Walking With Legends
BOOK REVIEW By Willard Manus

Barry Martyn, a jazz drummer, record producer and concert promoter, has long been a fixture on the New Orleans scene, having emigrated there in 1961 from his native England. It was his love of New Orleans music--he hates when people call it Dixieland--that drew him there. Having listened to records by Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and George Lewis in Egham, Surrey, he decided to form a schoolboy band and try and emulate them. It took years for him to become accomplished enough to play professionally--his first band knew only one number, which they played either slow or fast all night long--but by the time he was twenty he was confident enough to try his luck in New Orleans.

Now Martyn has written, make that dictated, his autobiography, WALKING WITH LEGENDS--BARRY MARTYN'S NEW ORLEANS JAZZ ODYSSEY. Writer Mic Burns sat with Martyn in 2004 and over "coffee, cigars and other smoking materials" taped his reminiscences, which he then whipped into editorial shape. "Barry's natural skill as a raconteur, coupled with his phenomenal memory took over," Burns writes, "and by the end of the month, we'd amassed over forty hours of audiotape."

As Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the jazz archive at Tulane University, notes in the foreword, Martyn "has striven not to make this book too much about himself, and the care taken to recount the life stories of his associatesd renders the book specially meaningful. Intrinsic to the story is a continual clash of cultures--the avid pupil from the British Isles learning lessons of music (and life) from these elderly strangers, who take him under their wings partly out of self-interest and partly out of curiosity. Together, they find a way to connect through music, even if the road gets a little bumpy at times."

Martyn not only played with many of the great black New Orleans musicians, but began recording them on his own MONO (Music of New Orleans) label. He also used his own money to introduce the likes of Kid Sheik, Kid Thomas and Emanuel Paul to British audiences, having paved the way by releasing their albums in the U.K.

It would be an understatement to call Martyn's life colorful. He was not only the first white man in the U.S. to join a black musicians' union, he often toured through the south with all-black bands and suffered the indignities and danger of the racism that was omnipresent in those days (when the KKK was in full swing). Considered "a crazy Englishman" by many of the musicians, Martyn managed to not only earn their respect but their friendship over the years, which is why they took him into their confidence when he later videotaped them for the National Park Service when it declared New Orleans a National Jazz Park (and made him a Jazz Commissioner).

Martyn's guiding light was Bill Russell, who owned a tiny record store on Chartres St and befriended Martyn when he first arrived on the scene. Russell, another white, idealistic devotee of New Orleans music, was not only making field records (on a big Ampex 600 machine) but writing articles and books about the vanishing generation which had put jazz on the map. He and Martyn became close and remained that way until Russell died in 1994.

When Martyn brought his band to L.A. to play a gig at the Wilshire Ebell he was told he couldn't take part because he wasn't a member of the local union (which had a waiting period requirement). The problem was solved when Martyn's friend, the blues singer Jesse Price, marched into the office of the union's president, Max Herman, and said, "I know the rules say he should wait six months, but he ain't got that long to wait, so don't be talkin' that shit about rules! If it hadn't been for all the people I talked into voting for you, you wouldn't be sitting in that chair, you motherfucker. There must be some way you can bend the rules!"

Martyn got his union card and thus was able to take part in a historic and memorable concert.

WALKING WITH LEGENDS is packed with juicy stories like that. It's a book that ranks with the finest works about New Orleans and its indigenous music. (Louisiana State University Press, $18.95 paper).