This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Monday, February 22, 2010


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.


  1. Some time back I heard an NPR interview with Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of that famous New Orleans musical clan. In that interview he explained that there were two true American forms of music, and both were the creation of Black Americans: Jazz and Blues. He lamented that the only appreciaters of both genre were whites. That among young blacks, both consumer and artist, urban sounds such as rap and hip hop had a choke hold. It was an interesting and enlightening interview.

  2. Sadly, I have to say I agree with Ellis. When I was hanging around Preservation Hall in the 1960s, trying to learn this craft as a teenager, I was amazed that there were no young blacks doing the same thing. That was the era of Black Power and it was not politically fashionable for African Americans to be interested in what was wrongly perceived as Uncle Tom music for white audiences. That was a great shame, because that whole generation missed out on the apprenticeship experience that could have produced direct successors of the old players. Michael White, who came along in the 70s, was almost alone in showing an interest in and aptitude for the traditional music of New Orleans. He managed to interest a few others, and of course Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Church band got some young players--Leroy Jones, Gregg Stafford et al-- involved in traditional jazz. But now even that generation is in their 40s and 50s. Where are the young players today? There are damn few. (Sure, there are the younger brass bands, but they have developed their own sound and bear almost no relationship to traditional jazz.) And I don't see any young black people--or white kids for that matter--showing up at our gigs. Ellis is right: hip hop rules, and even other forms of African American popular music--the kind of stuff we got from Motown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke--have largely disappeared. But as I wrote in "Song For My Fathers," (spot that plug!): "As much as I may regret the passing of the old guard, I know that a living culture must be in tune with its times."