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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.

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.