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Veteran New Orleans jazzmanby Charles Suhor
Copyright © 2003 Charles Suhor
Don Suhor, a clarinetist and alto saxophonist who spanned many styles and eras on the New Orleans jazz scene, died of cancer on January 27. He was 70 years old.
Suhor's 55-year career "epitomized the life of the working New Orleans jazz musician," Keith Spera wrote in a Times-Picayune article. "Rarely a headliner, Mr. Suhor worked 'the grind,' playing jazz brunches, hotels and so-called tourist clubs, the bread-and-butter gigs that didn't lead to fame or recording contracts but allow him to support his family as a musician....With a handful of other white musicians, he joined with African-American jazz artists to defy segregation laws that prohibited interracial bandstands."
Suhor played with early jazz artists and with the city's "invisible generation" of early be-bop musicians after World War II. At age 14 he received a trophy from Benny Goodman in a contest for young New Orleans clarinetists. His first influences were swing artists like Goodman and Artie Shaw but he was an admirer of local legend Irving Fazola and was soon working with Dixieland groups led by veterans like Dutch Andrus and teenagers Fred and Frank Assunto, who later formed the Dukes of Dixieland.
In the early fifties Suhor was part of the underground modern jazz movement in the city. His eclectic style drew from Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz and Buddy DeFranco. Lacking an audience for the new music, he played after hours jam sessions with musicians like Al Belletto, Joseph "Mouse" Bonati, Edward Frank, Bill Huntington, Ellis Marsalis, Brew Moore, and Mike Serpas.
While a student at Loyola University, Suhor was the instigator of modern jazz improvisation sessions that were often squelched by the administration. At a 1998 symposium he recalled, "We'd go down to the basement to jam. The dean would come down and say, 'Vot is dees booogie-woogie,' like in an old Hollywood movie."
During military service in Washington,D.C. he played with singer-pianist Shirley Horn and tenor saxophonist Buck Hill. Returning to New Orleans, he launched a varied career that included work with his own be-bop pit band at the Sho'Bar and with Al Hirt, Lionel Hampton, Santo Pecora, George French's Storyville Jazz Band, and others. Among his performance venues were the Jazzfest, Al Hirt's, the Blue Room, Crazy Shirley's, the Famous Door, and Snug Harbor. In recent months he appeared most frequently with the Palm Court Cafe Jazz Band and with the Amy Sharpe Trio at the Court of Two Sisters. He recorded with the Storyville Jazz Band Bob French, Papa Don Vappie, Wendell Brunois, Topsy Chapman, and others.
The Spera article reported that a benefit concert at the Palm Court on January 13 had "an among response from musicians," drawing over 200 musicians, according to proprietor Nina Buck. Bassist Bill Huntington noted that "many Orleanians didn't know him, but other musicians knew what a great player he was." Palm Court vocalist Thais Clark told Spera that Suhor helped her make the transition from blues to jazz. "'Don Suhor, my man,' Clark said. 'Anything I wanted to do when it came to jazz, Don knew.'"
Charles Suhor is the author of Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years (Scarecrow Press, 2001)