I'll Fly Away

  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"

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

 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.