It was my pleasure recently to speak with Gina Bonati, daughter of the great post-War saxophonist Joseph “Mouse” Bonati,” one of the pioneers of bebop in New Orleans in the 1950s. I first covered Mouse back in this post on bebop from out-of-the-way cities. With details provided in the meantime by Gina, Ronda Bonati (Mouse’s first wife and Gina’s mother) along with other members of the Bonati family, I’m delighted to now present more in the way of reliable information. For some context, I’ve also included a short introduction about post-War jazz in New Orleans.
Post-War jazz in New Orleans
The most popular jazz in post-War New Orleans was ostensibly a revivalist affair – Pete Fountain and the Dukes of Dixieland sold millions of records with their Dixieland and traditional jazz retreads. While concurrently proving itself one of the nation’s great, vital R&B powerhouses, New Orleans’s glory years at the leading edge of jazz were decades gone by the time of bebop’s ascendance in the ‘40s.
Despite the city’s general apathy about this new, modern permutation of jazz (a generalization fairly leveled at any city not among Great Migration destination points), New Orleans did have its bop devotees, many of whom were convening in the late ‘40s and ‘50s to jam at French Quarter nightclubs and strip joints. Places like Louis Prima’s 500 Club, the Gunga Den and the Sho’Bar employed these young enthusiasts as pit musicians, and served as primary loci for the after-hours sessions where the form took root in the city. Some of these young musicians would shortly light out for points north (Bill Evans, Vern Fournier, Mundell Lowe) and west (Joe Pass, Brew Moore, Frank Strazerri, Ed Blackwell, Earl Palmer). Others, like Ellis Marsalis, Al Belletto, Bill Huntington and Mike Serpas stuck around New Orleans for longer, or for good.
Amongst the latter, saxophonist Joseph “Mouse” Bonati would be one of the earliest and most visible champions of bop. Little, unfortunately, in the way of New Orleans bebop was recorded in its time, but Mouse Bonati figures prominently in discussions about modern jazz in New Orleans.
Joseph “Mouse” Bonati
Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1930, Joseph “Mouse” Bonati was the youngest of five musically- and artistically-inclined brothers and sisters: Ralph, Roy, Anne and Al. His father died when Joe was six months old; Joe’s eldest brother Ralph, fourteen years old at the time, would in particular help out with his upbringing. (Incidentally, there are two different family stories about the “Mouse” sobriquet. One has it that it was coined by an artist friend of the family who, while drawing a family portrait, made special note of the youngest Bonati’s appearance. The second version was that it was born, as a vision, during one of Mouse’s own drug-induced reveries.)
The young Joe, evincing the family’s musical and artistic talents, played the violin, receiving the standard classical-oriented musical education of the era. In the late ’40s, barely out of his teens, playing saxophone and enamored of both jazz and – like so many other young musicians – of Charlie Parker, Mouse Bonati moved to New Orleans.
In New Orleans, Mouse would meet Ronda Adler through mutual friend Larry Borenstein (founder of Preservation Hall). Adler – a young jazz enthusiast who’d worked previously as a cigarette girl at the storied Birdland jazz club – was then en route to Mexico from New York City, but stayed on in New Orleans, eventually marrying Mouse, with daughter Gina born in 1957 and son Chris in 1959. With Ronda working at the Court of Two Sisters, Mouse, continuing to hone his Bird-influenced style, would pursue the musical life in the colorful clubs of New Orleans. A multi-instrumentalist – he also played piano, flute and clarinet – Bonati would become a well-known presence in the New Orleans jazz community.
Mouse Bonati’s New Orleans sides – all released by the tiny Patio Records – represent some of the earliest bebop recorded in the city. Recorded in a single sitting in 1957, the Patio sessions yielded four tracks under Mouse’s aegis. Supported by compadres Benny Clement (trumpet), Jimmy Johnson (bass), Chick Power (tenor saxophone), Edward Frank (piano) and Earl Palmer (drums), these recordings would be released sequentially on two 45s – “Back” backed with “One Blind Mouse” (Patio MJ-1) followed by “Mouse’s House” backed with “What a Difference a Day Made” (Patio MJ-2). They show the altoist in full Charlie Parker mode.
That same year would also see the release of the lone LP on Patio Records, an album of New Orleans bebop entitled New Sounds From New Orleans. Put together by friend and fellow musician Jack Martin, the album was divided between the Jack Martin Octet’s “Jazz Suite de Camera” on one side (which features Bonati playing in a supporting role) and Mouse Bonati’s music – his four 45 recordings, along with a strange multi-tracked tape experiment entitled “Improvisations” – on the other.
As the ‘50s wore on, recorded music began to displace the musicians working in the Bourbon Street clubs. Local gigs became harder to find, and, like many musicians and artists, Mouse’s own life and personal relationships were getting more complicated. Around 1960, not long after these recordings were made, Mouse relocated to Las Vegas, and the ensuing years would form something of the next chapter in his life as a working musician. Though no further commercial recordings would be released in this time, the relative security of resort gigs – the lifeblood of many jazz musicians in those years – kept Mouse active as a professional musician.
Mouse’s residencies as a jazz soloist and section musician would take him from Lake Tahoe in mid-‘60s (at Harrod’s Resort) to the Bahamas in the late ‘60s (at Paradise Island), then back to Lake Tahoe around 1970. His longest-term residency would follow upon settling in Las Vegas, where he lived from 1972 onwards, with a steady residency at the Lido show at Caesar’s, along with jazz gigs at venues like the Tropicana Ballroom and Dusty’s Playland.
Mouse Bonati was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in the early ‘80s, sadly making playing impossible in his final years. His a life spent in the jazz world, devoted to music. Joseph “Mouse” Bonati passed away in 1983.