Between Jazzfest Weekends, New Orleans Honors Elders and Supports Young Musicians

The Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp 20th Anniversary Concert Series Fundraiser (May 1) will showcase tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan

The good news: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival swung into gear last weekend with mostly sunny skies, moderate temperatures and three full days of music. On Saturday, you could have paraded through the Economy Hall tent behind the Treme Brass Band, caught Robert Plant deconstructing Led Zeppelin tunes with his fascinatingly weird Sensational Space Shifters band at the Samsung Galaxy Stage, and ended up at the Jazz Tent, where saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s band delivered a smart, tight and imaginative dose of jazz-quartet interplay. On Sunday, back at the Jazz tent, you could have heard singer John Boutté doing what he always does, just a little better.

The bad news: The day before jazzfest kicked into gear, the New Orleans City Council punted on a chance to rescind a shameful (not to mention unconstitutional) 1954 ordinance that declares: “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.” It was a sour note of legislative dysfunction in a city yet to discover quite how to support its indigenous culture.

(Here’s some background to that issue, and here’s Richard Rainey’s Times-Picayune piece reporting on that council meeting.)
I’ll have more to say about all that—the story’s far from through—and more to report from jazzfest, which continues Thursday through Sunday.
Often the best part of jazzfest in New Orleans is the stuff that happens in between weekends at the Fair Grounds, the horseracing track that becomes a multistage arena once a year. This year, some of these events are benefits. Here are a few: Continue reading “Between Jazzfest Weekends, New Orleans Honors Elders and Supports Young Musicians”

Much Noise About Sound: New Orleans Reforms (Maybe) Its Ordinances

A January protest over sound ordinances inside New Orleans city council chambers.

I’ve seen New Orleans jazz culture through fresh eyes this past week, those of my five-year-old son Sam: Sunday afternoon, perched atop my shoulders, looking down as the TBC Brass Band sounded off while members of the Pigeon Town Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club, one by one, came out the door of Silkey’s Lounge to begin their annual second-line parade; and Monday evening, sitting cross-legged on a front-row cushion at Preservation Hall, looking up as trumpeter Leroy Jones led a sextet through “St. James Infirmary.”

I’m also seeing it through eyes that have grown jaundiced—my own—by the tensions surrounding a culture that defines and uplifts New Orleans and yet seems always embattled. Such was my feeling as I sat on Monday morning at City Hall for a meeting of the city council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee and listened to public discussion of a proposed revision to the city’s sound ordinance. This particular matter, which has great relevance to the daily lives of brass-band musicians and other culture bearers as well as to property owners and club owners, has been the source of much controversy for nearly five years.
Sam and his mom are headed back to New York City. I’m staying put for another couple weeks. Before I head to the Fair Grounds this weekend for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, I’ll be back at city council chambers tomorrow for what may or may not be a decisive moment regarding the city’s sound ordinance and its approach to cultural policy.
There’s a rich and urgent story concerning a constellation of ordinances that have long inhibited New Orleans jazz culture and a new groundswell of activism surrounding them, in a city still redefining its identity.
The current skirmish was sparked in part by an incident in 2010, when the TBC band was served notice by police shortly after setting up shop, just as they’ve been doing most Tuesdays through Sundays since 2002, on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, in front of the Foot Locker store. The band had run afoul of Section 66-205, which says, “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.”
Yet most of the lobbying and legislating in recent months have centered around setting acceptable decibel-level limits to sound—a laudable goal that has given rise to some fascinating science (chiefly from David Woolworth, whose Oxford, Miss.-based firm was hired to consult) and some serious local infighting. Continue reading “Much Noise About Sound: New Orleans Reforms (Maybe) Its Ordinances”

Truth to Power: In Honor of Fred Ho (August 10th, 1957-April 12th, 2014)

When Fred Ho—a composer, saxophonist, writer, teacher and activist, died at his home in Brooklyn, New York on April 12, at 56, the music world lost an artist and thinker of singular vision and extraordinarily potent drive, one capable of playing the baritone saxophone with rare articulation and poise and of sharing a politically charged, spiritually driven ethos with the musicians who followed him. The world lost a tireless and true radical, who advanced an idea of Afro-Asian culture that was ahead of its time and of increasing relevance.
As Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary,

Mr. Ho, who was of Chinese descent, considered himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans.

Fred Ho’s  music will be performed in his honor Wednesday night, April 23rd at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, as organized by his student, friend and fellow baritone saxophonist Benjamin Barson.
One of the great benefits of my work is that I get to absorb the legacies—the fine details as well as the larger purposes—of musicians through other musicians, which is the richest way to do it. Ben Barson has deep and touching insights into Ho’s music and mind. I invited Ben to write about Fred’s spirit and legacy here. Based on his piece, I trust that my edit process was nothing compared to say, working in Fred Ho’s band (or, for that matter, his kitchen).
TRUTH TO POWER: IN HONOR OF FRED HO (August 10th, 1957-April 12th, 2014)
By Benjamin Barson
To understand the truth of baritone saxophonist and composer Fred Ho is to also speak truth to power. To be around Fred was to be around a very powerful human being, who administered truth gracefully at times and brutally at others, but always consistently.
One forceful evocation of  Fred Ho’s truth emerged early in my tutelage with the 5-10″ Chinese-American matriarchal ecosocialist (he believed in the political rule of mothers; and of a humanity retuned to the Earth’s ecosystems) after I set off Fred’s bullshit-detector: I showed up 20 minutes late to a lesson I had scheduled with him. Not a lesson on the baritone saxophone (I had been playing an old Buescher Aristocrat since 2008, and studying with Fred Ho since 2009) but on the stove: a cooking lesson. A lesson I specifically requested of him. He hovered over me, his eyes focused on my every chop of parsley, examining with perpetual disgust my clammy grasp of his magnificent custom-made blades, becoming frustrated at my failure to use the knife’s blade as a pivot (as he had so meticulously demonstrated before we started), and just exuding an undeniable odor of pissed-offness that he had to tolerate the inconsistency of a white male from a hippie school in the town he grew up (Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass.) who couldn’t tell his parsley from his mint, much less revolution versus reform. Continue reading “Truth to Power: In Honor of Fred Ho (August 10th, 1957-April 12th, 2014)”

Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans

Little else expresses the joys, pains, rhythms, passion and compassion of New Orleans life like a brass band in the street. In New Orleans, brass band culture is both a constant and a fluid thing.
OK, maybe the artwork of Willie Birch—who was born and raised in New Orleans and whose work resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney, among other places—captures the spirit of New Orleans life with equal force and beauty, including Birch’s indelible images of brass band musicians in action.
Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans,” a book by Matt Sakakeeny, who is an assistant professor of music at Tulane University, a journalist and a musician, benefits from both Sakakeeny’s deeply embedded documentation of the lives and times of brass band musicians (from the Rebirth, Hot 8, and others bands) and Birch’s uniquely evocative art. Together, Sakakeeny and Birch reveal the political and social contexts of brass band music, which, while always entertaining, forms both in-the-moment activism and commentary. The book is an artful telling of cultural history illustrated by important artifacts of that cultural history. Sakakeeny’s book benefits from the rich scholarly perspective of a seasoned ethnomusicologist but its greatest resonance is the truth in the streets, unfiltered. Birch’s work, like the music of the brass bands documented here, erases lines between folk and high art by sheer power of expression and seriousness of purpose.
The above cover features Birch’s “In the Sweet Bye and Bye (Mr. Dejan’s Funeral),” from 2002, depicting the jazz funeral for Harold “Duke” Dejan, best known as leader of the Olympia Brass Band. (Copyright Willie Birch, used with permission of Duke University Press.) For more of Birch’s art and an excerpt from the book, scroll down.
For those In New York, Sakakeeny will offer insights in person, free of charge, at a Book Talk sponsored by The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Details here, and below:

Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans
A book talk by Matt Sakakeeny
Wednesday April 9, 8pm
716 Hamilton Hall (near 116th & Amsterdam)
Sponsored by the Columbia Center for Jazz Studies
Because of a thriving brass band tradition, young black Americans continue to perform, listen, and dance to jazz in New Orleans today. Brass band musicians are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. In Roll With It, author Matt Sakakeeny follows members of the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 from back street to backstage, before and after Hurricane Katrina, always in step with the tap of the snare drum, the thud of the bass drum, and the boom of the tuba.
Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist and journalist, New Orleans resident and musician. An Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane University, he initially moved to New Orleans to work as a co-producer of the public radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny has written for publications including The Oxford American, Mojo, and Wax Poetics. He plays guitar in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos.

Continue reading “Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans”

Stuff Arturo O'Farrill Said

Here’s the latest in my ongoing, occasional “Stuff Someone Said” series—the last one was on Henry Threadgill.
Arturo O’Farrill‘s office in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, not far from his home, has barely enough room for his baby grand piano and a small desk. We found space enough and time to speak for two hours recently, the bulk of which will appear as a long piece in the May digital issue of Jazziz magazine.
O’Farrill’s new recording with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, “The Offense of the Drum” (Motéma Music), features guest artists from Cuba, Colombia, and Spain, reflecting an expansive aesthetic that has played out through commissioned pieces for the orchestra’s concert seasons at Manhattan’s Symphony Space. On May 10 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, O’Farrill’s orchestra will perform both the “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark 1949 composition by his late father, the composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. On the same bill, he’ll premiere an original composition grounded as much in Peruvian and Colombian styles and in the adventurous attitude of one of his earliest mentors, Carla Bley, as in his inherited legacy. The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA), the nonprofit organization he founded in 2007, contnues to evolve: It received a two-year, $450,000 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Freedom of Expression Program.
We talked about all those developments and the vision guiding it all. Here are some excerpts from that conversation. Continue reading “Stuff Arturo O'Farrill Said”