For the whole month of September in 1990, I lived inside the compound of the Political Agent of North Waziristan Tribal Area 250 km southwest of Peshawar. The compound was no more than 2 acres square – if that – surrounded by 15-foot mud and concreted walls. Entry was through a heavily guarded, massive wooden door, kept closed all hours of the day and night.
I was accommodated in a tiny room outfitted with an iron hospital bed, a basic writing desk and a chair. My only companions were two Pakistani officers of the World Food Programme with whom I ate dinner. Some evenings I played cricket with one. With the other I played Scrabble.
I was there to manage one of the first projects designed to support Afghan refugees return home after more than a decade in Pakistan. The Soviets had pulled out the year before and conditions were reported to be suitable for civilians to return. From 10 in the morning to 1 pm, I sat with one of my Pakistani friends in a cubbyhole office of a local bank. We checked IDs and signed chits that were hand carried by a peon to a warehouse where each returnee was given a 50 kilo sack of wheat and the equivalent of $100.
It wasn’t strenuous work. Interesting yes (at least for the first week) but not exhausting. After three hours, we jumped into our heavily armed Toyota Hilux to be driven back to the compound to whittle away the hours until the next day.
It was my first real experience of isolation.
Given the wild environs, especially the unruly tendency of the Waziri tribesmen to kidnap and shoot their automatic rifles at the slightest slight, spending afternoons wandering the local bazaar was out the question. Between meals, I spent most of my waking hours in my cubicle reading, writing and listening to music.
I had a few albums with me, one of which a blues tape. Memphis Slim on side A. “Champion” Jack Dupree on side B. I listened to Side B a lot and fell in love with the man. I wrote letters home enthusing about the pained humour of Jack’s music and how the in the space of a dozen songs I had understood more about the black American experience than any book I had read in college.
Thirty years have passed since that discovery. Here I am again confronted with of a period of restricted movement. And as it so happens I’ve been listening to a lot of Champion Jack lately. So, given we all may be for a long haul here’s a personal anthology of some of my favourite Champion Jack songs.
“Every strand of American music comes directly from Congo Square.” Wynton Marsalis
New Orleans is the most cosmopolitan city in the southern United States. And Congo Square is its cultural heart.The Square took its name from the Congo River in central Africa that carried so many millions of Africans to America as slaves. In the 17th century, first the French and then the Spanish permitted the slaves and those few Africans who had been able to buy their freedom, to have a day ‘off’. They were allowed to gather in small plots around the port city to sing, play, dance and worship. In 1817 a few years after the United States possession of New Orleans a space just outside the city limits was designated as the space for free Black Americans and slaves to congregate: Congo Square.
Jack Dupree, whose father was Congolese and mother had Cherokee blood, was born in the French Quarter in 1909-’10, not too far from Congo Square. When he was an infant his parents were killed when their home was set on fire, probably by the Ku Klux Klan. Jack seems to have lived with his surviving siblings for sometime before being “given away” to the city’s Colored Waifs Home.
Around the same time, 1913-’14, another orphan, Louis Armstrong, whom Jack confessed to hating “‘cause he used to wake us up with his bugle”, came to live at the Waif’s Home. Put off by Armstrong’s trumpet, Jack chose to teach himself to play the piano and was proficient enough to find gigs in local clubs, bordellos and workers camps by the time he left the Home in 1926-’27.
The dark joints in which Black Americans spent their weekends drinking and dancing often had a piano pushed up against a rickety wall next to a bar made from a discarded wood plank resting on top of wooden whiskey barrels. Known as barrelhouses, they gave their name to a new strain of New Orleans piano playing that drove a heavy, dance-friendly beat with the left hand while the right hand teased out a melody. Since many communities across the pre-Civil War South had outlawed drums fearing (probably rightly) that their slaves might pass messages of uprising from plantation to plantation,musicians learned to turn the piano into an alternate rhythm section.
“When you listen to what I’m playing, you got to see in your mind all them gals out there swinging their butts and getting the mens excited. Otherwise you ain’t got this music rightly understood. I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything. I told them when to shake it and when to hold it back. That’s what this music is for.” Robert Shaw, barrelhouse piano player
Though Jack made good money for a musician for the time – he claimed he could make a month’s expenses with just one gig – the blues piano player’s lifestyle held endless temptations: women, booze, reefer, “junk” and gambling. Dupree’s repertoire includes countless songs – paeans as well as confessions – about such things. In addition to playing the piano, Jack took up boxing and paid most bills working as a cook. Around 1930, he headed north to Chicago where he hooked up with other bluesmen like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red and Scrapper Blackwell who became his lifelong mates.
Forever restless, he moved east to Detroit where he ran into America’s most famous African American, the boxer Joe Louis. According to Dupree, Louis loaned him $20 to rent a room from a friend for “a dollar. [But] if you played the radio it was another quarter. If you brought a woman it was another quarter.” He hung around with Louis for a while and became a good enough pugilist to win several Golden Gloves competitions, even getting a spot on the card of Joe Louis’s first disastrous losing bout with German Max Schmeling in 1936. By this time Dupree was known among his peers as “Champion”, a moniker he used proudly for the rest of his life.
Next stop was Indianapolis. He spent some time in the early ’40s as the Emcee and regular performer at the city’s Cotton Club and it was here that Jack made his first records for Asch and Okeh Records. But WWII intervened and it was only after the end of the war during which he spent two years as a Japanese POW in the Pacific, that his career really began to take off. He made his way back to New Orleans but in the mid-50s settled in New York. In 1958, in yet another encounter with a cultural icon, Dupree was shipped off to Europe with Judy Garland for a tour organised by the mobster owners of the club where both performed.
The roll call of African American jazz and blues musicians and writers who found a haven free of racism in Europe is long and illustrious. Jack was one of the earliest bluesmen to make the decisionto turn his back on America and settle in Europe. He cashed in his return ticket and spent the rest of his life working and living in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and England. For a while he ran his own blues club and eventually married an English woman. Whenever he was asked if he’d return to the Stateshe had a simple answer. “I’d rather go to jail.”
The tragedy of losing his family at such a young age, not surprisingly, was a major psychic and emotional blow to Jack. His blues are deeply stained in a sense of loss and sadness. A yearning for an illusive home. Even a year before his death he opens an album with a moving lament that tells the story.
“I searched the graveyards over to find where my mother lay/ all my faith was in vain/and I still don’t know until today
When I was 1 year old/my sisters and brothers give me away/ever since that day I’ve been hoping to find a real place to stay
Sometime I wake up cryin’/and I don’t know what I’m cryin’ for/people you know I’m a man/and a man ain’t supposed to cry.”— They Gave Me Away (1991).
Though he’s classified as a barrelhouse blues pianist and is seen as a key influence on such giants as Fats Domino and Memphis Slim and though he can rock out with any number feverish boogies, Jack Dupree’s blues are a more subtle creation. His left hand more often than not is not stomping out a strong beat but rather gently tapping a chord or single notes while his right hand caresses out the melody. Instead of frenetic boogie woogie his playing is characteristically calm and a deliberate unhurried meander. The approach is unashamedly minimalist. The keys are pressed – or not – as much as a punch line to a joke or a denouement to one his many yarns as they are to create tune.
No one may sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell but no one tells the blues like Champion Jack Dupree. Even though he may start out singing, hardly a song escapes without him rapping about his childhood, the people he’s met, the world he sees around him, Martin Luther King, that time he walked from New York to New Orleans or a favourite pet. There is no other blues musician who seems to have so many tales to tell and who is so eager to tell them to you. His blues are full of chuckles and guffaws, often from his sidemen who can’t believe what their hearing. If you want to understand how the blues is actually “lived” you’ll have to build up your collection of Jack Dupree records.
So here you go. A little (very thin) slice of some tasty “Champion” Jack Dupree blues pie.
Nate Rabe is the author of The Shah of Chicago.
Read the other articles in the Art of Solitude series here.
2 Reminiscin’ With Champion Jack
4 One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer