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Teaching Traditional Jazz: The Roots Must Remain

In New Orleans, traditional jazz is taken up by new generations despite cultural and political setbacks

Photo of New Orleans greats for story about teaching traditional jazz
A band featuring such New Orleans greats as trumpeter Bunk Johnson, trombonist Jim Robinson and clarinetist George Lewis gigs in New York City, c. June 1946 (photo by William P. Gottlieb courtesy of the Library of Congress)

When Aron Lambert was 9 or 10, his afternoons often consisted of the same ritual: After school, he’d wander a few blocks through the French Quarter to where his parents worked with his aunt and uncle Jaffe at Preservation Hall. If Speedy the maintenance man was still sweeping up from the previous night’s show, Lambert would help him pick up the discarded cups. When the space was clean, Speedy would sit at the piano and begin to play, while Lambert got behind the drums and tapped out his best semblance of what he’d seen Josiah “Cie” Frazier and other drummers do with the same familiar songs.

Once, Frazier passed through the carriageway while Lambert and Speedy were playing. Frazier didn’t say much; he just moved the cymbals away from the apparently overzealous young drummer and gestured for him to continue. Lambert chalked it up to a lesson in focusing on the drums rather than over-decorating the music. Other times, the lessons Lambert took home from the hall were less tangible. “The Humphrey Brothers, Kid Thomas, Louis Nelson, all the greats who I was blessed to grow up listening to, they were the ones that I spent time with,” Lambert, now 47 and a drummer with the Treme Brass Band and others, recently recalled.
Talking to older musicians about both the music and their lives outside of jazz, he explained, gave him a more complex understanding of what traditional jazz meant in New Orleans. “I got to know them all as men, as individuals,” he said. “The music wasn’t taught to kids as a way to get to fame; it was taught as a way of life, as a language.”

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