A Q&A with Blair Crimmins and the Hookers’ Blair Crimmins

Jazz is America’s first and greatest cultural and music contribution to the world. After all, there are few genres that have managed to convey the depths of human emotion and experience in the same fashion with legendary artists whose work – think of the humor and wit of Horace Silver; the profound and powerfully sincere contemplation of the nature of God on John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme; the captivating beauty of vocalists Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald; the joy of Louis Armstrong’s work; the restless experimentation and boundary pushing of the legendary Miles Davis

And although the bop era captured the genre’s intellectual and artistic heights and has officially canonized as the standard of jazz, the Dixieland and big band eras have largely (and shamefully) been forgotten. It was the sound of Joe “King” Oliver that won the heart of a young Louis Armstrong and won over the rest of the world. When I first came across “It’s All Over Now,” the first single off the Atlanta, GA-based act Blair Crimmins and the Hookers’ forthcoming album, Sing-A-Longs, (which will be released through New Rag Records on September 10th) I was reminded of the great Dixieland sound. 

Blair Crimmins, the frontman, composer and arranger for Blair Crimmins and the Hookers has spent his music career spreading the word of Dixieland jazz to listeners who may be largely unfamiliar with jazz and/or with Dixieland. And although the material pays homage to jazz’s early days, it’s not a lifeless period piece either – the material manages to be both modern and old timey, while being vital and charmingly playful. Much like the classic Dixieland material, Sing-A-Longs is an album that covers a wide variety of human experience – with sweetly sung love songs; coquettish songs about seduction; and of course more. 

In this emailed Q&A, I spoke to Crimmins about the new album, including the inspiration behind the album’s songs; he talks about how he believes that artists who attempt to recreate old-time recording conditions are really up to a publicity stunt; he also gives some simple but very profound advice – being nice is key to a lot of success; and much more.

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Photo Credit: Vanessa Presage

Photo Credit: Erik Dixon

Photo Credit: Tim Redman

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WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know that it was the only thing that you wanted to do? How did you wind up getting into Dixieland jazz?  

Blair Crimmins: I don’t remember a time when music wasn’t my main focus.  I started on the guitar really young and grew into the instrument.  In school I would find any excuse to bring in a guitar and perform.  Any kind of presentation or speech I had to give, I’d bring some musical element to it and perform a song.  I was definitely a ham but I was also learning the power music and the influence it has on people.  I knew I wanted to play music the rest of my life.  I found Dixieland, Ragtime and all the traditional jazz after studying Jazz in college but not in the way you’d think.  Music school wants to focus on Bebop, Cool Jazz and all the super “hip” stuff but they glossed over the music from the 20’s and 30’s.  They introduced me to music that is worth studying but not worth dancing to.  In my mind I was screaming “Does this not bore the hell out of anyone else?!”  When I started diving into the early stuff there was no turning back.  It’s fun and wild and I can write a song to it.  I guess you can say I was rebelling against what “Jazz musicians” should be.  Whatever it was I was hooked.  

WRH: Who are your influences?   

BC: For songwriting, I love Fats Waller and Johnny Mercer.  They wrote great, light-hearted, clever songs.  They could get sentimental without being too sappy.  Like there is always a smile on their face and they don’t take themselves too seriously.  Of course Louis and Bessie Smith too.  For the instrumental stuff, Jelly Roll Morton, Django [Reinhardt], King Oliver.  But I’m not just influenced by Jazz.  I take in everything Rock, Pop, Country.  If you want to contribute something new as a musician or writer you’ll need to pull from outside the box.  

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?   

BC: Frank Yankovic.  Too Fat Polka.

WRH: How did you meet the guys in your backing band, the Hookers? How did you meet the other vocalists who contribute to the album? 

BC: I met the guys just playing around town.  Atlanta has a lot of great musicians and very good band scene.  Over time I met all the players that you’ll see with me now.  Bernadette Seacrest is a guest vocalist on the new record.  She sings on “It Don’t Have To Rain.”  She’s also an Atlanta local.  I had the duet written and was looking for someone to record it with.  I had heard Bernadette sing and knew she’d be perfect but I hadn’t met her yet.  I found somebody to introduce us and I immediately asked her to sing with me.  She did a great job.   

WRH: Presumably you’ve played in front of audiences who have been unfamiliar with Dixieland-era jazz and may have a dim familiarly with jazz where they may know of a couple of artists. Generally, what has been the response to you and the material been during live sets?   

BC: It’s new to some but for others we’re the band they’ve been looking for.  I’m glad to see so many young people interested and excited about the kind of music we play.  They know how to dance, they know the history of jazz and the musicians from back then.  I meet a lot of people who are well educated in the genre.  Then there are some folks who have never even heard the word “Ragtime.”  They’re probably going to say something funny to me after the show.  Like "You remind me of John Mayer.”  That’s okay darling.  I’m glad you enjoyed it.    

WRH: You’ve dedicated yourself to playing and recording a sound that was once popular at the early part of the last century when coincidentally the big recording industry began. Has there been a point when you’ve dealt with an industry person who kind of missed the point?   

BC: Most people in the industry get it and like it but they’re not always willing to take a chance on it.  They’re not sure who else will like it.  That’s the way the industry is.  It doesn’t matter if they like it.  Will it sell?  At the moment there are not a lot of big selling Dixieland Jazz artists so they have nothing to go on.   

WRH: What I love about the new album is that the compositions and arrangements pay homage and are heavily inspired by Dixieland’s earliest origins. It’s the sound that inspired the young Louis Armstrong. But at the same time, the material doesn’t sound or feel old – like the jazz of its period it conveys dashed hopes and expectations with an ironic humor; discusses love and other affairs of the heart and more. It’s as lively and playful as anything that could have come from that era. Was it difficult to compose songs that manage to be both era-appropriate without sounding too deferential to the past? And when did you know that you had material that was fully fleshed and ready for the studio? 

BC: Thanks for those comments.  You’re right, it’s never been my intention to sound like period piece.  Aside from whatever romantic associations I have with the 20’s, I love this style of music for what it is.  It’s the sound that I have in my head right now in 2013.  I’m going to talk about things that are going on in the present.  Stuff I’m living through.  The instrumentation and arrangements are pretty era appropriate but that’s just the stuff I write.  After the writing is done, I don’t go out of my way to make them sound “Old Timey” in the studio.  I want to really hear the tunes!  I want to use the tools we have to make a good recording.  Musicians in the 20’s didn’t have amplification like we do now.  I like to think I’m playing the Rock and Roll of Jazz music.  So turn it up right?!   

WRH: With music so heavily inspired by the past there’s usually an attempt to recreate as much of the conditions of recording studios of the past. For example, Cody ChesnuTT released a fantastic album last year that was recorded in the studio where Al Green recorded some of his seminal albums. ChesnuTT reportedly used one of Green’s old microphones and they recorded the material to tape. Were there similar attempts to recreate some of those conditions? If so, what were they?   

BC: That’s all fine and good.  But really, who cares?  I recorded to tape on this last record.  Maybe people will notice a difference in sound.  Probably not.  I recorded to tape because it requires you to perform better in the studio.  With digital you get endless takes and can edit afterward.  With tape there is a limit on how much you can fix afterward so you just need to nail your part the old fashion way.  I’ve met a lot of bands who think recording to tape is going to make their album sound great.  Not true.  Write some good songs, mic your instruments and press record.  If you have good songs and a solid band then your album should sound great regardless.  Bragging about all the old gear you used sounds like a publicity stunt.       

WRH: Lyrically, the Dixieland era had material that was heavily inspired from the personal experiences or observations of the songwriter or from someone else’s personal experiences. Was any of the material inspired by your own experience or someone you know? 

BC: I write most songs from my own personal experiences.  Some are inspired by other peoples stories.  I’m not much on abstract lyrics.  I like to tell a story and I want everyone to follow along.  If someone asks me what one of my songs is about I’ll feel like I failed.  I just prefer to find something to write about and put that subject forward without trying to hide any meaning.  That’s why I’d love to write for theater or musicals sometime.  One of my favorites on the album is “I Love You That’s All,” which I wrote for my fiancé.  It very simply states that I don’t want to play games or mess around.  You’re the one for me.  I love you, that’s all.    

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? 

BC: There is no right or wrong way to do it.  There is only “your way”.  Find what ever that way is.  Some people get their first hit when they’re 10.  Others get success later in life.  Some folks get famous by relentless social networking or online videos.  Others find a career in music without touching a computer.  Shop to labels or start a label.  All that matters is that you keep writing.  Keep working at your craft and have fun doing it.  And for god sakes be nice to people.  You’re on a stage not a pedestal.  That audience paid to come see you play tonight so get to work Hookers!