Samuel Charters is an esteemed writer on American popular music; a man whose long career exploring jazz, blues and Latin music has been interlaced with novels and writings about Sweden, where he made a home. His story as a writer begins in New Orleans as a young emigreé from California. He was drawn to the swirl of traditional jazz in the mid-1950s during the years leading up to the opening of Preservation Hall as played by George Lewis, Harold DeJean and Jim Robinson, among others.
Charters’ first book, Jazz: New Orleans 1885-1957, was a look at the origins of the art form, with biographical capsules of the major black players. Though a valuable resource, the book gives too little coverage of the white musicians who played jazz in those early years. For several years, before he moved on to New York and eventually to Europe, Charters was immersed in the world of black artists advancing a seminal sound in the shadows of segregation – that he missed a lot is perhaps understandable. There is still no definitive account of how jazz music rose out of the ethnic strands that made up the melting pot.
In his new book, New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus, Charters returns to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with a dual agenda. His first wife remained in New Orleans after their divorce, and his son Sam grew up here and made a home with his wife Heidi and their two boys in Lakeview. As the writer – in his 70s – pitches in to help the young family through their ordeal, he reflects on his past association with the city. One such instance occurs when he worked part-time in a frame shop owned by Larry Borenstein, the French Quarter realtor who later founded Preservation Hall. Writes Charters:
“He had acquired the glass plate negatives for the images that had been taken by the photographer H. J. Belloq [sic] of Storyville prostitutes at the turn of the century. The photographs were to become some of the most celebrated images to document this flamboyant era, but for the moment, while Larry was looking for someone to buy them, the glass plates were piled against the back wall and sometimes I had to move them out of the way to get to our supply of glass frames. On one particularly rushed Sunday afternoon I lost my balance and landed on one knee on a [Bellocq] glass negative. The only thing that was left of the shattered negative was a small scar on my knee.”
Charters’ misspelling of E. J. Bellocq’s name is regrettable, and a sign of the writer’s distance from his subject material. He reports that the St. Thomas housing project was demolished after World War II, rather than the late 1990s. His insistence on Professor Long Hair as three names is odd, given that Longhair is the spelling on CD covers. He states categorically that younger musicians had to leave the city (pre-Katrina) in order to make it economically. Some did. The more arresting fact is that many younger musicians, like Kermit Ruffins, lived and recorded here, while going out for stretches on the road.
Nevertheless, this is an engaging book. Charters carries his pathos through the city, registering the scope of damage, visiting music clubs and protest rallies, assessing where, culturally, the city might be heading. His profile of Johnny Vidacovich is a window on the resilience of musicians. “What I play on the drums, that’s something indigenous to this area,” Vidacovich remarks from his Mid-City home, which survived. “It’s the music that you hear from everyone around here. Street beats. You hear the bluesy rock and roll beats.”
Charters writes with passionate intelligence about the young brass band players whose section riffing pumped dancers on Frenchmen Street and Uptown in the months after the flood. “It was the music culture of this unique city, in the little neighborhood clubs and out on the streets, that shaped their ways of thinking about music and honed their skills.”
His cameos on damage from the flooding may be over-familiar to some; but seeing the city in those early months, Charters has captured a moment in time with long resonance. Of Lars Edgran, the Swedish musician and long resident here, he writes:
“It was only after his return that he learned that one of the original members of the [New Orleans] Ragtime Orchestra, drummer John Robichaux, had drowned with his wife and his son in their home when the flood waters engulfed the city. John, who was 90 when he died, was one of the last of the city’s drummers who still played with the understated press-roll style that had long been characteristic of New Orleans band rhythms.”
In the end, Charters takes heart in the reopening of Hubig’s Pies as a sign of the city coming back to life. The enduring question is how long it will take to restore a genuine quality of life in the city where the music continues.