Live Free Like Jazz

For a long time I never considered myself a “jazz musician”. I certainly don’t have the talent, skill set or understanding of complex music theory to properly improvise. I’m more of a “hillbilly musician” – I know three chords and the truth.

Truth is, that’s all I need – and that’s all I’ve ever needed for a long time now. I just didn’t realize it.

What I have realized, after much reflection, is that I am a hillbilly musician with the heart of a jazz man. By this I mean I thrive on unpredictability and improvisation. I enjoy having no net, simply living and working wherever life takes me.

I have not been happy playing in traditional performances venues for a quite some time. The relationship between (most) venues with artists is always amicable – the joints I play are supporting indie artists (like me) and I’m forever grateful. But maybe I’m not mature enough to play the game, or maybe I am just too much of a moody artist – but I always feel the pressure of being “hired” by a venue to deliver whatever it is they want of me. It freaks me out to the point of being a severe phobia. I feel sick, my whole body trembles and my brain feels all cloudy and swirly.

The good news is, these past few weeks I’ve played house concerts in Nashville and Boston – and dropped down on a few street corners when I had the time.

And the feeling was euphoric!

The freedom of having no real boss – just making music for the sake of making music – was amazing. I forgot what that feeling felt like! House Concerts are always hosted by true music fans (folks not interested in how much beer your music will sell), so there is simply no pressure. In fact, it’s less stressful than singing on a street corner – because you don’t need to watch out for grumpy cops (grin)!

So, to make a long story short, this is how I’m spending the rest of the spring and summer – playing only house concerts and busing (“street singing”). I’ve designed a scheduled based on the house concerts my lovely (and constantly frustrated by me) booking agent Dave has schedule. In between, I’ll be busking and should be able to make enough from the house shows and the generosity of folks on the streets to survive.

Should be a fun adventure! I plan on bringing a camera and am toying around with turning this spring and summer freedom adventure into some sort of “on the road” documentary. We’ll see…

The future is as open as the highway, when you live free like jazz!

Cheers,
Jack

Here’s my travel plan…

JackNortonSummerTour2019_Updated

Advertisements

City Pages Article From 2001

I don’t know why, but I received a Google Alert about this old City Pages article from 2001. It’s a real blast from my past. Back when I was using a fake name (“Paul Dandy”) and touring with Ben Weaver. A lot of things have changed over the years, but I still use a fake ID (updated from Elvis to Taylor Swift) and I still avoid soapy production…

Enjoy!

http://www.citypages.com/music/blues-rags-and-hollers-6704329

PS: I’m reprinting the above linked article below, for easy reference…

PPS: We’ve re-released a lot of old recordings from this era. Check out https://jacknorton.bandcamp.com/ for more info.

ctyp_67043291407895.0Blues, Rags, and Hollers

Paul Dandy looks a little out of his element. It’s a few minutes before 6:00 p.m. at the Uptown Bar, and the usual group of youngish semi-bohemians has gathered for drinks. A burly guy whose red lumberjack flannel shirt and navy blue railroad engineer’s cap betray not a thread of hipster irony, Dandy orders a merlot with ice and a chocolate milk. For ID, he presents a Tennessee driver’s license, and it takes about four seconds before our server realizes that the name on the laminated card reads “Presley, Elvis.” Dandy shrugs and presents proper identification, and the barely amused waitress leaves. After lighting a slightly bent Lucky Strike, Dandy mutters, “Sometimes it actually works.”

You can almost believe him. After all, Dandy and his friend Ben Weaver know how to hustle. Sharing a record label, Unit 3, that consists of little more than a few boxes of CDs and a Web page, they’ve discovered a loyal following among music fans and fellow musicians whose flirtations with their parents’ folk collections led to a lingering romance with the form.

Two-thirds vaudeville huckster, one-third weary traveler, Dandy is the owner of a warble that is at once charming enough to lure a gaggle of easy marks behind a carnival curtain, and seemingly earnest enough to wrench a tear (and maybe a few bucks) from a stranger on the bus. The St. Charles, Minnesota, musician unearths ditties and dirges planted deep within the American roots tradition, mixing what record sleeves refer to in shorthand as “trad arr.” with some spot-on self-penned facsimiles, like “1925 Charleston.” That second track of last year’s Wizard Oil is an original about the times “back when Grandma was a gal,” that could pass for a 78 recording of the era.

A jazzy riot that draws more from reconstituted ragtime than any retro-trend, Oil nearly bursts at the seams with homemade finger-clackers, empty whiskey bottles, and discarded mule jawbones. But Dandy’s voice, raggedy enough to belie his 21 years, keeps the joyous jumble sewn together. His style, steeped in history yet not wheezingly antiquated, recalls the days when the word whoopee was considered ribald and bluesmen were just as likely to earn a living plucking chicken feathers as they were plucking banjo strings.

“It’s not all some old-time vaudeville joke,” Dandy insists. “I don’t want people to assume it’s a novelty act because I’m scratching an Al Jolson sample into my record on a Victrola instead of some Seventies disco single on a turntable.”

Dandy’s new album, White Dog Hunch, departs from Wizard Oil‘s slick production. Recorded in six hours, three of those in a chicken coop, three others in the loft of a working hog barn, Hunch evokes the spirits of anthologist Alan Lomax’s weary troubadours.

“Producers in the studio these days take buckets of soap and water to the music and scrub it clean of any soul,” Dandy complains. “It’s like they’re trying to eliminate exactly what I’m trying to create.”

Quiet and introspective, Ben Weaver (also age 21) has gamely played the straight man to Dandy’s slickster since the pair met up in the state’s Arts High School in Golden Valley. Weaver’s songs chronicle long nights of empty wine bottles and AM radios, and they are possessed of an underlying calm drawn from Weaver’s professed love of solitude in nature. Currently logging in northern Minnesota, he’s truly in his element. “I don’t think of it as work, but as a research project,” he says via telephone. “What I want to write about is the simple stuff, not barrooms and whiskey, but the real people in the working class and what they do to get by.”

Case in point: The title track off last year’s El Camino Blues–a moody jaunt that peers into the troubles of its narrator by chronicling the last days of his rusty car–could fit on one of Steve Earle’s records. Or take “I Cried All Night,” where an otherwise standard indie ballad is given an empathetic folk treatment: “Well, perhaps it is you/Well, maybe it’s me/But together we’ve got something to say.”

Weaver has attracted a number of modern folk notables to his side–the first being Greg Brown–simply by sending them demo tapes. El Camino Blues featured Brown (with a nasal moan eerily reminiscent of Mr. Ed) dueting with Weaver on the Jimmie Rodgers standard “Peach Picking Down in Georgia.” Elsewhere, Peter Ostroushko did turns on fiddle, and Dean Magraw lent his talents on guitar. Weaver’s forthcoming album will feature a pair of acclaimed Iowans, Red House Records songwriter Dave Moore and guitarist Bo Ramsey.

Still, Weaver takes care to avoid being pigeonholed by a public that is quick to categorize. “I met Greg four years ago, before I was really seriously doing music,” he says. “When I asked him to do my album, and he agreed, I thought millions of people would buy my record just because he was on it. I got compared to him a lot because I’m a big guy with a beard, but I didn’t really want to be compared to anyone else, because I’m doing my own thing. Greg helped me find out exactly what that was, only because it wasn’t exactly his thing.”

Encouragement from other musicians hasn’t been hard to come by for either Weaver or Dandy, thanks to their (seemingly endless) supply of demo tapes sent out (seemingly uncannily) at just the right times. One of the tapes landed them at the dinner table of Janine Van Zandt, widow of Townes Van Zandt. Another fell into the hands of Tom Waits, who left a birthday message on Dandy and Weaver’s Unit 3 record-label answering machine.

“He was laughing the whole time, saying how great he thought our stuff was,” Dandy recalled. “He couldn’t have known it was my birthday. Whenever some club owner screws us out of money for a show, I replay that message, and it gives me a little boost.”

Dave Van Ronk As My Co-Pilot…And A Free Album For Y’all

My pursuit of minimalism has found me falling deep down a dark rabbit hole of VHS, S-VHS, CD, CDR, DVD, Blu-Ray, cassette, vinyl, hard-drives and more. In short, I am slowly working through over twenty years of past projects – it’s been the ultimate digital trip down memory lane. Very strange, and pretty fun as well.

Last month I discovered I still had an album I recorded at a concert by my friend and mentor Dave Van Ronk. I toured a bit here and there with Dave as his opening act. We had shows in Ames, Madison, Milwaukee, places like that.

I was seventeen when Dave first flew to Minneapolis for me to pick him up and drive him to some gigs. I’m not sure what was better – getting a chance to hear him every night on stage, or having him in the co-pilot seat listening to his endless stories about Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Clarence Williams and others.

Dave occasionally talked Bob Dylan too, though I was told by his management to never ask or bring up Dylan. I remember Dave telling me a long – and quite funny – story about how he and Dylan were touring in the Midwest during a snowstorm. The snow was so high that you could no longer see the road. Dylan had a yardstick and kept tapping the ground with it – his arm stretched out the passenger seat window into the cold as Van Ronk drove. Somehow, they made it to the gig on time and never left the road (at least they didn’t think they left the road). The way Dave told the story was both hilarious and wistful, with a touch of pain just below the surface.

I wish to god I had recorded more of our time together. Thankful, I set up some portable recording gear at our show in Milwaukee. We played a funky joint called the Miramar Theater. Dave said if I ever wanted to share the music, that someday I could spread it on a new thing he had heard about called the internet.

I regret losing the master tapes for almost two decades…but now here we are. I found them. And his set still is fucking killer. And guess what? The internet still exists (Dave predicted it would be here for awhile) and you can still share music on it! So that’s what I’m doing.

If you’d like to download for FREE a digital copy of “Milwaukee Blues”, all you need to do is click here: https://jacknorton.bandcamp.com/album/milwaukee-blues

PS: If you’re not familiar with Dave, search his early stuff out. The Coen Brothers based Inside Llewyn Davis on Van Ronk…

2.15.19 – Martin Sharp And My 11 Year Old Memories Of France

I’m going through the massive amounts of stuff I’ve collected over the years and re-discovered this little gem of a song.

I first heard “Memories Of France” on a bootleg Tiny Tim vinyl LP produced in 1979 by Australian artist Martin Sharp. I remember talking to Martin one afternoon when I was about twelve years old. I tracked down his phone number and called him at home in Australia. I was in America. I asked him what time it was and I can’t remember exactly what he said. I think he said “3:30”. I asked if it was AM or PM. He replied, “I’m not sure, could be either”. Then I said, “is it today or tomorrow in Australia?” And he said, “I’m not sure, I never learned my days of the week.” We had a nice chat. Looks like that album by Tiny Tim has been turned into a proper digital release here.

Anyways, I ended up finding an old cassette tape I made at home when I was eleven years old. I just re-released this (somewhat embarrassing) album on Bandcamp. It was just me and my ukulele doing my best to be Tiny Tim. It’s embarrassing because it’s me, it’s badass if I don’t think of the recording being of me at eleven, but rather of some random weirdo kid in his basement at age eleven. Then, this album becomes a record of a strange badass. But I digress. You can hear my recording of “Memories Of France” on that album.

And then today I find the old sheet music for “Memories Of France”. I never knew it was co-written by J. Russell Robinson. He was the musical partner of Al Bernard. One of my favorite minstrel performers.

So, here you go, if you want to learn this tune – now you can. The uke arrangement is intense and sophisticated.

Be well,
Jack

 

1.28.19 – Me And Emmett Miller…90 Years Ago Today.

That feeling you get when it’s January 28, 2019 and you are reading a copy of the Detroit Free Press dated January 28, 1929 and you see an article about minstrel yodeler Emmett Miller and it mentions that there was a vaudeville performer in his troupe named Jack Norton.

Eerie as all hell.

Here’s the clipping in question…

And here’s an ad that ran in the same paper for the show that Emmett Miller and Jack Norton were appearing at in Detroit that week at the Oriental Theater…

I think I may have discovered a glitch in the Matrix…

1.24.19 – Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues

Mamie Smith was born in 1891 and was a vaudeville performer. Today she is more remembered as the first African-American artist to make blues recordings. Her song, “Crazy Blues” was a huge hit in 1920.

I was doing some unrelated research on my obsession Emmett Miller, and found some fun articles, ads and photos of Mamie. I wanted to share them with you…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aren’t those lovely? Quite interesting.

Emmett recorded “Lovin’ Sam” years after Mamie, so I can only assume she was an influence.

Digging up ghosts is a fun pursuit!

Cheers,
Jack

1.22.19 – Carolina Cotton Loves To Yodel

Is there anything better than this clip from the 1944 film, “I’m From Arkansas”? I doubt it.

PS: This is a great film…a brief description: “The national spotlight falls on Pitchfork, Arkansas when a local farmer’s sow has 18 piglets. How the townspeople relate to city folk and handle fame is the ingredient for laughs.”

1.14.19 – New album “Busker’s Blues” out now!

I’m so excited! My new album “Busker’s Blues” is out now. I wanted to share with you some info from the album page

Jack NortonJack’s new solo album of hokum blues, ragtime, vaudeville folk and lost gems from the 1920s and 1930s is now available!

The songs on this album are a throwback to Jack’s days as a “busker”, singing for tips on the streets of Toronto and Detroit. Recorded with two vintage microphones on tape in a small cabin in rural Manitoba, Canada. Truly a solo album, Jack is the only musician on this release – scatting, yodeling and crooning his way through the tunes while playing guitar, ukulele, mouth trumpet and stomp box. The sparse production, raw recording and vintage hiss of the reel-to-reel tape deck make for a refreshing and relaxing stroll down memory lane. Beatnik jive and vaudevillian hokum make this album strikingly original and honest. For track listing and more info, click here.

jacknorton_purchase

Stream “Busker’s Blues” below…