New Orleans has long been a magnet to musicians.
A Swede, a Briton and a onetime New Yorker – Lars Edegran, Clive Wilson and Bruce Raeburn – have all brought their considerable talents to New Orleans and traditional jazz is the better for their efforts.
“I did not come here first, you know, I went to Chicago,” explains Edegran, a Swede. He’s a blues fan. At a blues concert in Germany he went backstage, where he met a Chicago record store owner who offered him a job if he decided to go to U.S.
“I saved up my money, bought a ticket, flew to New York in 1965 and took a Greyhound bus to Chicago,” Edegran says. Recalling his reaction to arriving in a snowstorm he adds, “My God! Did I leave Sweden to come to this? It was worse than Stockholm.”
Chicago presented a unique problem. “I couldn’t go to the jazz clubs because I was underage, I was only 20. That was a real drag,” he admits. He hitchhiked to New Orleans.
Edegran first went to Preservation Hall, where a group of musicians were rehearsing. “I got invited in by Allan Jaffe [the Hall’s proprietor.] I explained I played piano and he let me sit in with the band.” Edegran met more traditional jazz musicians at Buster’s Restaurant on Burgundy Street. He quit his Chicago job.
Soon he was part of a group of young musicians who had come to town to learn the music. The group would ultimately include, among many others, Örjan “Orange” Kellin of Sweden, John Simmons, Barry Martyn and Clive Wilson, all of England, and former New Orleanian Tom Sancton who chronicled his adventures in Song for My Fathers [Other Press, 2006].
Besides piano, Edegran also played clarinet and guitar in small dance halls, including Munster’s located Uptown on Laurel and Lyons streets, and Luthjen’s located downtown on Marais Street at Almonaster Avenue. He also played with Sharkey Bonano’s band and at clubs on Bourbon Street. He even had a part-time job at the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University; there he made an interesting discovery: a caché of musical arrangements of ragtime-era bandleader John Robichaux. From those grew the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra. “We played at the Newport Jazz Festival, we did tours,” he explains. The 1978 movie Pretty Baby used the ragtime orchestra on the soundtrack, which received an Oscar nomination.
Edegran’s friend Vernel Bagneris asked him to work on the music for a recreation of a black 1920s era vaudeville show, and thus began a long association with the Broadway musical One Mo’ Time. “We were in New York for five years, we traveled. When we were in England we played for the Queen,” Edegran says. There he met Kathy, now his wife of 23 years. Today he’s still in New Orleans and he still plays music. “Every week is different. But I can’t complain for lack of work, there’s plenty of work,” he adds.
Trumpeter Clive Wilson was the son of a Church of England clergyman in London and a physics student at Newcastle University when the recordings of trumpeter Bunk Johnson and clarinetist George Lewis galvanized his desire to go to New Orleans.
Arriving in the summer of 1964, Wilson obtained a green card so he could legally work to help pay for his trip. “I had the most incredible visit, making a hundred new friends in a matter of weeks. They all helped out by finding me a place to stay, finding me a job and of course inviting me to come to jam sessions at Preservation Hall,” Wilson recalls fondly. “There was this wonderful experience of becoming part of the New Orleans culture – very different in the 1960s from Great Britain.”
Civil Rights legislation allowed white musicians to not only play with black musicians but to join their musicians’ union. “My experience, without knowing it at the time, was that I had found a new family – it was that personal,” Wilson asserts.
After a time back in Britain, Wilson found a day job as a computer programmer at the First National Bank of Commerce. Luckily he didn’t need it long. He and his Monette trumpet have stayed busy playing and recording ever since. He even formed a band, the Original Camellia Jazz Band, named for a 1920s group.
Wilson, like most of the young musicians who came here to learn, is now an American citizen. Post-Katrina New Orleans still offers him opportunities: “Now more than ever they expect music for everything: when the Natchez returned, when the Port had a ceremony, when the Riverwalk reopened they hired music. This is what people in New Orleans do, and it’s unique, really in the world,” Wilson says. “There is more support for live music in this relatively small city than just about anywhere.”
Since 1989, Bruce Raeburn has been curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, information headquarters for traditional New Orleans jazz. Raeburn points out that the passion of young European musicians in the 1960s was an outgrowth of the revival of interest in traditional New Orleans jazz that first came to prominence in the 1940s. European interest in traditional jazz and the blues was also a reflection of the politics of the left and Raeburn noted that the same impulse that brought musicians to New Orleans would lead English music stars like Eric Clapton to study the blues.
Raeburn was the New York-born son of a jazz singer mother and a big band leader father, Boyd Raeburn, who began in the 1930s with swing and “by 1944 probably had the first white band to be influential in the impact of bebop on big bands.” The band dissolved, the family moved to the Bahamas where his mother died and Raeburn and his sister went to live with an uncle in California where he spent a freshman year of college at UCLA. By 1966 his father had remarried and moved to Lafayette. After his father’s death, Raeburn completed college as a history major at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he also earned a master’s in history. In addition, he picked up drumsticks.
Raeburn arrived in New Orleans in 1971 as a history graduate student at Tulane, ultimately earning his Ph.D. with a dissertation on “the awakening of jazz scholarship and the effect those ideas had on New Orleans jazz.” Studying was a day job, but at night Raeburn worked as a drummer. His gigs included a stint with James Booker (“Booker had two drummers: he called us ‘the Angola Candidates.’”), as a regular performance at the Maple Leaf and ultimately with his own rock band: Shot Down in Ecuador, Jr.
Raeburn marvels at the kindness of the New Orleans music world and at the overlapping types of music it holds. “The innate generosity of it – after having to deal with racial oppression for a long time, these black musicians were willing to take in these young white students,” he notes.
“Even though I’m an outsider I have managed to end up on stage with some interesting local people – which is the dream of every outsider.” In New Orleans, Raeburn insists, “It is possible to be a New Orleans person even if you weren’t born here.”