I had lunch at Mandina's today with Dr. Michael White, my fellow clarinet player and longtime friend. Michael and I have a lot in common: we both admire the playing of the late great George Lewis, we both try to keep the flame of real New Orleans traditional jazz burning, and we both teach in local universities--Michael at Xavier and myself at Tulane.
Over turtle soup and fried oysters (is this a great city or what?), we talked about the kinds of things clarinet players talk about when they get together--reeds, mouthpieces, records, other clarinet players--and about the future of traditional jazz. We're both somewhat pessimistic, since the younger generation of musicians seems uninterested in examining the roots of this city's musical culture. Michael said something I've thought for a long time, and that is that this musical tradition is like a language that is on the verge of extinction--like some Indian language in Brazil, or a patois in Africa.
We learned it from the survivors of the first generations of jazzmen in this city. They're all dead now, and we are the keepers of their stylistic "language." But if the young musicians aren't interested in learning it--like the younger people learned the classic books from their elders in "Farenheit 451"--the language will die. On the other hand, there is a lot of music in this city, a lot of work for musicians, hordes of tourists and locals who want to hear it, so some kind of New Orleans jazz will continue. It won't be the same thing we heard from George Lewis and Kid Thomas and Sweet Emma nearly half a century ago, but hopefully something of their spirit will survive. In any case, Michael and I will keep playing it as long as we've got breath.