Jazz and Community

Why is New Orleans Jazz Coming Back?

Peter Gerler

Lindy Hoppers at French Quarter Festival 2013

As reported by Will Friedwald last month in Vanity Fair, there is new growth in “Hot Jazz” around New York and the country--especially among the twenty-something set. (By “Hot Jazz,” Friedwald means what many term “Dixieland” but in New Orleans was originally called “playing ragged.”) Writes Friedwald, “I find that I can go hear a 20s-style band, almost inevitably made up of musicians born well after 1980, playing somewhere in [New York] city virtually every night of the week.”

I’ve heard the sound myself, especially in the Crescent City, sprouting in all corners. In April, at this year’s French Quarter Festival, I watched young bands like Tuba Skinny, The Smoking Time Jazz Club, the Palmetto Bug Stompers, and the New Orleans Cottonmouth Kings lifting Lindy Hoppers off the floor and into the eternal moment. Friedwald is right. As the old New Orleans clarinetist Paul Barnes remarked, “People sit down and listen to bop, but when you listen to traditional jazz, your feet get to moving….Even babies in people's arms dance.”

I might know why this upsurge is happening: In the midst of dispiriting division, this country needs union. Swing—that ineffable “thang” that makes you move--brings it. It leads us all to the same level, “undressed” as they say in the Big Easy. It was from the families, social clubs, and neighborhood streets of New Orleans that hot jazz emerged. It was never music for “entertainment”—but for living.

Incipient jazz was about liberation. “The blues, the spirituals, the jazz, the dance, was what we had in place of freedom,” wrote the author Ralph Ellison. Nat Towles, a veteran of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, recalled playing in New Orleans funeral parades: "No music, you understand, we didn't know what a sheet of music was. Just six or seven pieces, half a dozen men pounding it out all together, each in his own way and yet somehow fitting in all right with the others. It had to be right, and it was, because it came from the right place."

The music brought people together in church “shouts,” levee work songs, lawn parties, lake parties, restaurants, dance halls, park concerts—and in “second-line” street parades where, alongside brass bands, crowds kicked up dust strutting and spinning and, as Louis Armstrong recalled, “leaving their troubles behind.” All music was live--no recordings. “That music, it was like where you lived,” wrote the great Sidney Bechet. “It was like waking up in the morning and eating, it was that regular in your life. It was natural to the way you lived and the way you died."

The second lines, while sometimes violent, could bring an ecstatic experience that, it has been suspected, came from the Sanctified Church ring shouts. “Everybody in there sang and they clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies,” recalled Mahalia Jackson about the church. “They had a beat, a powerful beat, a rhythm we held on to from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive it used to bring tears to my eyes.”

In New Orleans, music and dance came genetically connected. It is an African tradition involving camaraderie. Turn-of-century New Orleans musicians typically played soft enough so they could hear the dancers’ feet. That shussing and tapping set their own rhythm (and vice versa)—because swing is about physical movement.

The New Orleans clarinetist Albert Nicholas recalled playing with Joe “King” Oliver’s band in 1925: “The secret of Oliver’s band was rhythm and, no noise. The band played full but no blasting. Joe wanted to hear those feet on the floor; the feet of the dancers. He’d say, ‘When you don’t hear those feet, you’re not playing music; you’re making noise.’”

And the bassist Pops Foster remembered playing in 1929 with the Luis Russell band--loaded with Crescent City players: “We were really romping then, really bouncing. The rhythm was playing great together and the trumpet players were screaming soft so you could hear the people's feet scraping on the floor. You could stand right in front of the band and they weren't blasting you out.”

How refreshing: You got to feel the cross rhythms, the play of melodies, blooming harmonies, street corner musical rap--and the swing. “I want to explain that ‘hot,’ as swing musicians use the word, does not necessarily mean loud or even fast,” wrote Louis Armstrong.

Under and through it all ran the blues, a transformative fire cooking the New Orleans gumbo, bringing people into their humanity. When he first started out, Armstrong—that bounty of joy and good will—could play nothing but the blues. Yet the blues, too, ultimately deals in liberation.

But in the end, New Orleans jazz is about democracy—many voices blending into one. E pluribus unum. In the words of my old teacher W.A. Mathieu, “Everybody’s playing a different song, but everybody’s playing the same song.”

Maybe that’s why we need Hot Jazz now: to bring back our American community.

Par. #2, "Even babies in people's arms...": Paul Barnes oral history 3/13/71, Reel I, p. 3, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University

Par. #4, "The blues, the spirituals, the jazz": Ellison, Ralph, Living With Music, ed. By Robert G. O’Meally, NY 2001, p. xviii

Par. #4, "No music, you understand": Shapiro and Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, NY 1955, p. 16

Par. #5, "That music, it was like where you lived": Bechet, Sidney, Treat It Gentle, NY 1978, p. 217

Par. #6, "Everybody in there sang": Brothers, Thomas, Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, NY 2006 pp. 39-40

Par. #8, "The secret of Oliver's band": Russell, William, “Oh, Mister Jelly,” Jazz Media, 1999, pp. 320-321

Par. #9, "We were really romping...": Foster, Pops, The Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman, Los Angeles 1971, p. 139

Par. #10, "I want to explain...":Armstrong, Louis, Swing That Music, NY 1993, p. 31

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Peter Gerler