The New Orleans spirit will be Live ‘n Kickin’
December 23, 2005
Most versions of the story behind New Orleans’ prominence in American music revolve around a pair of theories.
One is that New Orleans, more than any American city, reflects the ideal of a polyglot society. New Orleans flew the flags of both Spain and France before becoming part of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Thanks to its status as a Southern port, New Orleans absorbed the cultures of the African slaves and Caribbean immigrants. All of those influences are still evident – in the cuisine, architecture and, above all, the music – and the mix is rounded out by the American Indians and the French Acadians who left Canada and settled just west of New Orleans.A related theory has it that, because of the diverse cultures, New Orleans was a freer place than other Southern cities. Black residents were able to congregate in the city’s Congo Square, and the free-form gatherings there were the true birthplace of jazz.”It was always so diverse,” said Russell Rocke, who lived in New Orleans from the late 1970s into the early ’90s, and owned the Toulouse Theater, in the French Quarter, from 1977-84. “You had blacks; you had Creoles, who had a mix of European and black heritage. There were slaves who ran away and were taken in by native Indian tribes. And New Orleans, being on a river, became a true hybrid of all these cultures.”Plus, there was a laissez-faire atmosphere, because of the climate and the beautiful light. It’s often said that black culture never reached higher heights than it did in New Orleans. In the 19th century, it was a grand and great culture, when the rest of the country was fairly heathen. You don’t feel like you’re in an Anglo-Saxon culture.”
I have a separate notion about why New Orleans has remained, a century after the founding of jazz, America’s leading musical city. Having interviewed numerous Louisiana musicians, many of them repeat the refrain that New Orleans is a place where the music is not dominated by the music industry. Unlike New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, or even Austin and Memphis, no one comes to New Orleans to become a recording star; they come to make music. Without the record company loot as the golden ring, musicians in New Orleans play for their living. Which means they play often, and in a variety of combinations. It’s not unusual to find a top New Orleans player – George Porter, the massively influential bassist of the Meters – on a Tuesday night, jamming in a small club behind a relatively unknown singer. The New Orleans musician lives on gigs.With the slow, painful recovery from Hurricane Katrina, that lifeblood is in short supply. Like the city’s residents generally, the musicians are scattered about the country, often in places where performance opportunities are more scarce than what they are used to. So Rocke, who now lives in Los Angeles, is taking it on himself to give the players the chance to work.Rocke has chosen Aspen as the launching spot for his mission. He has put together a package show, New Orleans: Live ‘n Kickin’, that will make its debut with two shows on New Year’s Eve at the Wheeler Opera House.
The concerts feature a sample of most every kind of music for which the city has become famous: Eddie Bo, known as the Piano Professor, does the style of r & b and boogie associated with New Orleans icon Professor Longhair. James “Satchmo of the Ghetto” Andrews is a Louis Armstrong-style trumpeter and vocalist, while his brother Troy, who plays under the name “Trombone Shorty,” is a prominent trombonist. The brass band form is represented by the Pinstripe Brass Band which, as the official band of the Zulu Aide and Pleasure Club, leads the first parade each Mardi Gras day, at 8:30 a.m. Topping the bill are two prominent female vocalists, gospel-soul belter Marva Wright, and Wanda “The Sweetheart of New Orleans” Rouzan, who fronts the Taste of New Orleans R & B All-Star Band.The shows, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., are timed to allow concertgoers to view the fireworks over Aspen Mountain.”All the performers are out of work, and what they need most is gigs,” said Rocke, who visited New Orleans last month. “They need gigs to keep themselves alive. And it brings New Orleans music to the world, which will reflect positively on New Orleans and speed New Orleans’ recovery. Hopefully the musicians of New Orleans will lead the city’s resurrection out of the flood. New Orleans music has always been about bringing the city back to life.” Rocke is helping bring the musicians back to life; each artist will get a fresh media kit out of the concert. (Many of them have lost their photos and other press items in the flooding.)The city’s recent devastation touches on another possible reason for the greatness of the music. Hurricane Katrina was no isolated incident; New Orleans has been threatened by the Gulf of Mexico numerous times over the centuries. Life isn’t always easy in the Big Easy; witness “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Corruption and poverty are rampant; the existence below-sea level means that the city’s infrastructure, even at the best of times, is a shambles. Not for nothing is New Orleans the City That Care Forgot.
Adversity has given New Orleans music its depth; the sounds of New Orleans are equally about the sorrow of life and the struggle to overcome. The tradition of the New Orleans funeral is the perfect metaphor, a mournful procession, followed close behind by a second line of up-tempo brass players leading the revelers. New Orleans is both Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Randy Newman’s stirring “Louisiana 1927,” a reflection on an earlier flood and a foreshadowing of Katrina.The Live ‘n Kickin’ concerts will, naturally, conclude with a funeral, for the entire city of New Orleans. The jazz parade will lead into the Wheeler lobby, making for a neat transition from sad sounds to the visual of fireworks over Aspen Mountain.”We’ll cut the body loose, with genuine tears for all that’s been lost in New Orleans,” said Rocke, “and put aside this terrible year, and move forward with good intentions. New Orleans comes through things like this. The New Orleans music community should rightly be a force that leads the return.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org