Report on PERCY SEVERE an obscure plectorist- banjo, then guitar- who is claimed by the very few to have known him and his music to have been a most gifted and creative Jazz musician. So blessed, this Percy Severe greatly impressed a young LESTER YOUNG, who at some point induced CHARLIE CHRISTIAN to join him in Natchez, Mississippi so that they could travel together to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to check out this PERCY SEVERE.
by Phil Schaap, February 23, 2018
with supplemental research document by Melissa Jones submitted on January 18, 2018.
The above lengthy description of what is to be fully reported below explains why the information supplied is important. Percy Severe, whose surname may have been legally spelled differently but was always pronounced “severe” - the word that means harsh, strict, or serious was a wizard on banjo, based at times in New Orleans in the 1920s and 1930s and, upon switching primarily to guitar, continued to amaze musicians for continued and growing technical skill as well as a great artistic concept. On guitar, Severe is better known to have played in Natchez, Mississippi – to be presumed his hometown – and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In later years, Percy Severe played in Ville Platte, Louisiana and if he ever recorded, then he is the uncredited guitarist (or pianist) who doesn’t solo on Otis Smith’s 45 on Jin (Flat Town Records out of Ville Platte, La.) catalog# 112.
BOTTOM LINE ONE: A greatly skilled but barely documented plectorist who left no true musical illustration rates some ledger credit in the annals of Jazz as he was a top quality African American banjo player in New Orleans in fairly early times; an important player in the overlooked Jazz outpost of Natchez, Mississippi among other Southern ports and places; and, upon adding guitar, continued to make a great impression on those who heard him.
Among those who heard him and was impressed was Lester Young. How “The President” came to know about Percy Severe will remain unknown. They were contemporaries with Severe thought to have been born in Natchez in 1907 (likely February 15, 1907) and Lester Young on August 27, 1909 (also born in Mississippi.) They lived early parts of their lives in the birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans, but the dots do not connect them to a similar time frame – unless Severe was based in New Orleans several (at least 6) years earlier than can be assumed. It is more likely that the connection is Natchez, Mississippi. Percy Severe, assumed a Natchez native, was well known there regardless to whether he was at anytime somewhere else. Though little known, Lester Young spent stretches in Natchez lodging at the Shaw family’s home. The father – I believe I’m correct that he’s Ed Shaw – was at that time the guitarist in Natchez’ bandleader Bud Scott’s band. [This Bud Scott is not the New Orleans guitarist/banjoist of the same name but an entirely different musician, primarily a vocalist.] Lester Young had some sort of musical association (a sub?) with the Bud Scott Orchestra. Prez also befriended guitarist Shaw’s son, then a young adolescent living at home, who would go on to be a physician, Dr. Shaw. It is this Dr. Shaw who told of Lester Young in Natchez in the early 1930s. One story was of Prez, in Natchez, contacting Charlie Christian, who came to Natchez to join Lester and they both traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to hear Percy Severe, then playing guitar in Baton Rouge.
BOTTOM LINE TWO: This astounding musician, Percy Severe, was apparently so great that a young Lester Young would drop everything to travel 100 miles to hear him; contacting an even younger Charlie Christian to join him. The impact cannot be measured but some importance of potential Jazz influence can be implied. Maybe Prez’ reverence preceded the journey. Maybe Prez already knew and, perhaps, had befriended Severe – whether through Natchez or New Orleans or both or some other way – and also note that a very young Charlie Christian had on another occasion (cited as 1935) made his way to Cleveland to hear Django Reinhardt on Reinhardt’s first (the Ultraphones) recordings of 1934 that somehow Napoleon “Snags” Allen had gotten a hold of as recent releases. Snags threw a party-jam session where he played these discs for guitarists that also included Jimmy Shirley and Eddie Durham as well as Christian.
The Back Story
Dr. Shaw often came to The West End in the 1970s and 1980s where he regaled me with tales of Lester Young in Natchez in the early 1930s including the one of Prez & Charlie going to Baton Rouge to hear Percy Severe.
For over 30 years, I have used this lead to discover more on this Percy Severe and his impact on Lester Young and Charlie Christian. My searches ended at so many dead ends, that I more than once wondered if this Percy Severe was a phantom.
During 2017, I began rereading various books on New Orleans Jazz. One, Bill Russell’s “New Orleans Style”, that was posthumously published as compiled and edited by Barry Martyn and Mike Hazeldine, contained an interview of New Orleans banjo player George Guesnon where Guesnon raved about the banjo playing of one “Percy Savilla” explaining that Percy, knowing that Johnny St. Cyr played 6 string banjo, nevertheless found a way to play St. Cyr’s most difficult passages on the OKeh Louis Armstrong Hot Five recordings on the more traditional 4 string banjo.
Somehow it hit me that this was the elusive-phantom Percy Severe. [As sidebar, some severe research by me determined that the “Savilla” instead of “Severe” was some sort of hiccup to Martyn’s editing. Bill Russell’s tape of George Guesnon’s statement allows one to hear Guesnon say “Severe”. Severe is written on the tape box, itself, and the file at Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archives reads “Severe”.]
Whether Savilla or the far mar accurate Severe, I believed that I had found a match and that Percy Severe was no longer a phantom.
As I am on the backside of a long career, I provided a summary to many colleagues and among them it was my former students who took on the task of following the now expanded leads, Three, in particular, must be cited:
I hope they will forgive my emphasizing Melissa’s contribution.
Also to be thanked are: Bruce Raeburn; Mimi Miller; Duncan Morgan; Lewis Porter; Parker Fishel; and Doug Wamble.
Most pertinent to this report’s two Bottom Lines within the research of Hurwitt, Sherif, and Jones is that more clearly connects Severe to Baton Rouge, Natchez, and New Orleans. Elliott led with a number of primary documents to Severe in Natchez as did Hashem. Hashem’s efforts allow the assumption that Percy Severe was born on February 15, 1907 and died October 15, 1978. Melissa best documented the Baton Rouge connection.
Percy Severe Profile
by Melissa Jones
Dr. Shaw (of Natchez, MS) told Phil Schaap, Lester Young rented a room from his father in the early 1930’s when he (Young) was playing with the Natchez-based Bud Scott Orchestra. Charlie Christian arrived at the house and he and Prez left for Baton Rouge to hear an extraordinary guitar player named Percy Severe. Years later, while reading Bill Russell’s “New Orleans Style”, Phil noticed a reference (p.79) to skilled banjoist, Percy “Savilla”, made by George Guesnon. Phil wondered: Is Guesnon’s “Percy Savilla” and Prez and Charlie Christian’s “Percy Severe”, the same person?
The majority of information comes from the Hogan Archives, Tulane University. Oral histories are provided by: John Handy (Dec. 4, 1958, Dec. 5, 1958, Dec 15, 1958 and November 21, 1963), Mitchell McAllister (March 19, 1960), Harrison Verrett (August 10, 1961), Fred “Achie” Minor (November 1, 1961), Charlie Hamilton (March 21, 1965), and Father Al Lewis (February 21, 1972).
The musician interviews, totaling six, were conducted over a period of fourteen years and all were recorded separately. The Tulane/Hogan Archives provide the most consistent and thorough information regarding Percy Severe.
Natchez/New Orleans/Baton Rouge/New Orleans/Natchez
By all accounts, Percy Severe’s skill is consistently recognized.
Percy Severe During the 1940’s and Discrepancies
Natchez is home base for the Clarence “Bud” Scott Orchestra. (not to be confused with musician Arthur “Bud Scott, from New Orleans). Natchez’s Bud Scott, Sr. dies Nov. 23, 1938. His son, Bud Scott, Jr. assumes leadership of the band and dies in the Rhythm Club fire, April 23, 1940. Both Tom Griffin, pianist and Otis Smith were members of the Clarence “Bud” Scott Orchestra.
The multiple spellings of Percy’s surname provide confusion and less clarity.
Percy Severe During the 1960’s
The six musicians interviewed in the Tulane/Hogan Archives, provide a consistent picture of Percy Severe, and I’m satisfied they are speaking of the same musician. I believe Percy Severe is from Natchez, MS, and by the mid 1920’s worked as a professional musician in New Orleans, playing banjo and guitar. He plays with the “Toady” Harris Band in Baton Rouge by the late 1920’s. He returns to NOLA and plays at the Music Box, c. 1932/ pre-1934 , finally returning to Natchez in 1937. I believe the musician who played in Ville Platte, LA with the Otis Smith Orchestra is the same person as the Natchez/New Orleans/Baton Rouge musician. I believe Percy Severe and Percy “Savilla” are the same person. I, also, believe Percy Sevier, listed in the Natchez phone directory (1946, 1947 and 1953) is Percy Severe.
Although Percy’s surname may have changed at the onset of WWII, that information doesn’t change the professional pattern of Percy Severe and the consistent information supplied from numerous musicians and resources. From a different perspective, the Hogan transcripts provide tedious notes to ensure accuracy. Dates, spellings of musicians’ names and conflicting data are notated. Percy SEVERE is always referred to as Percy S-E-V-E-R-E. More importantly, the musicians interviewed interacted with Percy Severe. They knew him, and their recollections provide consistency and authenticity. Of further interest, three of the six interviews were conducted by Bill Russell and two by Robert Allen both highly skilled Jazz historians and completely knowledgeable of New Orleans Jazz. There are no discrepancies noted by Russell and Allen and no misunderstanding or confusion, notated, regarding the banjo/guitar player’s identity.
End Melissa Jones January 18, 2018
List of Important topics that all of this connects to:
1. New Orleans Jazz
2. Jazz and its banjo players
3. Jazz and its guitar players
4. Lester Young
5. Charlie Christian
6. Percy Severe
7. Natchez Jazz
8. The 4/23/1940 Natchez Fire
9. Baton Rouge Jazz
10. Early Jazz in the South but not in New Orleans
End Phil Schaap February 23, 2018
Lester Young biographer, Luc Dellanoy, became aware of the Percy Severe-LESTER YOUNG-CHARLIE CHRISTIAN story, plausibly from my own 1980s publicizing and publication of my contact with Dr. Shaw (beg pardon over this researcher’s pride.) In fact, Luc Dellanoy may have interviewed Dr. Shaw on his own and, perhaps, found others from Natchez, Mississippi who fleshed out the story. Oddly, Dellanoy spells the plectorist’s name Persy Sivire, a spelling that is unique (and, yes, quite different) to all other research AND documents. This spelling, Persy Sivire, contradicts a couple of the primary witnesses, including Dr. Shaw, who consistently and upon be asking to clarify precisely spelled it Percy Severe. The story of the trip to Baton Rouge to hear Percy Severe is vastly different in the Lester Young biography, “Pres: The Story of Lester Young” by Luc Dellanoy, translated by Elena B. Odio - The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 1993. Mr. Dellanoy’s telling has Lester heading to Baton Rouge to hear Severe and instead encountering about a 10 year old Charlie Christian (who was ten from July 29, 1926 until July 28, 1927) sitting in for an absent Percy Severe.
Though Charlie Christian could not have deputized so ably at that age, the story, adjusted to a more reasonable age for Christian, might be the story. If so, then it would override Christian’s role in the story that I obtained from Dr. Shaw, but it WOULD NOT OTHERWISE CHANGE the content of my (and Melissa Jones’) articles above.
What has not changed – and it surprises me greatly – is that: whether from the 2018 posting in philschaapjazz.com; the 1993 Luc Dellanoy biography; the 1991 “Lester Young Reader” edited by Lewis Porter; “Young Lester Young”, my cover story in the November 1987 WKCR Program Guide (republished in the Porter edited reader); and the various Lester Young Birthday Broadcasts dating back into the late 1970s when facts garnered from Dr. Shaw were stated on the radio, that the Percy Severe – Lester Young connection (with any or no citation of Charlie Christian) goes virtually unnoticed.
ADDED March 31, 2018 by Phil Schaap