Battle of the Bands (or Dr. White Reconsidered) June 11, 2008Posted by The Typist in 504, Jazz, music, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Dixieland, Dr. Michael White, Gambit, Hot 8, Journal of American History, Olympia Brass Band, Rebirth, traditional jazz
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.