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Requiem for Clarinet and Brass Band May 27, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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An Odd collision occured at lunch today at Place St. Charles. No, the Street Car art is still OK and no one came through a window. Instead I picked up a Gambit at lunch (it being Monday for all intents and purposes) and quickly devoured Jason Berry’s article on traditional jazz guru Dr. Micheal White with a side of the Hot 8. The article mixed a review of White’s new CD TITLE with some deserved hand-wringing over the question of how the New Orleans jazz tradition is (or in fact is not) being passed on to the next generation.

The Odd bit is the relationship to a post I read on BigEZ Bear’s blog talking about how few of the young actors he encounters as a director are grounded in the full traditions of the theater. This left me toying with my peanut chicken as I considered whether the Federal Flood was not the greatest threat to the transmission of our traditions from the old to the young. Intead, I began to think, what is it we have done (or have not done) to make sure that the Dr. White’s and his fellow players (or say, the members of the Andrew Hall Society Jazz Band) were there as young players like the Hot 8 came up, to make sure they at least learned the old style?

That’s not to belittle what the Hot 8 did: hustling and learning to play as they could and helping to create the new sound of street-style, hip-hop and R&B influenced brass band music made most famous by the Rebirth Brass Band. (Me, I’m a Hot 8 man, but you’ve got to give the Rebirth their well-earned due). Still, somewhere along the line there was a significant disconnect. Some lucky few were accepted to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and everyone assumed we had done our duty. In fact, a lot of young players were left in our dog-awful public school system with no real music or band programs. This paragraph in the Gambit article really jumped down my throat and spoiled my lunch:

[Trumpeter and vocalist Gregg] Stafford, a longtime public school teacher who sings on Blue Crescent, adds, “The vehicle for passing it on is not just the bands in the street. There is no money in the Recovery School District for music as it should be taught. The second-largest university in Japan has 50 or 60 kids who learn the instrumental techniques of early New Orleans jazz. Those kids come to New Orleans on a pilgrimage and they’re disappointed that so few youngsters here know how to play the music. Imagine that those kids from Japan know more about the ancestors than certain students I had.”

Earlier in the same piece, White used the same term-ancestors–when he spoke of the importance of transmitting the tradition: “”Self-worth. Respect for others. Teamwork. Learning about one’s traditions and ancestors — these are things that have been at hand for us, and we can use those lessons in schools. These programs need to be in the schools. Katrina taught us that we have something important. But people” — he lets the word hang — “don’t realize that the only thing created here that had any impact in the world was traditional jazz. That’s what put New Orleans on the map.”

While we’re wandering down Synchronicity Street, I can recall vaguely (but can’t offer a link, as I don’t remember where I heard it) someone discussing the lack of clarinet players in the new brass bands. It may have been someone in Andrew Hall speaking at French Quarter Fest year before last, or it may have even been Dr. White, who plays the licorice stick himself, which I heard speaking about this. It doesn’t matter where I heard it, but along the way a piece of the tradition is being lost.

You won’t catch me dissing the Hot 8 or Rebirth here. Although frankly when I listen to the recordings by a certain former Rebirth player he can sound as sloppy as a plate full of over-sauced ribs to me. Miles Davis or Terrence Blanchard he’s not, but that’s not entirely his own fault. Not everyone gets to go to NOCCA, and somewhere along the way the sort of careful mentoring that lifted up a Terrence Blanchard didn’t make it down to every school and every ‘hood. NOCCA isn’t enough.

I like the use of the word ancestors by both White and Stafford. In the east there are Confucian concepts of veneration of ancestors and the worth of tradition we in New Orleans would do well to consider. As more and more of elder musicians pass on, and the stress of the Federal Flood and the Continuing Evacuation has taken its heaviest toll on the elders, what are we losing that might never be recovered? The banners of the greats hang in the tent at Jazz Fest, but veneration implies some ritual observance, some effort to honor those ancestors. Hanging banners isn’t enough.

As the music of the new brass band like the Hot 8 become the new venacular of the corner band its well and good that Dr. White has taken those players in and is working to try to pass on the old knowledge. But how many other kids are only hearing the Hot 8 or the other new wave bands, and will try on their own to replicate the sounds they hear on the radio with their instruments without any sort of exposure to the old ways? AS much as I love the Hot 8, there sound is not the totality of a New Orleans brass band. It is not enough.

Some might say the time for that music is passed. A new generation is playing and the music is changing in inevitably ways. If that’s true, who the hell are all those people crowding into the Spotted CAt to see the Jazz Vipers on Friday night, and stopping to listen to some variation of the Loose Marbles playing a stoop up the street? There is clearly an audience for a traditional sound, but outside of the top players who make NOCCA how are these traditions being handed down?

What the Hot 8 and the Rebirth have brought to the brass band scene is of tremendous worth, a music that will engage new generations in a traditional jazz derived sound, and keep a tradition of street music, the music of the second line, alive for for the future. However, if the oldest ways are not passed on as well what will be lost? I don’t want a trade; I want both. I don’t want to have to listen to trad jazz bands from Norway or Japan at the Economy Hall tent. If the problem Dr. White raises in Jason Berry’s article doesn’t get broader attention something precious and essentially New Orleans may pass away within our lifetimes.

Saving New Orleans means of lot of things, some as monumental as levees and some as seemingly insignificant as an older player sitting on a stoop with a grandchild or, better yet, sitting in a staffed and equiped band class at a Recovery District school, passing it on. Without the second, what good will the highest and strongest levees in the world do us? What precisely will we be preserving?

*N.B.* The first link to Gambit’s BestOfNewOrleans.com is not a permalink. If you wander in here a week from now you may have to dig around a bit at the bottom of what ever comes up to find the Jason Berry archive or a similar link to get the story.


1. Marco - May 27, 2008

I found Dr. White’s “Dancing in the Sky” the other day used in a local vinyl-cd store and I have listened to it a lot since Saturday. Say it,


2. Marco - May 28, 2008

The Hot 8 are pretty hot, but I have listened to “Dancing in the Sky” a lot more than the Hot 8 album.


3. Wet Bank Guy - May 28, 2008

Dr. White and the Hot 8 are to very different experiences, appropriate to different places and moods. And my daughter has absconded with m Hot 8 CD, while she hasn’t shown a similar interest in my Jazz Vipers collection.

Perhaps I am unfairly dividing everyone into Classical and the Other Guys. It’s not a fair distinction. Both styles have a great validity and importance in New Orleans. They both serve different audiences in different ways. I am still concerned that not enough of the future New Brass Band players are being exposed to the full gamut of New Orleans music, to the complete suite of the precursors to what they do.

Perhaps I would be disappointed if they were, the music of the Hot 8, Rebirth and others transformed in ways that would make it less successful both personally and for the general audience. I can take the Hot 8 without a clarinet player, but the Vipers just don’t sound quite right when they’re clarinet player isn’t there.

The more I re-read what I bashed out on the second half of my lunch hour the more I want to reflect and make clear that my concern is that all of the kids who might take up a trumpet rather than a rapper’s microphone (or worse things) get as much exposure to all of their musical heritage: the trad jazz player and street bands old and new, the R&B and Funk masters of the past, the Indians, the whole package. Then they can find their place in the tradition of New Orleans or in a mix of the traditions that suits them best. In that way all of the traditions will live on.


4. Marco - May 28, 2008

I think you stress the most important point; that of exposing young people to the full gamut and spectrum of NOLA’s unrivaled musical heritage. To be shown any less is an insult not only to the people but the heritage too. The Japanese students quote says a lot in itself. All I know I can’t wait until “Crescent Blues” is over my laser beam.


5. Battle of the Bands (or Dr. White Reconsidered) « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - June 11, 2008

[…] 8, Journal of American History, Olympia Brass Band, Rebirth, traditional jazz trackback I wrote a long post about traditional jazz composer, player and advocate Dr. Micheal White after an article on him […]


6. Sax in the City « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - June 19, 2009

[…] clarinet player and frankly, a band like that needs a clarinet player (paging Dr. Micheal White, paging Dr. Micheal White). But usually that sax player or chef just shows up down the street, and life goes […]


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