Al Hirt - trumpet
Pee Wee Spitelera - clarinet
Joe Prejean - trombone
Ellis Marsalis - piano
Rodrigo Sines - bass
Mike Oshetski - saxophone
Paul Ferrera - drums
At the peak of his celebrity, from the late '50s through the 70s, New Orleans native Al Hirt gained a national reputation for his crisp, catchy trumpet work on simple pop confections like "Java," "Cotton Candy" and "Sugar Lips." Affectionately known by his friends as "Jumbo," the hulking trumpeter considered himself more an entertainer than a jazz musician, though his ebullient brand of Dixieland was imbued with swing and dazzling improvisations. At the time of his appearance at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1970, Hirt owned his own Bourbon Street club where he regularly performed. Fronting a professional crew consisting of pianist Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton Marsalis, whom Hirt is said to have given his first trumpet), clarinetist Pee Wee Spitelera, trombonist Joe Prejean, saxophonist Mike Oshetski, former Louis Prima drummer Paul Ferrera and bassist Rodrigo Sines, Hirt delivered an entertaining set (with some brusque, humorous and frequently politically incorrect banter between songs).
A generous bandleader, Hirt individually features each of his sidemen during this set at the Municipal Auditorium. They open with a pyrotechnic take on Jelly Roll Morton's "Royal Garden Blues" that makes the classic Bix Beiderbecke & The Wolverines version from 1924 sound like it's standing still. Every one in the band gets a solo taste here, with clarinetist Spitelera and saxophonist Oshetski making the strongest contributions. At the end of this bristling opener, they each trade rapid-fire eight-bar phrases with drummer Ferrera before bringing the piece to an exhilarating conclusion. They next downshift into the ballad "Paula's Theme," a Hirt original from the soundtrack to Viva Max! a madcap satirical film from 1970 starring Peter Ustinov and Jonathan Winters. Clarinetist Spitelera showcases his most expressive playing on "Danny Boy," jumping up to the high register at the conclusion of this poignant Irish anthem while trombonist Prejean delivers a lovely, lyrical reading of the Tommy Dorsey theme song, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." Tenor saxophonist Oshetski, whom Hirt calls "the greatest jazz player in the band," is then featured on a mellow bossa nova rendition of the 1967 Herman's Hermits hit tune "There's a Kind of Hush," sounding a touch like tenor great Stan Getz with his warm tone and fluid lines.
Pianist Marsalis, whose own modern jazz quartet was featured on the New Orleans Jazz Festival bill the previous night, is next featured on a swinging piano trio rendition of the ballad "Secret Love," which is underscored by Ferrera's brisk brushwork and creatively syncopated playing on the kit. Bassist Sines, a native of Costa Rica who was attending Loyola University at the time of this concert, carries the melody on the jazz standard "Body And Soul," which also has him improvising freely throughout the piece. Hirt steps up to the plate on the swinging set-closer, a syncopated Dixieland version of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)." And dig his quote at the tag from "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans."
Born Alois Maxwell Hirt (on November 7, 1922) in New Orleans, he picked up his first trumpet at age six. By age 16, he began playing professionally at the local Fair Grounds Racetrack. In 1940, Hirt enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Dr. Frank Simon, a former soloist with the John Philip Sousa Orchestra. Following a stint in the Army, he broke in with various big bands during the Swing era, making his mark as a featured soloist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. In 1950, Hirt became first trumpet and soloist with Horace Heidt's Orchestra and by 1955 he began playing with fellow New Orleanian, clarinetist Pete Fountain. He recorded some regional albums as a leader in the late '50s before signing a lucrative contract with RCA, debuting with 1961's The Greatest Horn in the World. Subsequent albums like Cotton Candy and Honey in the Horn were Top 10 best sellers, but it was his million-selling, Grammy-winning hit single from 1963, "Java," that brought Hirt international stardom. He flashed his technical prowess on the frenetic theme to the 1966 TV show The Green Hornet starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee. The following year, Hirt became a minority owner in the NFL expansion New Orleans Saints football team.
On February 8, 1970, Hirt was injured while riding on a Mardi Gras float. He claims to have been struck in the mouth by a brick thrown from the crowd, and he makes a joking reference to it in his 1970 New Orleans Jazz Festival performance. Hirt continued performing and recording for various labels through the '80s and '90s. He died at his home in New Orleans on April 27, 1999, at age 76. (Bill Milkowski)