Joe Muranyi – last of the All-Stars?*

April 23, 2012 at 10:47 am (good people, jazz, Jim D, music, song)

“In 1971 Harry Dial came to visit during what turned out to be Louis’ last regular job with his All-Stars, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Pops [Louis Armstrong - JD] and Harry were chattering away as I arrived; Armstrong introduced us. I asked if he was the drummer who had played in the 1933 band in Chicago. Pops beamed, pleased but not really surprised that I knew such things. They went back to talking about the band that made these sides, how they had toured in the South. Pops was saying: ‘There I was in Oklahoma, with $2,000 in my pocket and nowhere to eat.’ The talk got into how tough it was for travelling ‘spade’ (Louis’ word) musicians in the South of 1933. I began to feel a little uncomfortable with the subject: they were into the injustice of it all. Louis noticed and turned to me  —  ‘Aw Josephus (he often called me that), don’t worry about it, this was before your time!

“I loved him. May he rest in peace. His music will live forever…” (From Joe Muranyi’s notes to the 1989 CD ‘Laughin’ Louie’)

Joe Muranyi died last week. He was a pretty good jazz clarinettist (and occasional soprano sax player and singer) but will probably be best remembered as a member of the final edition of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars and as a sideman who was working with Pops right up to the very end. Muranyi, who joined the band in 1967 aged about 40, was an experienced player who’d already worked with such big names in the world of traditional jazz as Eddie Condon and Max Kaminsky. But his own accounts of joining the All-Stars make him sound like a callow, star-struck youth. Joining the band, he said, was “almost like a religious experience. When Louis would talk about joining Joe Oliver, I’d think, ‘That’s what it was like for me to join Louis Armstrong.'”

As Terry Teachout notes in  his book Pops – The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, “He (Muranyi) was modest enough to to know that the opportunity of a lifetime had come to him by default: ‘The older guys were dying, but Louis kept going and that’s how I got in there. It had been a style that just naturally happened, and these guys started to disappear, so Joe Glaser [Armstrong's manager - JD] started buying what was on the market, and some of the players that came into the band later on didn’t come from the roots. I did — I was a moldy fig. Humphrey Lyttelton told me, ‘Joe, you’re the only All-Star who ever knew any of Armstrong’s songs!'”

After Armstrong’s death in 1971, Muranyi continued playing, often in various tributes to his old boss. But he also established a career as a well-respected international guest soloist, made some fine records with Marty Grosz, Dick Wellstood and the Lawson-Haggart Band,  became a record producer and a prolific and stylish writer. But, in conversation with people he trusted, things would almost always come back to Louis. I think it was Dick Sudhalter who (affectionately) referred to him as “Joe ‘When I Was With Pops’ Muranyi.” As far as I know Joe (unlike Pops ) was not a particularly religious or spiritual man, but I remember reading somewhere about how when he felt a bit down, he would close his eyes and the memory of Louis would come and talk to him and unfailingly cheer him up…

Towards the end of his life it seems that Joe became increasingly aware of his Hungarian roots and took particular pleasure in playing in his family’s native land and at Hungarian clubs in New York, where the audiences welcomed him as “one of their own.”

*NB: the heading at the top of this piece ends with a question mark; I thought Joe was the last surviving All-Star, but was, in fact, wrong. Ricky Riccardi (see below) says there are three left: Marty Napoleon, Jewel Brown and Buddy Catlett. I’ve left the heading as it was, though.

Michael Steinman over at ‘Jazz Lives’ has posted the following appreciation. And I strongly recommend you follow his link to Ricky Riccardi’s site for a fantastic, detailed and loving piece about “Josephus” and an ultra-rare recording of him playing and talking at a 1968 Armstrong concert in New Orleans.

GOODBYE, JOSEPHUS

by jazzlives

My readers won’t need to be told who Joe Muranyi — clarinetist, soprano saxophonist, singer, composer, raconteur — was.  I am sorry to say was – but Joe died on April 20.

I remember seeing Joe on television with Louis, in person with Roy and at “Highlights in Jazz,” and at a concert in North Babylon, New York, where Joe (alongside Marty Grosz, Peter Ecklund, and Dan Barrett — if I remember correctly) sang LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE, amending the lyrics with a grin, “Can it be / North Babylon at last?”  He played in David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band — and — most recently and bittersweetly — when I called him at the nursing home to ask if I could put my readers in touch with him, he was very kind to me.  So that is the way I shall remember him.

But I have help in loving memories: please click josephus to read my friend Ricky Riccardi’s deeply loving tribute to the man Louis Armstrong called “Josephus.”

May your happiness increase.

1 Comment

  1. Jim Denham said,

    Lovely little story from Ricky Riccardi’s article (linked to above), about when Armstrong was first introduced to Joe:

    “[Louis] said, ‘How the fuck do you pronounce your name?’ I said, ‘Muranyi, like Ma Rainey.’ Oh, he loved that! He broke up laughing, he never forgot it. A lot of cats in the business call me, ‘Hey, Ma Rainey!'”

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