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Woody Allen won't toot his own horn

The filmmaker downplays his abilities as a New Orleans-style clarinetist, but that doesn't stop him from touring the world with a band, including a stop Thursday at UCLA.

December 27, 2011|Christopher Smith
  • Woody Allen plays the clarinet while jamming with his New Orleans Jazz Band at the Eastman Theater during the Rochester International Jazz Festival in 2006.
Woody Allen plays the clarinet while jamming with his New Orleans Jazz Band… (Will Yurman / Associated…)

Talk to Woody Allen and he'll go out of his way to tell you what a crummy musician he is, and yet, for the past half-century or so, his innumerable live performances likely have introduced New Orleans-style jazz to more audiences in America and Europe than anyone outside of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The renowned filmmaker's enthusiasm for his hobby animated a recent phone chat that found the 76-year-old passionate in discussing topics as varied as the artist he'd most like to have played with and his dogged determination to practice at all hours.

While Allen continues to make a movie per year, including this year's Oscar-buzzy "Midnight in Paris," he also steadfastly plays clarinet in his New Orleans Jazz Band, which comes to town Thursday night to UCLA's Royce Hall.

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How do you rate yourself as a musician?

It's not a particular talent that I have, but a great love -- I'm strictly like a weekend golfer or something.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, December 29, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Woody Allen: In the Dec. 27 Calendar section, an article about Woody Allen's jazz hobby said that one of his early clarinet performances before an audience came at Earthquake Magoo's in San Francisco. The club's name was Earthquake McGoon's.

I don't kid myself -- people come and see me because they've seen my movies. I am surrounded by good musicians and I do my best, but it's strictly enthusiasm.

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If you could use the time-travel conceit from "Midnight in Paris" and be transported back to the formative years of New Orleans jazz to play with an artist, who would it be?

I would like to play with Bunk Johnson's band. He played trumpet as early as 1909 or 1910, but we only really know him from the jazz revival of the mid-'40s, the Bunk Johnson-George Lewis [clarinet] Decca recordings. Hear them play "Maryland, My Maryland" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" ... these performances are beautiful and rare.

These guys were not schooled or complicated or adventuresome, it just sounds as it should. All those guys who are fancy and complex and full of gimmicks -- it doesn't mean anything to me.

But the Bunk Johnson band was just so alive, such a crude, primitive and great experience to listen to.

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When you grew up in the '40s, jazz and swing were American pop music. But New Orleans jazz, by that time, was an older form. How did you first encounter it?

Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter and Billie Holiday -- that was my basic pop music growing up. It was a great time to listen to the radio. But when I was around 13 I heard a recorded jazz concert in Paris with Sidney Bechet [the first notable jazz saxophonist] and I thought it was something special.

That got me interested in New Orleans-style music. So like every young kid, when you start to get interested in something, whether it's baseball batting averages or stamp collecting, you become obsessive with it. So did I with this music -- I bought every jazz record of his I could find and I decided to learn the soprano saxophone because that is what Sidney Bechet played.

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How did you start playing to audiences?

I started off just as a hobby, strictly playing with guys my age. Just for fun, once a week, like you might get together for a poker game. After a couple years of this, one of the guys said it would be more fun if we played for people instead of in a living room. I didn't really care -- I had been a stand-up comedian by then for a couple years, I didn't really need an audience, but I didn't mind it.

Then, when I was doing stand-up comedy at the Hungry i in San Francisco, it was a couple blocks away from a little jazz joint called Earthquake Magoo's that had Turk Murphy, a good New Orleans-style trombonist. I used to go over and listen to his band. He found out I played clarinet and he muscled me into bringing my instrument to sit in with them. I protested I wasn't that good, but he wouldn't take no for an answer, and once he got me playing, I began to play more with other people, not just with records on a Victrola.

A group got together and we started playing local cafes in New York once a week. We played at Michael's Pub for 30 years and we switched to the Carlyle Hotel and we have played there now on Monday nights for many years.

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Are you ever nervous, before a show, going out in front of people?

Never for a second. My attitude is: "Look, I'm playing for fun, for my own enjoyment, and if the people want to come and enjoy it, great. If not, then not."

When people think of this music, they probably think of guys in, I don't know, striped jackets and straw boater hats doing silly stuff onstage and playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." We've never done that -- we play authentic music, with no eye to crowd-pleasing or commerciality.

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It seems people do want to hear you.

Shows what I know about audiences. About 20 years ago or so, someone thought we should go out on a concert tour and I thought that was the silliest thing, nobody would ever come. Our first concert tour in Europe, we were sold out in opera houses and concert halls, playing to audiences of 2,000 to 5,000 night after night, so this hobby started to be a very fulfilling thing.

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Did it strike you that if this movie thing didn't work out you could pay the rent playing music?

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