One Day I'll Fly Away Sailor's Delight No.15, November, 1983 by Dave Wood If you're a blues fan under thirty the chancesare(sic) that you will never have heard of Jazzbo "Pretty Boy" Bird, yet less than a couple of decades ago the mere mention of his name was enough to cause bitter & passionate argument. Of all the stories thrown up by the blues "boom" of the sixties this is surely the most bizarre & the conspiracy of silence which as descended on the blues establishment since the end of that turbulent, pivotal decade does less than justice to an artist who, though undeniably controversial & difficult to place sensibly in the overall picture, deserves better than oblivion. This article does not pretend to be an exhaustive retelling of his story but it is hoped that it will go some way toward restoring the balance, enabling us ultimately to consider this strange, unique artist calmly, without emotion. Older readers should note that it is not our intention to reopen old wounds. Passionate beliefs once held are hard to abandon but we have striven to take a purely narrative, unbiased approach. We hope the article will be read in the same spirit. The Encyclopaedia Britanicca defines the myna (or mynah) as an Asian bird of the family Sturnidae(order Passeriformes) of somewhat crowlike appearance. Its cry in the wild is composed of chuckles & shrieks but in captivity it learns to imitate human speech with uncanny accuracy, it's nearest rival the gray parrot coming a poor second by comparison. In 1972 it's importation into the United States was prohibited after one specimen was found to have a serious fowl disease but almost a decade before the ban Mike Rickell, an Illinois advertising executive, bought an Asian hill myna as a gift for his son Dean. Known academically as Gracula Religiosa & colloquially in it's native Indi as the grackle the hill myna is acknowledged as the best talker of all. At the time his father bought him the bird Dean was fifteen. It wa the time of The Beatles but while the eyes & ears of most of young America were turned eastward to Liverpool a substantial minority of middle-class white kids were turning inward, rediscovering their own musical roots. Folk clubs sprang up like summer daisies, & from the folk boom came the blues revival. Like wandering evangilists the blues researchers descended on teh South. They were many things but above all else they were wide-eyed kids in search of a great adventure. In those heady first summers of the blues revival it seemed that hardly a week went by without some long forgotten name from the faded label of a worn-out 78 being resurrected into real live flesh & blood before our very eyes. Some, like John Hurt & Skip James, were to make beautiful music again. Others, it might be argued, should have been left decently in peace, but back then we never thought so. One of the kids who got caught up in all the excitement was Dean Rickell. He filled his shelves with albums of the blues, mainly re-issued early stuff & new recordings by rediscovered bluesmen, & like thousands of others he bought himself a guitar, learned a few rudimentary chords & runs & began appearing regularly at local hootenanys. By the time he was eighteen in late 1965 he was semi-resident at the Bitter Fruit Club in his home town of Stanford, Illinois. And sitting quietly at home in his cage was the myna bird, not known affectionately as Nuts. The bird was a disappointment. It spoke, but not particularly well, & in general had failed to provide his son with the amusing companionship which Mike Rickell had intended. As a result the bird was largely ignored. It was fed & watered, & its cage was still occassionally cleaned, but little more. One night early in November of 1965 Dean Rickell was awakened by what he at first took to be a recording of Sleepy John Estes singing "Diving Duck Blues". Estes had been rediscovered some years earlier & had re-recorded his old song along with several others for the Delmark label where it had appeared on the album "The Legend of Sleepy John Estes". Dean was puzzled as to who could be playing his albums at three in the morning. He had no brothers or sisters & neither of his parents shared his musical tastes. He became even more puzzled as he roused himself from his sleep & realised that it could not possibly be a record that he was hearing. The voice was undoubtedly that of Estes, but it was unaccompanied. He climbed out of bed & made his way to the room at the front of the house from where the voice was coming. When he reached it he stood dumbfounded. Nuts was perched in the centre of his cage, his eyes closed, giving as perfect a performance of the song as it was possible to imagine. Dean must have stood there for several astounded minutes, unaware that his mother & father had joined him. As Nuts finished the song all three burst into spontaneous applause which set the bird screeching & flapping around his cage. Despite please from his audience it was to be Nuts' only performance that night but over the next few weeks he was to display an astonishing repertoire. Dean found that by playing a few bars introduction he could induce the bird to sing any of the hundreds of blues in his collection, brilliantly reproducing the voices of artists as diverse as Blind Lemon Jefferson & Tommy Johnson. They rapidly became the weirdest duo in musical history. A Christmas party night had been arranged at the Bitter Fruit & since the occasion was none too serious Dean suggested to the owner, Marty Shiffler, that he bring Nuts along to perform a few songs. Marty enthusiastically agreed. Initially they intended to advertise the performance as by "Dean & Nuts", but decided instead that Nuts should have a proper stage name. "Jim Crow" was considered & quickly abandoned as being in poor taste. "Gregory Peck", "Charlie Feathers" & "Blues Birdhead" had already been used. "Conway Tweety" was just too silly. Eventually they decided on "Jazzbo Bird" which seemed appropriate & worked in elements of three of Dean's favourite pre-war bluesmen, Jazz Gillum, Bo Carter & Jaybird Coleman. He made his first public appearance at the Bitter Fruit on December 24th, 1965. At that first concert Jazzbo recieved a standing ovation. True, spirits were high & alcohol was flowing freely, but many felt even then that Jazzbo was more than simply an astounding novelty - a living candidate for Ripley's Believe It or Not. It was at that performance that Jazzbo acquired, thanks to inevitable cries of "Who's a pretty boy then?" his famous nickname. He sang "Diving Duck Blues" & a half-dozen other songs including Lemon's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean". Dean tried to coax the bird into singing the latter song as "See That My Cage Is Kept Clean" singing the latter song as "See That My Cage Is Kept Clean" but Jazzbo persisted against all inducements in singing it correctly. This does show, however, that at this stage Dean still saw Jazzbo as nothing more than a novelty & his performance at the Bitter Fruit as simply a harmless piece of Christmas fun. However, Jazzbo became an instant hit with the Bitter Fruit audience & was soon a regular performer. But something strange was happening. People were no longer coming to see & hear Jazzbo as an amusing freak. The ribald taunts were gone. Increasingly Jazzbo's performances were listened to in appreciative silence & to Dean's astonishment &, he admits, embarrassment they began to attract serious critical acclaim. Brief, jokey mentions in folk fanzines gave way to longer considerate articles & reviews. The May '66 edition of the national folk music magazine Sing Out devoted three pages to Jazzbo & his Bitter Fruit successes. The article, entitled "The Bird who Sings the Blues/Or Not, As The Case May Be" was written by staff writer Jerry Weinbaugh who had journeyed to Stanford after hearing rumours of a feathered sensation. It describes the circumstances of Jazzbo's rise & ends with a plea that readers will not simply dismiss him out of hand but will make an effort, if possible, to hear for themselves. The chance for many more of them to do so came just a few months later.The Newport Folk Festival had been held each July for a number of years. In 1965 it had attracted a record crowd of 80,000 people, but it's certain that none of them witnessed so startling a performance as that provided by Jazzbo "Pretty Boy" Bird just a year later. The first reaction of the friday afternoon crowd was incredulity followed swiftly by amused affection & finally unqualified admiration. With the faithful Dean still accompanying him on guitar Jazzbo ran the gamut of pre-war country blues, featuring the songs of Charley Patton, Tommy & Robert Johnson, Lemon Jefferson & others ending with the now almost obligatory "Diving Duck Blues". The performance even included the Tampa Red/Georgia Tom classic "It's Tight Like That" with Dean providing the second vocal. Audience reaction was ecstatic as the Vanguard album "Folk at Newport 66" proves. But with success inevitably came controversy. An article by Art Weissfeld in the October '66 issue of "Folk Music USA" contained the first serious attack. After a few preliminary words bewailing the "idiotic adulation of this appalling bird" Weissfeld goes on to ask how, when dealing with a music so intensely personal as the blues, anyone could possibly take seriously an artist who by definition could not understand a word he was singing. It seemed a perfectly legitimate objection yet it opened a floodgate of bitter argument. It reawakened, for example, the old theological debate on whether animals have souls. Jazzbo's defenders argued that if they did, (& who could deny with any certainty that they didn't?), then it was quite consistent to assume that any creature with a soul could experience feelings as deep as any in the blues. A more subtle argument concerned the quality of the performances themselves. They were generally agreed by both sides to be virtually perfect reproductions of the originals. Was not Jazzbo, therefore, simply a living record player, a kinf of biological juke-box? If so wasn't the praise of his performance as absurd as praising a hi-fi system as though it was responsible for the performance of the artist on the record it was playing? Not so, argued the fans, citing the numerous singers & instrumentalists who took their inspiration directly from earlier performers, singing & playing in almost identical styles. It was not an altogether convinving view. There is, after all a world of difference between similar, even identical "styles" & note perfect reproductions of earlier performances, but each side held its position with almost fanatical fervour & as the arguments raged those positions rapidly became more & more entrenched. The blues purists were in turmoil. An artist like Dave Van Ronk could be pilloried with impunity, perhaps rightly so. Jazzbo on the other hand, barring two small patches at the top of each wing, was at least the right colour. On what grounds could he legitimately be attacked? It was true that he had learned all his songs from listening to records, but since the invention of the gramophone & the radio that was true of innumerable singers. It was doubtful if a true oral tradition of blues transmission existed anymore. To attack Jazzbo on those grounds alone would have meant attacking dozens of other artists of impeccable pedigree. Small wonder then that after an initial outburst of scornful fury the purists soon fell silent. The arguments for & against were long, bitter & frequently highly articulate but always passionately made. Often the questions raised were deeply philosophical in their implications but ultimately resolved themselves into two apparently irreconcolable but basically simple premises. The antis maintained that whatever might be said about Jazzbo it was inherently absurd to believe that a bird could sing the blues. The pros argued that such a position betrayed nothing but blind prejudice. An artist, they said, should be judged soley on his performances. Whether he was black, white, tall, short, human or myna bird was completely irrevelant. It was a classic impasse which the release of Jazzbo's first studio album (MYNA BLUES - Elektra Records, 1966) did nothing to shift. Artistically it was a triumph. Dean's guitar had been augmented by a second guitar, bass, & on four tracks harmonica. Again the songs were entirely were entirely from the pre-war period. The inclusion of a gospel song (You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond) brought fresh protests from religious quarters but by & large reaction was predictable. BLUES UNLIMITED was fairly restrained, admitting that it was unable to recommend or condemn the album outright & that it was for each reader to make up his or her own mind. They did say however that the experience of apparently listening to Charley Patton without the accompaniment of scratches & surface hiss was a weird one which "many would not find pleasant". Jazzbo continued to appear at clubs & festivals throughout America, invariably leaving a trail of controversy in his wake. In Wisconsin he was cheered to the echo, in Kentucky, pelted with bird seed. On one famous occasion in New York protesters interrupted his appearance at the Bottom Line by loosing a dozen cats from a sack. Loved & loathed as he was, he was impossible to ignore. In 1967 he made his only appearance in England, playing to a packed crowd at that year's Cambridge Folk Festival. He also turned up on BBC-TV's "Tonight" programme where Dean was interviewed by Kenneth Allsopp & Jazzbo performed, inevitably, "Diving Duck Blues" accompanied by both Dean & Alexis Korner. On his return to the States there appeared the first signs of serious trouble. In a mysterious contractual wrangle which has never been fully explained Dean Rickell dropped out of the scene & Jazzbo became the property of a consortium of businessmen. For several months he made no public appearances at all. There were rumours that he was dead, or seriously ill with fowl pest. The rumours were false, but when he did reappear in November of 1967 it was to be a storm greater than any he had yet generated. His much publicised concert at Carnegie hall before a devoted following of folk/blues fans began conventionally enough with a collection of country blues. Dean Rickell was replaced by Steve DeKoster. After the interval however Jazzbo took the stage accompanied by a full electric Chicago-style blues band. The result was uproar. Before the first selection, "Sweet Home Chicago" could be completed the concert had been halted by the stamping, whistling, & booing crowd who felt betrayed by their hero. Pete Seeger ran toward the stage threatening to "Wring that damn bird's neck!", The performance ended in complete chaos. Nevertheless, when Jazzbo's next album appeared it showed no compromise. Entitled "Uncaged!" (Atlantic records, 1968) it was devoted entirely to contemporary electric blues. On the opening track, Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bye Bye Bird", Jazzbo not only turned in a superb replica of Williamson's vocal, but also reproduced with uncanny brilliance the sound of his harmonica. The accompanying band is reputed to have included (anonymously) Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, Fred Below, Matt Murphy, Willie Dixon & on one track at least, Muddy Waters. A suggestion has been made that Guy's guitar solos were themselves further examples of Jazzbo's mimic genius but attractive as the idea may be there is no real evidence to support it. The album provoked all the old arguments. This time, however, the protesters were on firmer ground. Producing replicas of the work of pre-war country bluesmen, many of whom were dead & few of whom were recorded with anything approaching high-fidelity was one thing. Producing similar replicas of contemporary artists who were for the most part still alive & recording was quite another. There were those however who stayed loyal. Some even argued, & they were not entirely wrong, that Jazzbo had ceased producing exact replicas of the records he heard & learned & was beginning tentatively to introduce inflections & phrasing of his own. To most listeners, though, such variations were difficult, if not impossible to detect. For all its quality the album resembled nothing so much as a compilation sampler of current Chicago talent. It had hardly hit the streets before Chess records threatened to sue. Atlantic could undoubtedly hav offered a credible & probably successful defence but for reasons which have never become entirely clear they capitulated almost instantly. The album was withdrawn & is now among their rarest releases of the sixties, good copies generally fetching around 60 pounds in auction. It is not entirely impossible that Atlantic's curious decision was influenced by disturbing news reaching them from Jazzbo's owners & producers. Shortly after completion of the "Uncaged!" album he had suddenly & inexplicably given up singing the blues. From that point on, blind & deaf to all inducement, he sang exclusively gospel. Such sudden conversions are of course not uncommon in the blues but they do imply a degree of spiritual conflict. Could this possibly be true of a myna bird? Could even the doughtiest advocates of animal souls really claim such a high level of sophistication? And yet the fact remained that Jazzbo steadfastly refused to perform any type of secular material whatsoever. Naturally his owners were devastated. Having so recently acquired the famous bird at so great a cost they were faced with the prospect of their investment disappearing overnight. In true American showbiz style they concieved a plan to train several dozen more mynas &/or parrots to form a huge gospel choir, but sadly for them Jazzbo's talent appeared to be unique in the natural world. The idea was quickly abandoned. For Jazzbo there remained but one more concert. It was to be the most amazing night of an already incredible career. It took place at the Drinking Gourd, a folk club in Princeton, New Jersey on August 18th, 1968. Jazzbo had not appeared in public since the latter part of the previous year. This time, however, there was no mystery about his prolonged seclusion & no macabre rumours. News of his apparent "conversion" had recieved wide coverage in the folk, blues & general music press. Consequently a large & curious audience turned up for his first concert of 1968. Gone was the Chicago blues band to be replaced by a lone guitarist (Ron Guralnick) & a pianist (George Streatfield) who doubled on organ. The programme consisted entirely of familiar gospel songs. The performances were generally agreed to be competent, even occasionally moving, but somehow lacking the inspiration that the audience saught. Before the end of the concert people began to drift away. By the time Jazzbo reached the final song the club was less half full. Those who stayed to the bitter end & gave a little lacklustre applause then rose to leave. At that point Jazzbo, without the aide of his two accompanists suddenly began to sing in a high, clear voice quite unlike any he had ever used before, & certainly unlike any he could possible have learned from a record. Neither was the song familiar. Those few who had not already left turned in amazement & stared at the stage. Jazzbo, eyes tightly closed & wings spread outward as though lifted in prayer, was giving the performance of his life. Beside him open-mouthed stood Guralnick & Streatfield, no less astounded than the audience. Several descriptions of that night survive. All stress the stunned silence which fell on those present & the unearthly beauty of both the song & the performance. Most incredible of all is the fact that so far as anyone has ever been able to discover the song was entirely original. A poor quality private tape of the occasion exists which the present writer has heard. It is indistinct & incomplete yet it is riveting & almost painfully moving. Although the song carries echoes, structural & lyrical, of Isaac Watt;s great hymn "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" (which in any case Jazzbo is unlikely to have heard) it can more than justify its claim to originality. So from where did Jazzbo get it? It is of course possible that the song was composed & taught to Jazzbo deliberately. It may, in short, have been a hoax but it seems unlikey. In any case if that were so it would make Jazzbo's future actions even more inexplicable. For he never sang again. He lapsed instead into total silence, refusing even to chirp. Eventually he was given into the care of a Californian monastery of the order of St.Francis of Assisi. He died peacefully in the monastery gardens on July 19th, 1971. The career of Jazzbo Bird poses many problems: philiosophical, theological, biological, musicological, ethical, moral. Perhaps it isn't surprising therefore that by & large the blues world has decided to forget him. Ledbitter & Slaven ignore him completely & you'd have to look very hard indeed to find any mention in the major blues magazines in the dozen years since his death, which itself rated only a one-line obituary in Blues Unlimited. In a display of abominable taste the magazine wrote simply "Jazzbo Bird has cracked". Twelve years on he remains an enigma - a puzzle that it's surely time someone set set seriously to solve. NB: later this year Rooster records will be issuing a compilation entitled "The Two Sides of Jazzbo Bird" on RJ-2100, side one will be devoted to country blues, side 2 to electric blues, details as follows: 1: Diving Duck Blues/ Shake It & Break It/ Maggie Campbell/ House Rent Stomp/ Last Fair Deal Gone Down/ See That My Grave Is Kept Clean/ Pay Your Furniture Man/ Quill Blues 2: Sweet Home Chicago/ Double Trouble/ Every Day I Have The Blues/ Bye Bye Bird/ Birdnest on the Ground/ When The Eagle Flies/ When They Ring Them Golden Bells/ Walking By Myself.