Honoring Cosimo Matassa
And in praise of Dr. House
Jacob Blickenstaff PHOTOGRAPH
Recently Alison Fenterstock, ace reporter on bounce and hip-hop for The Times-Picayune/Nola.com, invited authors of New Orleans music books to an online chat about “things musical in the comment stream” and “your own books.”
The TP’s “Everywhere Man of Music,” Keith Spera, sat in his starship prepared to opine. Grace Wilson was Nola.com’s facilitator for this gathering of the minds. No one to my knowledge had ever gotten so many of us under one roof, cyber or otherwise.
Michael Tisserand and Ben Sandmel joined, among others.
A readers’ popularity poll on 19 music books sweetened the lure.
We began in a blues tone, for that afternoon was the funeral of Cosimo Matassa, “Cosimo the Magnificent,” who recorded a city soundtrack from the late 1940s into the ’60s in French Quarter studios.
“Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew and others were able to visit him this week before he passed,” posted Fats Domino biographer Rick Coleman. “Love you Cosimo!”
“Cosimo was one of my main interviewees when I came over [from the U.K.] in 1973,” added Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans author John Broven. “Perceptive, unassuming and funny ... I’m involved in the website documenting Cosimo’s ’60s recordings.
Go to CosimoCode.com.”
“When I spoke to Allen Toussaint yesterday,” posted Spera, “he said that the first time he ever played a grand piano was at Cosimo’s studio. Prior to that he had only played uprights.”
“Strikes me,” lobbed your correspondent, “that one could write a great book on evolution of [New Orleans] sound by following the key producers and engineers, from Cos to Allen, Mark [Bingham] and John Fischback, and then the rappers and hip-hoppers ... The real question is whether melody got knee-capped in favor of rhythm.”
Alison Fenterstock: “One of the reasons I like New Orleans bounce music so much is the melodies, which often seem derived from older local roots music. Lately, you’re right, bounce is going in the direction of electronic club music, beats in front and melody in back.”
Keith Spera: “‘Melody got knee-capped in favor of rhythm.’ Jason, you should be a writer.”
“We try, Keith. We try.”
Spera: “No one sound dominates the city like rhythm-and-blues did in the 1950s. So you’ve got different producers serving different styles and sounds. There is no hub like Cosimo’s studios were back in the day.”
Grace Wilson thanked me for joining the chat. Then, this: “Your book Up From the Cradle of Jazz is a bible for many. I know for a fact Hugh Laurie read it cover to cover when he was recording his New Orleans album. Was it hard to get Cosimo to talk about his contributions? Everyone says he was so humble about his work, but clearly his impact was so vital to the New Orleans sound.”
Hugh Laurie ... read the book!
“The guy can really play a mean boogie stride,” I riposted. “Grace, make my day!”
My wife, a professor of English and Nabokov scholar, watched every episode of “House,” some of them twice. At times I felt like Dr. House lived in our house. His theme song is her cell phone ring tone; I’m not jealous, just an upper-middle-aged realist. I sent an immediate email at work and she fired back: “OMG.”
Back to Grace on the chat-line: “I didn’t answer your question, given the cone of humility that now encompasses me with the knowledge that Hugh Laurie read the book. (Hi, Hugh. Cocktails some time?) The interviews with Cosimo were done by the late Tad Jones, who worked as hard as anyone I’ve known in trying to understand where the music came from, and our colleague Jonathan Foose. For the record, I’m coauthor of the book with them.”
In the manner of the ancient Greeks, I shall now pass over the victory of this book in the Nola.com readers’ poll.
Other than my wife and daughter, I have no idea who cast votes.