A Century of Progress

Guitarist Huey Long is from all the eras

Long recalls the time as one of rapid change in jazz, and Navarro was at the forefront. "We wouldn't play certain things then, 'cause Fats would say, 'That sounds like 1946. This is 1947.' That was why we gave the songs such strange titles, things like 'Red Pepper,' 'Spinal,' 'Fracture' and 'Stealin' Trash.' "

Bebop was just emerging out of the after-hours joints, Long remembers. The musicians would spend the early evenings playing society dances for people Long ironically brands "the Geritol folks," and then they would head to seedy dives, places where they could go get "bad heads" (read: stoned) and play improvised music until the sun came up. This "bad head" music became bebop.

Long is rightfully proud of the sessions. No trumpeter before or since could best Navarro in peak form, which he was on these sessions. The music -- which is available today as In the Beginning, Bebop on the Savoy label -- sounds as revolutionary as it did right after World War II. Long remembers how Davis and Navarro told him not to gum up the works with too much strumming. During our conversation, he silences the room from time to time so we can hear his short solos. "They would throw me a bone every now and then and give me eight" bars, he says with a laugh.

Long's guitar style, "chord melody," is a dying art. Most guitarists today don't use chords to carry the melody the way Long and the early jazzmen did, preferring instead to play single string solos or riffs. Long has written three instructional books on the subject, with material ranging from pop standards to classics by Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Liszt notated for guitar.

From Dixieland banjo in the Fifth Ward to classical guitar in New York City, Long has played it all. And today, at his home in the Houston Heights, he's playing a unique version of "Route 66." His fingers find their ways to the keys with a certainty that belies their century of living, as does his voice, which, though hoarse, phrases the song with Sinatra-like precision and aplomb. This version of the classic sounds as bygone as the road itself and as much an American classic. It swings, it rocks, it's steeped in the blues but it isn't blues.

Like Huey says, he's from all the eras, and this is great American music, the kind that seduced the world 50 or 60 years ago, the kind German kids listened to in defiance of the Nazis, and that Russians jammed in defiance of the communists, and, not to equate this with the first two, but the kind that Americans listened to in defiance of their parents. It's the sound of progress, painful and joyful as it can be, the musical progress of the century Huey Long has seen.

Huey Long celebrates his 100th birthday Sunday, April 25, at Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 909 Texas Avenue. For more information, call 713-224-5299.

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