New Orleans News and Views – Les Muscutt
Les Muscutt (bjo, gtr) – born Barrow-in-Furness, England June 30th 1941. Outstanding jazzman, made himself a place among top jazzmen in New Orleans during the 1970’s, particularly with The French Market Jazz Band.
This item from the revised edition of “New Orleans Jazz – A Family Album” by Al Rose and Edmond Souchon (Published by Louisiana State University Press, long out of print and costing a fortune on eBay) gives a clue to the prestige of this wonderful musician.
It is not easy to be accepted as a “brother” in New Orleans but Les Muscutt managed this with the twin qualities of his gently sunny personality and his remarkable ability on the guitar and particularly on the banjo. His retirement due to health problems came as a shock to everyone and I felt drawn to write this article to encourage you to listen to his huge output and contribution to jazz and in particular to New Orleans Jazz. Les came from a musical family and the gift of a scruffy banjo and decent “Harmony” guitar led to his interest in music, and with BBC programmmes of dance music and jazz his fate was sealed. When a friend of John Beecham’s rang the doorbell and asked if he would like to come and rehearse with a group and maybe play a few gigs he was hooked!
Les moved to Central London, in fact Lisle Street in Soho.That was the hub of the jazz, blues, skiffle and folk scene. He got a job at 77 Charing Cross Road – yes the legendary Dobell’s record shop! Many of their customers were musicians, and Les’s first professional job was with the Nat Gonella Band. Short jobs with Acker Bilk, Cy Laurie, Terry Pitt and the London version of the Clyde Valley Stompers and over a year with Clinton Ford and Charlie Gall’s Jazz Band. Jobs with the “Mike Cotton Sound” and Bruce Turner came along, and all this time the quality of Les’s playing increased.
Les was married to the amazing “Babs” by this time and when an offer came to play in the new franchise of “Your Father’s Moustache” in New York, it was too good to refuse. Many moves to play for this franchise around the U.S.A. followed, and traveling with a wife and children was a costly business. When the offer came to open the franchise in New Orleans came along with a degree of permanency and as band leader, Les snapped it up
The opening of a “Red Garter Club” in New Orleans led to further opportunities. Being a band leader in New Orleans is the key to the magic kingdom! The wonderful Freddie Lonzo got his first jobs with Les, then came Maynard Chatters and Paul Crawford. The trick with the “Moustache” and “Red Garter” was to know just about every song ever written and Les had learned this ability. The three chord trick was gone and Les the master musician was here in New Orleans.
On these jobs, quantity was essential – they lasted five or sometimes six hours a night – but Les had the added asset of quality to add to the quantity! Les was the leader of the band six nights a week and on his night off, Emmanuel Sayles led the band. Try a CD entitled “Banjos on Bourbon” – ADD.NOBILITY 701 with Manny Sayles, Narvin Kimball and Jerry Green for a taste of Banjo music at the Red Garter.
During the intervals at his Bourbon Street gigs, Les would wander around the corner to St. Peter Street and Preservation Hall. He started playing with Kid Sheik’s band at the Hall and worked with many bands on Bourbon Street, including the Famous Door and with Connie Jones’s Band.
In the Al Rose/Ed Souchon book is a great picture of the “French Market Jazz Band”. I asked Les about this; he said “it was a wonderful way to spend the weekend! The band comprised of mostly band leaders, people loved the jazz, threw money into the kitty and we had plenty of money for beer and we had a great time with a little money to take home to our wives to prove we had been working!”
When Nina Buck opened “The Palm Court Cafe”, Les played with the band led by Louis Nelson.. When Nelson died in 1988 Pud Brown took over and when Pud died, Brian O”Connell took the clarinet chair, Lionel Ferbos played the trumpet and Les became band leader and maintained this position until his retirement early this year.
For many year Les did a summer tour in the U.K. with Chris Burke. This was made possible by a lucrative visit to Norway with Chris and then a trip to the U.K. to meet up with old friends and play a few gigs. In fact, Les was in the U.K. when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and he hurried home to find his Babs evacuated to the country to avoid the dreadful situation in New Orleans.
In 2001, Les had to have open heart surgery. He never entirely recovered and it brought about his eventual retirement. He lost feeling in two fingers on his left hand and even after extensive physiotherapy, he had to admit defeat!
I must tell you that even with this problem, I have listened many nights and enjoyed his superb playing, but Les is a perfectionist and as he said to me “I just got fed up with faking and knowing that I was not able to do what I wanted to do.” So the banjo sits in its case and is lifted so that Babs can clean underneath it!
There are so many CDs with Les Muscutt on them that I am almost scared to select, but here goes: 504CDS 100 “The 504 Records Story 1978-2003 ” This gives a cross section of bands that Les recorded with. 504CDS8 with Wendell Eugene’s Band; this is one of Les’s favourites – Albert Walters (tpt), Raymond Burke (clt) Janette Kimball (Pno), Chester Zardis (Bass) and Chester Jones (Drums)
Les played on a Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton record on the Verve label which was a Grammy Award winner.
Finally, one of Les’s favourites is a CD on the Jazzology label JCD-233 titled “Swinging Down to New Orleans”again featuring the legendary Doc Cheatham.
If you come to New Orleans you will not find Les Muscutt on a bandstand anywhere. You might spot him on a special night at the Palm Court Cafe, or if you are out fishing on the lake, the guy next to you catching the giant catfish could be Les Muscutt!