Like America in general, New Orleans is–was?–at its best when using respect for tradition as a foundation upon which to improvise and create exciting new things. While it is terribly painful to see the city devastated by flooding, it will live on. New Orleans is accustomed to changing without forgetting the past. I had a chance to see that spirit at work in the city’s music when I visited eight years ago, interviewing keepers of the traditional-jazz flame.
Record producer Andrea Duplessis told me during that visit that innovation is such an important part of jazz that you can’t expect jazz to stay the same over the decades. For example, she once expressed concern to the legendary trumpet player Doc Cheatham that a young musician was surreptitiously recording one of Cheatham’s concerts, probably in order to copy Cheatham’s technique. He said jokingly, “That doesn’t matter, ’cause I don’t even copy myself–let him.” An old musician with a solid grounding in the basics is able to do variations with greater confidence.
Duplessis produced CDs that paired a younger with an older musician for duets, including one featuring two clarinetists playing on Duplessis’s porch. That project grew out of the annual Mardi Gras parties she started holding at her house in the late 70s. “It became a neighborhood event . . . and so many people enjoyed the spontaneity of that performance, that they encouraged me to record it, so that was my first recording, and we called it Two Clarinets on the Porch.” The pairings of young and old continued on later records. “That’s how the young learn. Parents and grandparents would pass things down to their children and grandchildren, and especially in music, I suppose in everything. In the trades, children were apprenticed to their parents.” The session on the porch, she said, was really an older musician’s lesson to a younger one. Similarly, seeing an old cornet player like Duke Heitger play with a Top 40 act like the Squirrel Nut Zippers pleased her, even if (as many in the New Orleans jazz scene gently commented) the Zippers weren’t quite as skilled as their older counterparts.
Jazz as a Model for America
Jack Fine is another old trumpet-player who has recorded with the Zippers (he told me alcohol helped smooth over differences in style). Fine said that when he first heard jazz in the 1930s, he had high hopes for it. Here, he thought, was music that could harmoniously combine elements of our culture that had too often been at odds. He fully expected America to learn from the jazz model of successfully hybridizing black and white subcultures. Jazz, he thought, could become the core of a shared American culture that would be proud of its varied, component parts. “I knew that this was music that represented a real Americana. Because up until that time, what was ‘American’ music?” Until ragtime, American music was just “operettas or German songs, that kind of thing. Jazz became the first really American music . . . Country music is basically English-Irish-Scotch folk music, but you put the black blues to that and you suddenly have a whole different context.” (From another meeting of the same two basic elements, a half-century later, we would get rock ‘n’ roll.) Fine acknowledged that jazz didn’t quite transform the world in the way he had hoped. But this is hardly a sad story: Jazz has brought together fans from all over the world, including Fine and his significantly younger wife–met while performing in Lithuania in 1997.
The Historians with a Mission
One eager teller of the jazz story is Kelley Edmiston, daughter of Bill Edmiston and Barbara Reid, the couple who founded Preservation Hall in the early ’60s as a performance space and safe haven for traditional jazz. She happily described herself to me as a “facilitator” of various art and music projects, whether that means donating old photos of legendary jazz figures to local archives or giving jazz ignoramuses like me advice about navigating the New Orleans scene. She said New Orleans had its brass bands, African-influenced slave music, dance halls, European carnival music, light operas, and one-man “spasm bands”–like Kokomo Joe, festooned with kazoos and knee-cymbals–prior to the development of the jazz we know. That range of available styles helped give jazz its range and its energy. “They had Scottish things, minuets, quadrilles, jigs, reels–that’s all jazz, too.”
The late Barbara Reid gave Preservation Hall its name and was the driving force behind its effort to keep older forms of jazz from fading away. “Dixieland,” which was the best-known form of New Orleans music in the 1950s, “was all right in its place, but it was a caricature,” Bill Edmiston told me during my visit. For real jazz to flourish, he felt, a conscious effort to keep the past alive was needed. “Of course, there’s got to be an evolution of anything, whether it’s writing or music or living or anything on Earth. It’s got to evolve. We don’t want to freeze it. In fact, some of these old recordings when they unearth them from the 1930s and ’40s sound pretty archaic, to say the least . . . But we’re better off for mistakes our grandfathers made, in everything, from politics to social affairs, if we pay attention to it and remember where they screwed up.” He said most good musicians know how to read music and have good training, and what’s more, “they know where the music comes from, from way on back.”
When I Get to New Orleans
Don Marquis told me that when he was a young, Midwestern jazz fan, people told him he seemed like he was a New Orleans resident at heart. So, he became one. He went on to become a radio host and jazz-archives curator there.
“I would describe myself as a person who made a career out of being a jazz fan,” Marquis said. He said he listened to his sister’s jazz records when he was in junior-high school in Indiana during the ’40s, and remembers thinking that “if I could go anywhere, do anything I wanted, I would go to New Orleans, bathe in the music.” After being in the Korean War, going to college, and moving to Cleveland, he took a trip to Chicago in the ’50s and got a chance to talk to Louis Armstrong between sets. After that, he made an effort to talk to traveling New Orleans musicians whenever they passed through Cleveland on Preservation Hall tours. “This old banjo player said, what are you doing in Cleveland? You belong in New Orleans.” So Marquis finally moved, “with less than $100 in my pocket, no job, no place to stay . . . That’s just about thirty-six years ago this week.”
He wanted to do something in the jazz world but wasn’t a musician, so he wrote liner notes for albums, then wrote books, finally hitting it big (by jazz standards) with a history of Buddy Boland, regarded by many as the founder of jazz. Boland went insane in 1906 and died in 1931 in an asylum, never having recorded one of his songs, so he was nearly forgotten. Marquis’s book on Boland led to a jazz-magazine editorship, a jazz-curator job at a museum, and a jazz radio show. For all his love of the music styles that drew him to New Orleans, he admits he could never quite understand bebop, the precursor to the chaotic sounding, less melodic jazz most often heard today. “It was almost like they were playing in the face of the old-time musicians and daring ‘em to do anything about it. There are a lot of jazz theories that say jazz started in 1946 with bebop,” and proponents of those theories downplay earlier jazzmen, from Buddy Boland to Cab Calloway. “They say they don’t recognize [the older figures], but if they’re musicians, they have to be aware of it.”
In truth, the bebop musicians are a perfect example of building something new upon the old, since even their strangest, most chaotic compositions were often variations on old, familiar melodies. Here’s hoping that when the floodwaters recede, New Orleans is once again able to build something new without forgetting the old.
–Todd Seavey is a Phillips Foundation Fellow, edits HealthFactsandFears.com, and plans a book called Conservatism for Punks.