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November 2005
Jazz Funeral
By Pattrice Jones

 

The last time I was in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to see jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and pianist Ellis Marsalis backed up by members of the local symphony orchestra. The concert closed with an extraordinary rendition of the jazz standard, “Cherokee.” If you’d been there, you’d never again question whether music is good for you. The swinging rhythm seemed to align the vibrations of my protons and neutrons even as my synapses were snapping in synch with the complicated chord changes.

My friend and I rushed up the aisles as soon as the song ended and the applause began. I saw one of the wealthy volunteers as she burst out of the dark auditorium and into the lighted lobby. In my mind, she is all in blue—blue dress, blue eyes, blue tint to her grey hair—but that is probably because her eyes lit up the room. “Did you hear that?” she asked no one in particular, “I used to play cornet. Do you have any idea how hard that is to do?” This elderly white music-lover was incandescent in her appreciation of a form of African American artistry that she had thus far managed to miss. Later, I saw her talking to Irvin Mayfield, who was very gracious.

Since the flood, I’ve often thought back on that moment, which encapsulates—right down to the twinge of discomfort I feel when reporting that the song was “Cherokee”—many of the peculiar features of New Orleans.

Thinking back on his New Orleans childhood, guitarist and banjoist Danny Barker (1909-1994) recalled that “a bunch of us kids, playing, would suddenly hear sounds. It was like a phenomenon, like the Aurora Borealis—maybe. The sounds of men playing would be so clear but we wouldn’t be sure where they were coming from. So we’d start trotting, start running—‘It’s this way!’ ‘It’s that way!’”

Can you imagine such a thing? Think about brass bands on truck beds, battling with horns on street corners, exactly the same yet completely different than the NYC DJs of the 1970s or the LA krump dancers of today.

To read about the origins of jazz in New Orleans is to visit a strange and familiar country populated by people like Steel Arm Johnny, Bird Leg Nora, Boxcar Shorty and Big Bull Cora. According to Danny Barker, Eight Ball, Yard Dog, Smoke Stack, Scratch, Snaggle Mouf Mary and Joe Never Smile moved in circles where the fine distinctions among brothels, sporting houses, cribs, clip joints, and houses of assignation were known by all. Pianists like Jelly Roll Morton pounded out tunes in houses of gambling and prostitution while clarinetists like Sidney Bechet played in combos in clubs and trombonists like Kid Ory stormed the streets in brass bands.

There would be no hip hop, no break dancing, no jazz or rock and roll if it weren’t for New Orleans. Every book on jazz history begins in New Orleans and every honest history of rock, funk, punk, or disco acknowledges its legacy.

Trombones and Nonsense
Besides being the homeland of music that has evolved in other places, New Orleans had and continues to have its own musical styles. Like South Bronx hip hop, Storyville jazz has continued to evolve even as some practitioners stick to the old-school styles.

New Orleans music isn’t limited to jazz. The city has its own style of funk and even punk too. I can’t begin to do justice to all of the unique features of New Orleans music, so I’ll just concentrate on the two I love best: trombones and nonsense.

Even if you don’t know anything about music, you probably recognize classic New Orleans jazz when you hear it. That big unbroken sound comes to you courtesy of the trombone. Like life, this instrument is analog rather than digital. Every note slides into the next just as each successive moment slips into the past. As natural and necessary as breathing, the trombone’s wail acts like water, flowing into and filling the crevices between the notes of all the other instruments in the band.

It’s hard to write about something like this. Words don’t work when trying to describe certain visceral or emotional experiences. Maybe that’s why nonsense syllables are such an abiding element of New Orleans vocal music. Iko Iko (or Jock-a-Mo), Shoorah (or Shu Rah) and Ay-La-Ay—all talk about things that can’t be said. Listen to the unabashed passion of Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters’ version of Jock-a-Mo versus the oddly diffident vocals of The Dixie Cups’ version of the same song, where the backup singers sound like they are wilting from the heat and might not make it through the recording session. Hear the longing that suffuses almost every version of Shoorah. Heed the coded messages in Lee Dorsey’s Ay-La-Ay. Think about unspeakable sorrow, passion beyond words, and all of the things that are too dangerous to say.

The road between NOLA’s Jock-a-Mo and NYC bebop or LA hip hop is as bent as the Creole Jazz Band’s Krooked Blues and as twisted as Lil Hardin’s Perdido Street Blues but, like all good trips, getting there is half the fun. I hear New Orleans in the sly humor of Thelonious Monk’s Bright Mississippi and the wordplay of Snoop Dog’s “izzles.”

The Peculiarities of Place
A city is both a material place and a cultural space.

When we joke about local peculiarities, we sometimes say “there must be something in the water.” And it’s true. The water everywhere is different. We drink the water and it becomes our cells, our selves.

Soils vary in their mineral constitution. Tomatoes grown in sandy soil taste and are different than those grown in silty soil. Greens grown in rich loamy soil are more vital and nutritious than those grown in depleted hardpan.

Sea breezes smell and are different than dry desert winds. Cloud cover varies from place to place and this helps to determine how much vitamin D we take in from the sun shining on our faces.

Where we are helps to determine who we are and what we can do. In a multiplicity of ways we may never understand, the unique material conditions of New Orleans contributed to the creation of its singular culture.

Mourners in a jazz funeral strutting home after interring the body in an aboveground tomb. Voodoo queen Marie Laveau. Mardi Gras “Indians.” Hot sauce and Zydeco. These are just a few of the cultural features that come to mind when you think of New Orleans. All are expressions of particular people adapting to particular circumstances. All involve some kind of mixing.

Miscegenation and Improvisation
Whether in music or genes, you can’t find more intermingling than in New Orleans. African drums and European brass instruments collided in jazz. Improvising their music along with their livelihoods, the first jazz musicians founded a process rather than a form. That process of mixing and making things up continues in and out of New Orleans in jazz-funk fusion and mash-ups and surf-punk bands. But Katrina and her aftermath have placed the local process in peril.

Will we have to hold a jazz funeral for New Orleans? I want to shout “No!” but I have to say, “maybe so.” Already, reconstruction funds are going to multinational corporations and so-called faith-based nongovernmental organizations. Neither are likely to appreciate or even tolerate the real Perdido Street. The risk that New Orleans will be turned into what some critics have termed “Six Flags Bourbon Street” is very real.

Humans don’t do many things that are harmless, good humored, life affirming, and true. That’s why an animal rights activist like me worries about the future of trombones and nonsense rhymes. I can’t be the only activist whose work has been sustained by bebop pulling me through the paragraphs I’m trying to write or a ska-punk anthem giving me an outlet for what would otherwise be inexpressible rage. All of us who have enjoyed the legacies of New Orleans owe it to the city to ensure that the next are made not by Bush and his corporate cronies but by local civic and environmental organizations.

The music of New Orleans began as an improvised response to unspeakable suffering. Let the creative improvisation continue.

Pattrice Jones coordinates the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center. To learn more, see www.bravebirds.org.

 

 


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