The New Orleans music culture is so densely intertwined, from brass bands to new compositions in traditional jazz, gospel, R&B, bounce and back again, as to challenge music writers to keep up, much less provide textured coverage. No disrespect to Keith Spera, Allison Fensterstock, Ben Sandmel, John Swenson, John Wirt and others who scramble from gigs to interviews and the hours of listening it takes to capture some piece of the whole – hey, I’ve been there. The overarching problem, as print coverage shrinks, is that even the best blogging has yet to find great reach.
The music, for all of its impact on the tourist economy, receives less substantive coverage than in the 1970s when two alternative weeklies, now buried, competed with long features. It’s hard to go deep when everyone is deadline-sprinting to tighter space.
That’s why it helps to heed an expert, as once defined by a rockarolla pitchman of my acquaintance: “A man with a briefcase who gets off an airplane from someplace else.”
Thus we turn to Jack Sullivan, English Department chair at Rider University, up in New Jersey, a man who has carried his briefcase to and from the holy city where jazz began, sometimes with student groups. Sullivan’s just-published New Orleans Remix is a superb blend of history and reportage, sparkling with insights from years of interviewing the artists and a learned lens on cultural patterns. A five-star book.
Sullivan explores a culture of myriad connections across genres. “Certain identifiable qualities set New Orleans music apart,” he writes. “An unapologetic embrace of melody, an indifference to anything that isn’t danceable, a rhythmic displacement that goes back to the history of second lines.”
“Musicians themselves speak of the untamable ‘spirit’ of the city, the near-palpable presence of ancestors, the ineffable ambience that makes the music happen. Indeed, ‘magic’ is a central word in their vocabulary. They disagree on many issues – the meaning of tradition, the musicianship of new immigrants, the significance of bebop, the definition of funk – but on that fundamental point they are united.”
Sullivan’s surgical quotations from a wide base of interviewees bolster his take on spirit and magic. At various turns, he dwells on Danny Barker’s influence on the 1970s’ Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band, quoting Leroy Jones, Gregg Stafford, Michael White, among others; women of the Pinettes brass band (drummer Christine Jordan: “A lot of the guys can’t really transfer the streets to the stage”); assessing Big Freedia in the context of LGBT artists “surging onto the music scene.”
His section on the long influence of Louis Moreau Gottschalk touches down on compositions by Wynton Marsalis and Donald Harrison, Jr. John Boutté says how he wrote the “Tremé” song: “I was having my morning coffee on my front porch as a funeral procession was leaving St. Augustine Church. I was moved to describe what I was seeing and immediately wrote the lyrics of what I observed.”
On a related note, University of Minnesota Press has just reissued the 40th anniversary edition of Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues, a classic of American nonfiction. Only Murray could write: “There are blue devils, and there is also the Holy Ghost. Thus not everybody defines blues music and blues-idiom dance movements in the same terms.” Amen.