New Orleans at 300: In Search of Jazz

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New Orleans is 300 years old this year. This city is situated 60 miles inland on the mighty Mississippi river, a river whose waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico with such a force there is no tide. This city has witnessed the terrible consequences of natural disasters, and also the suffering caused when one group of people erroneously considers themselves to be superior to others.

New Orleans is a place where many cultures met in the past, and it continues to draw people from all over the world. All cultures find a place and there is a community spirit which is deep and abides. There is a saying among residents which goes: “How do you know if a person lives here? They greet you by name.” This is true, and as I was shown around the city by jazz vocalist and band leader Carmela Rappazzo, I found the city welcoming, warm and with an incredible variety of people and influences. Tt felt more like a world city than a city with still less than 500,000 residents. And of course, the thing about New Orleans is music – mostly jazz but also many different musics from across the globe.

Three hundred years ago, La Nouvelle Orleans was established by French colonists. Since then, many cultures – from Spanish, Sicilian, Italian, English, German, Dutch and many more – have added their ingredients to the cultural cooking pot which is modern day New Orleans. Visiting the city, I went with some skepticism about the music: Would it still be there? Would jazz have been replaced by more modern music? The answer is yes and no.

Modern music is definitely there. Bourbon Street, a busy street centered around alcohol, fast food and tourism, echoes to the sound of music which is popular now. However, jazz remains, and live bands take to the streets in the evenings. Just a few blocks from Bourbon Street on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny, you cannot turn without hearing jazz. It comes from the cafes, doorways, large restaurants, pubs, bars: it is literally everywhere and spills over into the surrounding streets. With different kinds of jazz, different instruments, street musicians and singers on corners, this part of the city lives and breathes jazz.

In other parts of New Orleans, jazz clubs thrive, too. In the Garden District, in a haunted mansion hotel, jazz is incredibly popular with patrons, and different kinds of jazz attract a different crowd for every performance. All around the city, clubs advertise new and established jazz acts.

So, skepticism put aside, I felt I found a second home. Carmela took me to three separate performances in one afternoon. The first was at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, where a young pianist delivered a master class to an enthusiastic and questioning audience, his cool demeanor a credit as he answered questions. Expecting just a few people, he was thrown not only by the other two members of his trio not appearing, but by the hundreds of people who turned out to see him play. Such is the strength of the music gossip in this city. If you are good, people will come and listen. Next we went to a gig at Chickie Wah Wah, a small club in the Mid-City area, to catch an early set from Mark Carroll and his trio. The club was quiet initially, but gradually people began to flow in from all corners.

Next, back to Frenchman Street and a gig at Snug Harbor from Delfeayo Marsalis. Delfeayo is a trombone player and leader of a 12-piece big band. This was his first set of the evening, beginning at 8 p.m. There was a break of half an hour before the second gig at 10 p.m. This is common in many of the music venues in New Orleans: two or even three performances each evening, mostly 6 nights a week. Preservation Hall had traditional jazz the next night, with four shows at 5, 6, 8 and 10.

What strikes you about New Orleans is that not only its music, which is diverse, but its culture. Anything and everything which is community led finds a place here. There are social problems and vast differences between neighborhoods such as the Garden District – where large mansions have been built over many years. Some of these were built on the back of the slave trade or associated industries. Others have been built by those who profited from oil and other industries. Some have small buildings connected to the large house: These would have housed the slaves and given access to their quarters from the house.

There are also social issues, such as housing, drugs and gangs, but there are also many creative people willing to try to change things a little. Gangs used to meet around Mardi Gras and fight, resulting in several deaths and many injuries as weapons became more widely available and deadly. So, someone came up with the idea of a way the gangs could still compete but not kill each other. Surprisingly, the idea was popular among young people, who grabbed at an idea which could not only allow them to prove their superiority over another gang but also allow them not to die but preserve their honor. This idea? A dance-off with elaborate, vastly oversized and heavyweight costumes. Each year costumes are created (some of which take almost the year to make) and come the time, gangs seek each other out and challenge each other to dance competitions wearing the outlandish and oversized costumes.

These costumes used to be abandoned after the season but now they are preserved in the House of Dance and Feathers museum. Again, an idea of one man which was supported by the community. In the House of Dance and Feathers, costumes depict the stories of the dance offs, the gangs and social history of the city and support the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians. The support is so strong that when Katrina devastated the city and much of the collection was lost, the community helped to rebuild it. Money and incentives raised help the local community.

This is just one example of New Orleans and the amazing community who live there. The community make their views known regularly, and when the authorities removed several score oak trees and replaced a park area with a fly-over, the citizens did not take the decision easily. To make their continued disapproval known, they have decorated many of the concrete supports with paintings, murals and items which remind the city authorities of what they lost by removing the trees and park. The citizens will not let them forget it.

And then there is still the jazz, this wonderful music which originated in New Orleans. It does not take much looking to find the history and the people who made it here. Louis Armstrong Park, the Jazz Museum, the venues, statues, the jazz cruises on the Natchez (one of two surviving paddle steamers) day and night, and the sheer number of venues large and small which surround the French Quarter and other areas of the city, the bands you come across in the street. This city lives and breathes jazz.

Of course, the music was born out of some of the most dreadful atrocities that man can do to man, and this must not be forgotten. I heard one tour guide telling a group of open-mouthed visitors to Armstrong Park how the slaves in New Orleans enjoyed three sets of clothes, Sundays off (which is when they gathered to create music, exchanging African influences with those of Europe), better food than those in the rest of America, and were instructed in the Catholic religion. To some extent in comparison she is right, I just wish she had not made it sound as if slaves could enjoy “privileges” of slavery in any shape or form.

It was in Congo Square that slaves gathered on a Sunday to sing, dance, and play music in accordance with their African traditions. At these gatherings, traditional African music and European musical traditions blended and instruments based on those from Africa were often used. Musicians added instruments from the land in which they now found themselves – including pipes, trumpets, horns and stringed instruments. Added to this were church songs, folk music and deeply spiritual African and Eastern music, and soon Congo Square became a crucible for music.

Somehow, marches and brass instruments became entwined in the mix and “jass” music was born, not in an instant but over time and through a lot of suffering between Sundays. Once it was found to have commercial value, the music was dubbed jazz by those who sought to make the name “cool.”
Buddy Bolden led one of the first jazz bands, though he and others disputed for the title of being first jazz band leader. The groups played ragtime, melodies, marches, quadrilles (a song form based on a European square dance), and blues. The first band to record jazz music was probably the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The term “Dixieland” referred to both jazz music played by white musicians of the early New Orleans school, and later was given to traditional New Orleans jazz in general.

The music flourished, especially in Storyville (the red-light district) and the most influential musicians were Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard, Kid Ory and a few others. With the spread of jazz via the riverboat systems and the migration northward of many, the music spread – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet it is not history, not by a long way. I expected New Orleans to be a lesson in jazz history, a reflection of the past, with trad jazz alive and well – but I was astounded by the breadth of the music and types of jazz I found. Armstrong was considered the first improviser and yes, his influence is everywhere, from Armstrong Park to various plaques and notations around the town but there are also so many good young musicians. I came across Alicia Renee (aka Blue Eyes), singing on a street corner: This is a vocalist who has sang at the Jazz Cafe in London. I heard the Slow Rollas just playing to the crowd in a street. I came across brass bands practicing outside offices, duos playing in several bars and cafes. Jazz is everywhere you look.

Since the 1980s, a whole new wave of jazz musicians have chosen to make New Orleans their base: Carmela Rappazzo moved from New York to be in New Orleans. The Marsalis family, who play New Orleans a lot and include trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford and trombonist Delfeayo and their father pianist Ellis, help bring attention to jazz and New Orleans. The city is also the site of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, one of the largest jazz and blues festivals in the country.

Of course, New Orleans does not just have jazz. Soul, gospel, spiritual music and folk all have a place there, as does classical music. Rhythm and blues found a center in New Orleans and musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino proved excellent players of New Orleans rhythm and blues piano. The Neville family – Aaron, Art, Charles, and Cyril – introduced a New Orleans brand of funk music as leaders of bands like the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and the Neville Brothers beginning in the ’60s. Now you can hear funk, rap, garage, hip hop and many other genres – but it is still, mostly, about the jazz and this music just keeps growing, evolving and changing. It has as its home a city which embraces and welcomes change as it happens.

New Orleans has a huge heart. Of course, it has its problems, but it has people who are a mix of mostly all that is good in people and music – and somehow they are brought together to give life, breath and magnetism, which is entertaining and completely magical in its power. Happy 300th birthday, New Orleans. If you can accomplish this in just 300 years, the future looks amazing.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Sammy Stein
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