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Battle of the Bands (or Dr. White Reconsidered) June 11, 2008

Posted by The Typist in 504, Jazz, music, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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I wrote a long post about traditional jazz composer, player and advocate Dr. Micheal White after an article on him appeared in Gambit several weeks ago. I applauded his preservation of the traditional sound and his outreach to groups like the Hot 8 Brass Band.

This morning I found an article in the Journal of American History by Dr. White that contained this:

Much has changed over the years. The traditional style of jazz no longer dominates the contemporary brass band sound of the still-popular community parades and funerals. A fake, distorted image and sound of jazz and “New Orleans music” have become increasingly common in the fog of cultural ignorance, commercialism, and indifference.

As much as I respect Dr. White, I think he is missing an important point. There is no such thing as New Orleans Music, except as the broadest of geographical categories. Yes there is a style of jazz, precursor to all the rest and so much of popular music, that originated in New Orleans (sorry, Chicago and everywhere else, but it’s true). The style that came up out of ragtime and society/dance music of the turn of the last century is uniquely ours, and of incredible importance. It should not demean everything else that comes up out of New Orleans.

What bands like the Olympia, Rebirth and Hot 8 have done does not diminish New Orleans music. They have expanded it, brought younger audiences to hear a brass sound that I hope will lead them to discover all of the other branches of the jazz family. That was my own path. The music I thought of as Jazz was my parents music-Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, the commercialized players of the 1960s. I fell into Jazz through hearing groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago, with their powerful horn arrangements, and strangely enough the Grateful Dead who lead me to understand the connection between their improvisational style and that of the great Jazz players of the 1950s and 1960s (as well as leading me to an appreciation of Bluegrass and through that Celtic music).

All those players far removed from the mainstream of Jazz laid a foundation so that first listening to Jazz on WTUL-FM (in the days before WWOZ) I was more easily drawn in, so that today on my I-Pod you will find the Preservation Hall and the Jazz Vipers and the Hot 8 and Pharoah Sanders and Miles Davis nestled up against the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead (the latter two which would not recognizably exist without the fertile cross-pollination with Jazz in the 60s).

This history of Jazz is one of experimentation and growth, new branches coming out of every generation. Miles Davis Bitches Brew, which once upset the world as much as Bob Dylan plugging in an electric guitar, does not diminish what Davis did before. It does not diminish those who came before, who’s playing Davis built on. I understood Dr. White’s words in Gambit and his work with the Hot 8 to be about educating young players, about broadening their exposure and experience so that they would be better players not about converting them to the One True Religion.

I hope it was the American Journal of History article I have misunderstood and not the Gambit piece. There is no one true New Orleans music any more than there is one true Jazz. There is room in New Orleans and in the world for Dr. White and for the Jazz Vipers, for the Andrew Hall Jazz Band and the Hot 8, just as there is room for the R&B and Funk sounds of this city. Dr. White should continue his work in the oldest style of New Orleans music, preserving through playing and growing through new compositions and the training of young musicians. He should not denigrate what he thinks of as the ” fake, distorted image and sound of jazz and ‘New Orleans music’.”

We should all remember that the music some would enshrine as “New Orleans Jazz” came up out of the streets and corner bars of New Orleans, was informed by and built upon what those first players had learned before the first recognizable strains of jazz came out the door of the Eagle Saloon and the other bars and brothels of the back of downtown, just as the music of today’s brass bands has come up from the street corner, is built on the foundations of the past. It is all New Orleans, and all worth not just “saving” in some Smithsonian or Disney sense, but worth playing and hearing.

We have to face the facts. Traditional or Dixieland Jazz is commercially a thing of the past, has an audience as keen and as small as that for string chamber music. That doesn’t diminish it’s value one bit. As I agreed in my last post, Dr. White’s work exposing young musicians to the tradition and training them in it is tremendously important. But just as important, no one should devalue the gateway music–whether it is the Hot 8 or the Grateful Dead–that might lead someone who came up on the pop music of their day to find themselves spending a cold night in exile reconnecting to their roots by listening to, of all things,the clarinet-and-coronet-led trad jazz of  See’s Candy Presents Riverwalk Jazz.

Comments»

1. Marco - June 11, 2008

Last summer, I played the Hot 8 cd for a cousin of mine. He is a trumpet player and jazz purist. He thought Hot 8 sounded too brassy and asked me to take it off. He lived in New Orleans for a time. He admits that I have a much more open ear than he. So did Miles, one of his idols up to a certain point in his music. I just got “Blue Crescent” from Basin St. Records. It’s very good, but so far I like “Dancing in the Sky” more. The traditional-contemporary argument will always be with us. It’s important to keep one’s ears open to all types of music and to sense its organic nature.

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2. Wet Bank Guy - June 11, 2008

I can’t fairly disagree that they are “brassy”. You could say the same thing about Rebirth and Olympia. But then again, they are “brass bands”. While in the long ago these often included clarinet and saxophone, today it’s often a lone sax battling against two or three trumpeters and one or more trombonists along with an electric bass.

It’s a very different sound than a more traditional ensemble (White’s groups or or the Andrew Hall group or, say, someone like the Jazz Vipers playing a mid-century, Django Reihardt influenced sound, or just about anyone where there’s a closer balance of reeds and horns.

In the end I think dismissing the new wave brass band as brassy would be like saying I like Caribbean music, but that steel drum bands sound “too metallic”.

In the end I think you explained your relative’s view perfectly: I am not a purist of any genre. I’m not denying that the new wave bands are as much R&B groups as they are jazz groups. That’s just the way the street music has evolved over the last several decades. I do think they serve as gateways, a path into something more traditionally “jazz” that a young person or other new listener might otherwise never mind.

And they are genuine New Orleans, which is what disturbed me about White’s quote above; as genuinely New Orleans as Louis Armstrong. Or Allen Toussaint. Or Dr. Michael White.

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3. Marco - June 11, 2008

And the drum machine has replaced most steel drums in SOCA. When in Guadeloupe years ago, we befriended some musicians. I mentioned a Carnaval group called Akiyo who took 125 or so people into the studio and added some electronics. I think they are fantastically hot while combining traditional and modern. One of the musicians we met was old school and a hell of a musician. He was around when cadence was popular and before zouk became the rage. He was very outspoken in his disapproval of Akiyo’s style.
So it’s all over and a constant source of disagreement. For me the appreciation of music transcends this division.
Dr. White doesn’t mention hip-hop by name, but do you think he is referring to it?

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4. Wet Bank Guy - June 11, 2008

I can’t speak for White, but without the context of the Gambit article he could just as easily be talking about the very musicians he is working with, like the Hot 8. In my view, better they pick up a horn because they want to be just like Kermit Ruffins than they pick up a microphone because they want to be just like C-Murder.

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5. Marco - June 11, 2008

I’ll have to read the article in the Journal again, but I might have to back him up on that. The mask and the music that he dislikes might be the germ of a good post for ya’.

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6. Wet Bank Guy - June 11, 2008

If you know how to reach Dr. Michael White, I have tried to send links to these two posts and some questions to both his publicist and the Basin Street Records emails. Both bounce.

If you’re someone who knows how to reach them, please send him this link. Thanks.

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7. Adrastos - June 11, 2008

I’m a heretic, I’m not much of a brass band guy. I find the concentration of brass to be grating. I like my horns with a dose of woodwinds.

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8. Wet Bank Guy - June 12, 2008

There’s definitely no heresy involved Peter, unless I have correctly understood Dr. White, and that’s what bother’s me. Have you caught the Jazz Vipers on Frenchman? As we all start to get our Old Fart on it’s harder and harder to catch a show that starts at 10:30ish, sort of, but they are hot. I”ll have to drop you off a CD one day and try to get you hooked.

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9. New Orleans News Ladder - June 12, 2008

Yeah, I think Dr. White knows the sound of flooded horns. That is what I heard during The Troubles, not one horn. That said, I was struck by that comment too. Coincidentally I found a review of his latest album, Blue Crescent, today from AnimaMundi so I hung you right beneath it.
People are so scattered far and wide and I just can’t get the picture out of my mind of those flooded horns.
It can get weird on’da back hand path.

I so miss the Vipers on Sat at da’Cat.

Thanks fo’da piece where’yat, Noble Wet Guy.
Editilla

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10. serentripity - July 6, 2008

Hi Scot,

Another great post.

I stumbled on your Bukowski post, came back, and found these great insights into music. I think I’ll be coming back to your blog a lot!

Are you a musician? I’m guessing guitar (that’s what I play).

I’m not a jazz musician, but if you want to check out my music (I feel like we have some lyrical tastes in common) check out:
http://erogenousjones.org/music.php

(I suggest Tube Sock Toes).

Also, I suggest checking out Spencer Day if you haven’t heard him. You can see a fabulous video here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCQXbNbaVlE

Cheers mate.

Craig

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11. Wet Bank Guy - July 6, 2008

I am not a musician but have always cared deeply about music. Here in New Orleans, our indigenous styles are such an integral part of who we are. The preservation of the brass band tradition, both the old styles and the new, are critical to rebuilding a city recognizably New Orleans.

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