The fresh-faced young man on a stool at the back of the Sound Café one Thursday night in March just had to be a musician. Something in the way he nodded to the beat and studied the band gave him up. Sure enough, 20-year-old Sean Roberts explained as he applauded a rousing blues that he was a trumpeter with the TBC Brass Band, whose initials stand for ‘To Be Continued’.
The evening was a study in extending tradition, for those onstage and in the audience. The last in a series of weekly gigs, this performance united clarinetist Michael White with the Hot 8, a popular local brass band whose members range in age from 19 to 45.
“We’re just trying to carry the torch of this music forward,” Hot 8 trumpeter Raymond Williams said, “to keep it burning in New Orleans.” With that, he introduced White, whose playing on this night’s version of the classic St. James Infirmary was by turns sweet-toned, bluesy-curled and dark-hued. A standard-bearing musician, bandleader and Xavier University of Louisiana professor, White is, at 52, perhaps the foremost ambassador of New Orleans traditional jazz, an important link to second-line parades and jazz funerals, and to the heritage of the city’s storied Preservation Hall.
These days, White shuttles between Houston, to which he relocated after Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans, where he was born and raised, and where he now keeps a trailer near his office at Xavier. In the floods, he lost a personal archive of more than 4,000 books and 5,000 recordings, many obscure; transcriptions of music from Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and other jazz pioneers; vintage clarinets dating from the 1880s to the 1930s; photographs, concert programmes and other memorabilia, including used banjo strings and reeds tossed off by early 20th-century musical heroes.
Yet even before Katrina, White sensed a gradual fading away of the musical tradition of brass-band players clad in white shirts, ties and black-banded caps, playing everything from hymns and marches to blues and jazz, always with swinging rhythms, complex group improvisation, and specific three-trumpet harmonies.
“There was something about that sound,” White said at his Xavier office, recalling the moment high-school band director Edwin Hampton first played him a 1950s recording of the Olympia Brass Band.
In the face of widespread loss and dislocation, the cultural traditions of New Orleans have assumed heightened significance. The Hot 8 Brass Band has its own story of continuation in the face of tragedy. One band member lost his legs in a horrific roadside accident not long after Katrina hit. And in January, during a wave of violent crimes, the group’s 25-year-old snare drum player, Dinerral Shavers, was fatally shot by a teenager.
Last year, Lee Arnold, the Hot 8’s manager, approached White about the need for younger brass-band musicians to connect with tradition-bearers. Tuba player Bennie Pete, the band’s leader, invited White to begin working with the group. The result was a mixture of rehearsals, performances, and discussions of musical elements—repertoire, harmony, dynamics—as well as history and shared values. In between sets at the Sound Café, Pete spoke of gaining from those sessions “answers to questions I’d never asked before”.
White—whose conversations with Wynton Marsalis in the 1990s led to Jazz at Lincoln Centre concerts, focused on the music of Morton, Bechet and Louis Armstrong—is uniquely qualified to provide such answers. Through his work as a recording musician, as leader of the Original Liberty Jazz Band, and especially, since 2002, in an endowed chair at Xavier dedicated to “New Orleans Culture”, White seeks to stimulate inquiry.
“Initially, New Orleans jazz was a reflection of a way of life,” he said as he peered over the jagged pile of books and CDs atop his desk, including the red notebook in which, during the weeks following the hurricane, he jotted down the names and whereabouts of colleagues. “It spoke of the way people walk, talk, eat, sleep, dance, drive, think, make jokes and dress. But I don’t think America ever truly understood New Orleans culture because the mindset is so different here. So, that whole tradition was hidden from most of America.”
Most of the so-called New Orleans jazz White heard on the radio and in school was the more commercialized Dixieland—“It’s as if you were from Italy,” he said, “and someone was telling you that Pizza Hut is your authentic cuisine.” He sensed there was “something more, something special”, to be found. But he didn’t discover the connection he craved until he began playing in guitarist-banjoist Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band and in Paulin’s Brass Band.
He gives thought to these beginnings whenever he flies in or out of his hometown. Above one terminal exit of Louis Armstrong International Airport hangs a large mural of a 1977 parade led by Paulin’s band, in full swing; White, clarinet poised, dominates its foreground.
White took the cash earned from that parade to buy a recording by a clarinetist he’d never heard, George Lewis. “That music sounded like it told the story of my life.” He dove headfirst into the traditional jazz idiom exemplified by Lewis, replete with personalized timbres and variations within tight collective improvisations.
He found quick acceptance into the community of older traditional-jazz players, meeting and eventually playing with men who had played alongside Armstrong, Morton and Bechet. “I was able to do away with a lot of the stereotypes that existed about traditional music, to hear it as a living, breathing thing.”
Despite its early-jazz trappings, White’s own music steers away from revivalism. Of the 13 tracks on his most recent recording, Dancing in the Sky (Basin Street Records), 11 are new compositions—responses to, his liner notes say, “the internal questions and issues that confront any artist wishing to develop new, fresh, and honest material within the context of ‘tradition’.”
And when he speaks of tradition, these days, it’s often as a key to recovery in the here-and-now. Last month, White convened a panel discussion at Xavier about the importance of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Last year, he led one dedicated to the jazz funeral.
“I think life as I knew it ended with Katrina, and I’m onto another life,” White said. “We all are, in New Orleans. And I’ve started to realize that the most important thing that I have, I didn’t lose—the memory and the spiritual and musical contributions the older generation of musicians gave me. From the very beginning, jazz in New Orleans was a form of political activism, a show of strength and unity. What’s happening now is that some people are catching on—‘Hey, we might lose this!’ ‘Hey, what is this all about?’
“And in a way, Katrina washed away some of the barriers between generations and classes. One of the things that gave me hope after Katrina was my interaction with the Hot 8 band, and with Dinerral Shavers, who was a shining example of this tradition. The guys in the Hot 8 seem to understand the need, not only to learn about tradition, but to pass it on.”
Larry Blumenfeld is a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute, documenting the experiences of musicians in New Orleans.
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