Urban Memories

Tom Morgan’s Historic Photos of New Orleans Jazz

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

From his perch at WWOZ 90.7 FM, the radio station at the center of the world, Tomas J. Morgan is a force on New Orleans-Style jazz. Few recordings of the classical idiom evade his capacity for instant recall. The banter on sidemen uncorks in its own melody as he programs discs from King Oliver, early Louis Armstrong with the Hot Five, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings unto Papa Celestin, Percy Humphrey and the mid-century flame carriers. Listening to Tom Morgan on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings is one of the more pleasant streams on the local soundtrack. Morgan’s Web site, www.jass.com, is well worth the visit.

In the images and text in a new book, Historic Photos of New Orleans Jazz, he roams the territory at the top of his form. In a few brief lines from the preface, he captures a core truth of the urban memory: “Being under the rule of the French and Spanish definitely contributed to a different environment than other cities living under British rule. The city’s large slave population worshiped at Congo Square, creating an oral history of African culture and music.

Religion didn’t disappear, music was kept alive, and dances were taught by those who remembered their African roots.”

Most of these black-and-white photographs come from the Louisiana State Museum’s Jazz Collection, a department that has not reopened since Katrina. This book suggests how important that collection is. The grainy image of West End at Lake Pontchartrain and Milneburg opens a window on Victorian architectural treasures long since razed.

Some of the photographs Morgan culled are well known from other books: The pocked picture of Buddy Bolden’s band, rare for all kinds of reasons, as with the more vivid moment when Kid Ory and his band sat down in a row of chairs (save for Pops Foster, with his stand-up bass) in a field out in LaPlace, register a sense of the blurring lines, rural blues and city dancers that fused into early “jass.”

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band is well represented in these pages. An exceptionally well-lit image of the Tuxedo Jazz Band in 1914 features nine young men whose faces form a riddle of mysterious beauty.

Morgan’s cut lines reflect an abiding curiosity about the past. I had never seen the 1915 “Flying High in New Orleans,” a novelty photo of three young men in a balloon rising above Canal Street and its streetcars. “Three of Dixieland’s bright young stars,” writes Morgan, “Clarinetist Alcide ‘Yellow’ Nunez, trombonist Tom Brown, and cornetist Charlie Christian” – with a line on where each would soon end up.

 Of a 1918 photo of the U.S. Naval Station band, Morgan writes: “The civilian term for a sailor was a ‘jackie,’ explains the name of the West End Jackies.” A photo of Papa Jack Laine and His Reliance Band comes from a 1919 postcard; the picture was taken in Alexandria. La.

The photograph of a young Louis Armstrong, standing, wearing a hat, newly arrived in Chicago next to his seated mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, is another famous moment. Lingering over it, one realizes that Oliver’s gum disease, which cut short his career, was then in its early phase. Oliver’s mien is equal parts satisfaction and resolve. Although he did not know it, Armstrong, thrilled at his arrival in Chicago, was also a rescuer. It is 1922. At 21, he has a face of serene pleasure, the bare hint of a smile, and no idea that within three years he will leave Papa Joe to break out on his own. At this moment their lives are balanced, never again to be so close.

Morgan organizes the photographs into five eras of 15 to 25 years each. As with any collection of photographs covering such a long span, the quality is mixed: Some photographs have a generic historical value while others achieve a certain aesthetic level. A 1918 portrait of Clarence Williams, looking pensive, got me wondering why the prolific composer who went from Plaquemines Parish to New Orleans to the big lights up North has yet to receive the same attention of other pioneers.

The last grouping has many familiar faces: Harold Batiste; Banu Gibson; James Singleton; Kidd Jordan; and Syndey Byrd’s timeless portrait of Danny and Blue Lu Barker (transferred from color) on the couch in their small home on Sere Street long before Katrina. Morgan also includes a gem of the Fairview Baptist church brass band with the mentor Danny Barker, and teenager players including trumpeter Leroy Jones, who led “the first modern brass band, the Hurricane Brass Band” from the group. The year, I believe, was 1971. Historic Photos of New Orleans Jazz belongs in the library of every jazz lover.
 

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