A Sociological Autobiography: 31 – Jazz in the Crescent City

By | August 18, 2014

We first visited New Orleans as a family in 1991, the year we purchased 58 South Street in Epsom and I became an owner-occupier at the age of 43. In various combinations the Scamblers made several more trips to this European corner of the US through the 1990s and into and beyond the noughties: most notably in 1998, when Annette and I were visiting professors at Emory University for a semester and drove across the continent, hitting New Orleans on St Patrick’s Day; and in 2012, when I was invited over to celebrate 35 years as London director of the Emory ‘summer abroad programme’ and we reprised our earlier stays.

Above all else, New Orleans oozes jazz through its every urban pore. My musical background had been more than attenuated: Ron and Margaret had encouraged me in vain to learn an instrument (Ron played the piano easily and by ear, Margaret more painstakingly). But early in 1991, anticipating hearing some jazz, I had acquired a few cassettes in readiness for our excursion to New Orleans from Atlanta (where we were staying with old friends Dick and Linda Levinson). The modest collection I packed focused on Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. They were rough recordings of these masters’ live performances, which lent them a poignant authenticity. Moreover I was primed to listen and learn. More than two decades later I have expanded my listening to other jazz idioms and accumulated several hundred CDs.

Back to New Orleans. For its initial half-century it was a French possession, and French traditions and conventions endure. The city was ceded to Spain in 1764, and the Spanish governed it for the next 36 years. By this stage, culturally, it resembled the French West Indies, with music similar to the Martinique or Haiti of today. In 1800, however, Napoleon prevailed upon Spain to return New Orleans to France, leaving its incumbents a tad confused. In 1803 Napoleon flogged it to the United States. It rapidly became a swollen and prosperous port and centre. Its population in 1803 was approximately 10,000: half white, half Negro. But with the opening up of the Louisiana Territory there was an influx of Americans, and the population doubled in seven years. The demand for entertainment grew in tandem. At the same time British-Protestant culture insinuated itself. New Orleans became a boomtown and one of the chief cities of the New World.

Jazz emerged around 1900 as a kind of musical gumbo. In the words of Jelly Roll Morton, father of the ‘hot’ piano, New Orleans contained ‘every different kind of person’. He went on: ‘We had French, we had Spanish, we had West Indian, we had American, and we all mixed on an equal basis’. Jazz was initially a largely black-cum-Creole amateur pursuit, that is, until the opening of the red light district of Storyville in 1897, after which jazz players could find more secure employment. Like many of his consociates, Morton provided musical accompaniment in bars and brothels, often to girls dancing naked on tables.

The Scambler visit in 1991 was to a much-changed city. Storyville, just north of the French Quarter, had long since been closed down. But the Quarter itself had retained its edginess and sense of risk. Bourbon Street, ever wakeful, was a much sleazier mix of voodoo, strippers, jazz, alcohol and drugs 20 years ago than now, although then, as now, it was possible to find exquisite jazz interspersed among the shady bars. Do NOT venture beyond the Quarter’s perimeter American friends had warned us, especially after dark.

Jackson Square was replete with artists, musicians and performers plying their wares, the oddest of which were the human ‘statues’, fussily dressed, dusted in white and capable of extraordinary immobility. Just off the Square was Café du Monde, home of the beignet; and often a trumpeter, casually attired in white hat, blue jacket and nondescript slacks, one hand in his pocket, would play for loose change. He was good, as was every jazz player we heard. They played everywhere: in cafes and bars and in the streets. We noticed that one tram driver carried his trombone beside his seat, ready to play later. A German tourist, trumpet in hand, politely asked to join a jamming session and was immediately welcomed. Kaldi’s became our favourite of many excellent cafes to the extent that I have blogged about it elsewhere.

New Orleans offered a small portion of ‘old Europe’ in the new territory of the USA. We were all at home there. Interestingly, I increasingly find that I feel more European than British when I am in the USA. In New Orleans there was the grand European architecture, showing the best of French and Spanish influence. Is there anywhere as many intricate balconies, and so much to see from them? And the city sits on one of the great rivers, the Mississippi, still home to significant trade and many a paddle-steamer (and many, many more alligators). Then there’s the old covered market and the colourful, quaint trams. But it is its cafes and bars, its restaurants – what food in the likes of the Gumbo Shop – and, above all, its jazz that stick in the mind. I shall have occasion to revisit New Orleans in subsequent fragments but before I close here I must mention a not-so-old but nevertheless dilapidated building, Preservation Hall. If my memory serves me, this was established to support ageing (black) jazzmen fallen on hard times. The audience queues, then sits on long hard pews or stands at the back, alternately listening and chatting. The place oozes traditional jazz, inevitably of a high standard. Go if you can!

I have moved on since from Jelly Roll, the King and Armstrong, for all that I can always re-sample the Hot Fives or Sevens. Given a choice, it is sax players I would now opt for. Coleman Hawkins, arch adapter, Billie Holiday’s mate with the pork pie hat, smooth Eric Dolphy, and so many more since; but especially Charlie Parker, bebop’s soloist without equal (try Ornithology). I have already blogged about sociology and jazz, but I shall have to recapture the pleasure of both in future items!


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