The Life Force of New Orleans

From when I was too young to be allowed into Boston jazz clubs, there’s an enduring memory of sneaking into Downtown at the Ken and marveling at Sidney Bechet joyously overpowering even Wild Bill Davison. Ever since, Bechet, whom I got to know when he played in Boston, has been the embodiment for me of the indomitable spirit of New Orleans jazz.

I often turn again to his masterful autobiography, Treat it Gentle (Da Capo Press), for such passages as, “That music 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.”

Even now, as hard as it is for many in New Orleans to live as they used to, the spirit ain’t dead yet. Writing of Tuesday nights now at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Uptown neighborhood, Pableaux Johnson (New York Times, Nov. 26) describes the regular gig there featuring the ReBirth Brass Band:

“With roots in the city’s vibrant street-parade tradition and centuries of Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms, Rebirth [sic] pumps the city’s musical lifeblood in a revival that’s equal parts bebop cutting session and hard-grooving dance party. Searing trumpet runs boomerang off the room’s pressed-tin ceiling; bass notes from drum and tuba rumble the length of the hundred-foot room and beyond.”

Yes, bebop coming out of the roots. Sidney Bechet used to emphasize that you can’t keep this music from going wherever it wants to, so long as it remembers where it came from.

Also, as jazz studies move into more classrooms, I hope that the stories about the magic in the air told by the musicianers (as Sidney Bechet called them) in the springtime of New Orleans jazz will not be lost. When the late Nat Shapiro and I put together Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Musicians Who Made It, we started the first section with Danny Barker. Jazz musicians are riveting storytellers, not only on their horns, and Barker always made me want more.

In the book, he had me wish I’d been born there: “One of my [most pleasant] memories as a kid growing up in New Orleans was how a bunch of us kids, playing, would suddenly hear sounds. The sounds of men playing would be so clear, but we wouldn’t be sure where they were coming from. … The music could come on you anytime. That city was full of the sounds of music.”

In my last Final Chorus, I wrote about 38-year-old clarinetist Evan Christopher, who emigrated to New Orleans from his native California to become a continuer of the city’s soaring legacy on that instrument, both there and in his growing number of international gigs (his most recent recording, on Arbors, is Delta Bound).

Interviewing him for the column, I was very pleased, as Nat Shapiro would have been, to hear that when he was still in school in Long Beach, Christopher began to find what turned out to be his lifetime vocation by reading what Danny Barker said about Evan’s future home in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya. It’s good, and extremely rare, to know that a book you’ve been involved in has had a life-changing effect on someone.

In an article on the “New Orleans Clarinet Style” that Christopher wrote for The Jazz Archivist, a newsletter for the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, he discussed the special “social and commercial function” of the energy of early New Orleans music that “primarily was to make people want to celebrate, want to dance, want to drink, want to love.”

Bechet called it “that pleasure music. … You’d leave some place like the fairground, start to walk home, and you’d still have a feeling in you want to bust out dancing again.”

In October of last year, Christopher played at a Sidney Bechet Society concert in New York where-as reported in the valuable The Bechet Quarterly-his “torrid clarinet solos illustrated why he’s held in such high regard by fans and fellow musicians alike. … On ‘Panama,’ he soared … literally dancing in place.”

Among the current rebuilding projects in New Orleans is “Make It Right,” which is building (New York Times, Dec. 3) “150 affordable, environmentally sound houses over the next two years” in the Lower Ninth Ward that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Brad Pitt commissioned designs by 13 architects for the project, part of the $5 million he pledged in contributions to “Make It Right.”

One of the architects, Thom Mayne, designed “a lightweight concrete foundation, anchored by two pylons, like a pier, which would buoy the house if floodwaters rose.” Said Mayne, “It is a boat.” And that boat is right in tune with the buoyant spirit of New Orleans.

Around the world, untold millions have been lifted by the music of which New Orleans was so life-affirming an element.

In Treat it Gentle, Bechet distilled why the music that gave a ceaselessly satisfying meaning to his life has also energized so many of us:

“You come into life alone and you go out alone, and you’re going to be alone a lot of time when you’re on this earth-and what tells it all, it’s the music. You tell it to the music and the music tells it to you … and then you know about it … All the beauty that’s ever been, it’s moving inside that music.”