the oppressive atmosphere of the segregated South. To my unsophisticated mind, they were a motley crew of Angelenos from varied backgrounds, having a ball. Among them was Carlos Flores, a young Puerto Rican photographer who played trombone and became my penfriend.

Flores held parties at his house, hosting sessions that featured De Lay, Polo and St Cyr who had long abandoned the banjo and now played an amplified guitar. He wrote enthusiastically, sending me dozens of photographs, colour as well as black-and-white and including pictures of himself with Louis Armstrong and blues guitarist Brownie McGhee. Some of the musicians signed their portraits for me, beginning to develop my awareness of what might be possible in the future.

With every letter and artefact he sent me, Carlos helped stimulate my desire to become an advocate for the music. I would soon start listening to more modern forms of jazz but the understanding he gave me of New Orleans music as a way of life for its creators meant that I never abandoned it completely.

Inspired by Carlos’ friendship with Johnny St Cyr, I wrote to him, too. To my surprise and delight, the Great Man replied, with a two-page 1etter, very warm. Acknowledgement from someone who had recorded with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven, translated as two degrees of separation from some of the most celebrated moments in jazz.

As the years went by, and as I became involved in the jazz world on a professional and personal basis, the excitement engendered by the arrival of those envelopes with their red and blue stripes and Air Mail stamps drifted into the background along with Saturday afternoons at Selhurst Park and at the Old Vic. Duke Ellington and Mingus became more important to me, then Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra.

When I finally got to New Orleans, some 16 years after those pen-friendships had reached their natural conclusion, I experienced a delicious full turn of the wheel. Polo had left California in 1959, a year after our correspondence ceased. Back home, he played with the marching bands and appeared occasionally at Preservation Hall where veterans provided entertainment for tourists. When I wrote to say I was planning a visit, he invited me to stay. I spent a week with him and his wife Alma, in their tidy white clapboard house on North Dorgenois Street, riding the bus into the French Quarter each day.

Staying at a distance from the hustle and bustle of Bourbon Street was instructive, in more ways than one. Much is made of Preservation Hall, a shabby place, kept that way with passing trade in mind. The older musicians took the gig because it paid a few dollars, and for no other reason. As I swiftly discovered, no-one was kidding anyone that this show was connected in any way with ’respect for the culture’. The musicians called it 'The Plantation’.

Every morning, I ate fresh French-style croissants with Polo and drank the coffee and chicory mix that scents breakfast kitchens throughout the region. Alma cooked simply, health issues having forced Polo to abandon the funkier Louisiana dishes, along with his beloved parades. But he practiced regularly and kept his instruments cleaned and ready, and would still play the odd ’Plantation' night whenever a guest came to town.

He still received an abundance of fan-mail, too, and in quiet moments, sat down to reply. I watched him in the kitchen, in the glow of a small table lamp, filling pages with the ornate hand-writing I remembered from my teens, carefully considering his words. There were times when Alma queried the wisdom of this activity, understandably perhaps, given the cost of postage, but Polo was adamant.

If someone had honoured him with a letter, a reply was required. It was a system he followed for the rest of his days, even after he had stopped playing completely. The music was that important to him and, I realised as I sat there watching him all those years later, it was precisely because of such early assiduousness on his part that Polo ensured it would always be that important to me.

Postscript: Among the ‘names’ I met during my stay was trombonist Jim Robinson, a member of Bunk Johnson’s postwar band but, perhaps more intriguingly, someone who had marched with an army band in First World War France – VW.

This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of Jazzwise magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

Subscribe from only £5.83

Never miss an issue of the UK's biggest selling jazz magazine.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Jazzwise magazine.

Find out more