Donald Harrison—alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader, occasional singer and drummer, and Big Chief of The Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group—understands the history of jazz, the culture of New Orleans and the flow of African American music in general better than nearly anyone alive.
When he convened drummer Thomas Glass, pianist Shea Pierre and bassist Chris Severin in a New Orleans studio for an acoustic jazz version of the song, he was inspired by the 2018 recording by Lil Nas X, which “had a serious groove and a clear idea,” he said, and by the remix for which the rapper was joined by country-music star Billy Ray Cyrus, which, for Harrison, “brought worlds together in a moving way.”
As the above video shows, Harrison was inspired to play, to dance and to think about the connection between playing and dancing. We spoke about all of that recently.
“My dad dedicated his life to growing and promoting New Orleans musicians,” Marsalis said of the patriarch of his celebrated musical family, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, who succumbed to Covid-19 on April 1, at the age of 85. “Today, the global health pandemic presents a threat to New Orleans’ culture bearers like none before.”
Despite such a dire statement, Marsalis’s band exuded joy more than anything else, as it has on Wednesday nights at the Snug Harbor club on Frenchmen Street—that is, until the lockdown came. The same can be said of “Jazz Party,” Marsalis’s seventh album as a leader. That suave and smart release showcased the tight big-band Delfeayo leads, including some the Crescent City’s best players, exemplifying an approach to music that involves updating traditional New Orleans repertoire with modernist touches as well as playing modern-jazz classics in a hometown style aimed first and foremost, he says, “to make people happy.” With his big-band, Marsalis revels in the culture in which he was raised yet also flashes adventurous urges.
Delfeayo and I talked on the phone recently about his new initiative, the legacy he inherited from his father and his city, and making people happy even in the direst of times.
On Saturday, Feb. 16, in New Orleans, when Lois Andrews Nelson rides as Queen in the tenth annual Carnival season parade of krewedelusion, she’ll wear a purple, green and gold satin baby doll dress, representing one time-honored local tradition she helped revive. On hand will be brass-band musicians and, as her honor guard, the Treme Sidewalk Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club, drawn from a second-line parade community in which she is one of the few female grand marshals. She’ll be surrounded by the denizens of an indigenous culture she was both born into and begat.
Nelson, who is 66, is the daughter of singer/songwriter Jessie Hill, best known for his 1960 hit “Ooh Poo Pa Do”; granddaughter of guitarist Walter Nelson, who played with an early hero of New Orleans clarinet, Alphonse Picou; and niece of guitarists Walter “Papoose” Nelson Jr., who played with Fats Domino, and Lawrence “Prince La La” Nelson, best-known for the song, “You Put the Hurt on Me.” Among her children are musicians named Andrews who notably extend and expand local legacies—James, Buster and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
To love New Orleans is to love its culture.
To love New Orleans culture—to experience it, explore it, study it, dive in and swim in it, as I have done for more than decade; or, more importantly, to live it, as so many of the musicians, culture-bearers and born-and-bred natives I’ve written about do—is to wonder about its place in its city.
Often, it’s to shake your head, sigh, and sometimes cry out in disgust or anger.
To demand understanding and respect.
To pine for reasonable solutions and compassionate support.
To take action.
If you’ve been reading me, you know that I’ve been questioning, urging and challenging the powers that be in New Orleans for quite some time about the curious and damaging tensions between this storied city and the culture that is at the heart of its story—I’ve been demanding that they rethink and reform the city’s cultural policy (or its lack thereof).
In this 2010 piece for Truthdig, not long after Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor, I asked: Continue reading “Will New Orleans' Master Plan Include Culture?”
In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Allen Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of hits who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals.
As a composer, lyricist, arranger, producer, pianist and singer, his music reached far and wide enough to earn induction into the Rock and Roll and the Blues Hall of Fames, as well as a National Medal of the Arts in 2013. It spoke most clearly of and to New Orleans, where Toussaint was born in 1938 and where he remained until his unexpected death at 77 last November, save for a temporary relocation to New York City following the flood that resulted from the levee breaches following Hurricane Katrina. (My last piece on Toussaint is here.)
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York for this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I received an advance copy of “American Tunes,” released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles.
Toussaint belongs in that lineage of pianists who define certain aspects of what New Orleans was, is and always will be—Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Henry Butler and so on. That roll call of pianists eventually leads you to Tom McDermott, whose sensitivity, breadth and depth of knowledge and skill has makes him a distinctive force on the city’s current scene.
McDermott has big but discerning ears for music and, when he cares to, he writes about what he hears in illuminating ways.
Such is the case with McDermott’s review for Offbeat magazine of “American Tunes.” Continue reading “Listening to Allen Toussaint's Posthumous CD Through Tom McDermott's Ears”
As I packed my bags to head to the 47th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I felt a pang of sadness.
Allen Toussaint would not be there.
I would not see Toussaint, who died unexpectedly at 77 on November 10, looking resplendent like he always did. Nor would I hear him cycling through songs he wrote or arranged or produced, that were hits for stars of several genres, from Lee Dorsey to the Rolling Stones, Al Hirt to Bonnie Raitt, and that traced a half-century of distinctive and unparalleled music making. In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of classics who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals, who could say a lot with just few notes or turn a pop song into a symphony.
Since I couldn’t stick around for jazzfest’s second weekend—which begins today and runs through Sunday—I also knew I’d miss the jazzfest tribute to Toussaint (Sunday, May 1, on the fest’s Gentilly Stage). The announced guests that will join Toussaint’s working band include Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett and Jon Batiste, yet Toussaint’s reach was so broad and deep it’s hard to predict who else might show up.
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York, I received “American Tunes,” which will be released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles. Here, Toussaint worked with producer Joe Henry, as he did on his 2009 release, “The Bright Mississippi.” Some Toussaint fans I know don’t love that recording, due to its slowed-down tempos and its lack of, well, a certain brand of funk. But I do. It stands alongside Toussaint’s singularly funky achievements across genres and generations as something else, showcasing an aspect of his legacy often overlooked: His prowess as a pianist, which deserves its place within both a particular New Orleans lineage and the wider jazz-piano roll call.
Toussaint was a regular performer at jazzfest. Yet it wasn’t until after the 2005 flood caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, after Toussaint was temporarily displaced to New York City, that Toussaint began to “reclaim my own music,” as he once told me, and to focus more on taking the spotlight as a performer. (I’ll never forget Toussaint’s Sunday shows at Joe’s Pub, the intimate East Village venue, which grew out of a one-off fundraiser, or his 2009 stand at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard.) “American Tunes” lacks the coherent focus of “The Bright Mississippi.” As with the former CD, the new one bears the imprint of Henry, who is an auteur producer; yet Toussaint makes it his own, as he did all that he touched, especially when, on the new CD, he digs into the repertoire of one of his forebears, Professor Longhair. As long as there is a New Orleans, as long as American music gets played, Toussaint will be with us. On that Delta flight to Louis Armstrong airport, it was nice to hear from him again and anew.
This year’s jazzfest took shape under a cloud of loss. Continue reading “Tributes and Tributaries: In and Around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival”
In January, I got the chance to return to New Orleans for a focused period of writing and reflection, courtesy of The New Quorum, where I was writer-in-residence within an inaugural residency class. Having unpacked my clothes, I’m now unpacking my notes, interviews and conversations. Here’s the first of a series of posts drawn from that experience. The New Quorum is an artist residency organization founded and directed by Gianna Chachere, and dedicated to bringing professional musicians and writers from across the globe to New Orleans for meaningful cultural exchange with local and regional artists. If you’re a musician or writer interested in such an opportunity, now’s the time to go here: Applications for Spring residencies (May 16-June 13) are accepted through March 4. If you’d lend financial or volunteer support go here now: This innovative program deserves such nurturing.
The night after I settled into my temporary and lovely home on Esplanade Avenue, the living room Christmas tree, which was still up, was dotted with sheet music. This was the first of four workshops for musicians led by composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, followed by an informal house concerts as part of his January residency.
Smith’s music, which is both singular and part of an influential movement connected to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), demands improvisatory spirit. And, well, those Christmas tree branches worked just fine as music stands.
The music itself was anything but ornamental. Smith’s work employs “rhythm units” and is expressed on paper through “Ankhrasmation.” Smith uses this neologism—formed of “Ankh,” the Egyptian symbol for life, “Ras,” the Ethiopian word for leader, and “Ma”, a universal term for mother—to denote the systemic musical language he has developed over nearly 50 years for, he says, “scoring sound, rhythm and silence, or for scoring improvisation.” Continue reading “Entering Ankhrasmation: Wadada Leo Smith at The New Quorum in New Orleans”
I’m back New Orleans, where I’m honored to be writer-in-residence with The New Quorum—an artist residency organization dedicated to bringing professional musicians and writers from across the globe to New Orleans for meaningful cultural exchange with local and regional artists.”
Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith is here, and each meal or conversation in passing with him is much like one of his vast catalog of distinguished compositions—unique, searching, free of convention and yet finely focused. I’m getting answers to questions I’d never even thought to ask. Better yet are the workshops and house concerts Smith has been leading at our house on Esplanade Avenue (more on that soon). The other musicians in residence are no less inspiring: flutist Nicole Mitchell; singer and composer Lisa Harris; and visual artist/vocalist/musician Damon Locks.
Right now, these talented folks and the woman who created this program, Gianna Chachere, are helping me dig more deeply into the tensions between tradition and innovation in New Orleans, and in jazz culture in general.
Here’s a nice piece by Cree McCree that discusses The New Quorum in the context of its predecessor and inspiration in New Orleans, The Quorum. (A documentary on that history can be found here.)
For those of you in New Orleans, we’ll explore that and other themes in a free public discussion on Wednesday, January 13—see below or here. You’ll want to stick around for a solo performance by Wadada Leo Smith to follow the panel discussion. Continue reading “Welcome to The New Quorum (Back in NOLA)”
Outside New Orleans, the name Danny Barker isn’t all that well known.
Yet talk to a New Orleans musician of any age, who plays in nearly any style, and Mr. Barker—as these players call him—inevitably comes up, in reverent and warm tones, much the way modern-jazz musicians talk about drummer Art Blakey.
Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band, which he founded in 1970, late in life, helped launch many careers. No Barker, no Dirty Dozen Brass Band, no Rebirth Brass Band. No Barker, and it’s hard to know what trumpeters including Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Leroy Jones and Kermit Ruffins would sound like, just how drummers like Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell might swing.
Yet Barker’s legacy is bigger than that, and just as much about the names we don’t know. His Fairview Baptist band was a training ground for young musicians. For anyone even remotely connected to the city’s indigenous culture, Barker—who played banjo and guitar, sang and wrote songs, and led bands—is the key figure of a brass-band revival at a moment when many felt that tradition slipping away.
Back in August, away from the high-profile “Kartrina” hoopla, I moderated a panel discussion in New Orleans—”Ten Years After: The State of New Orleans Culture.” There, Barker’s name was invoked again and again, as a man who saved not just a style of music but a constellation of community values connected to an indigenous culture.
A few years ago, filmmaker Darren Hoffman made a wonderful documentary about Barker’s legacy, “Tradition is a Temple.”
Yet the best tribute to Barker’s living legacy is TheDanny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival. It begins January 14 (a day past what would have been Barker’s 107th birthday) and runs through January 17 in New Orleans, with an additional concert on January 21 by singer Maria Muldaur, who once scored a hit with Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg.” Continue reading “Celebrating Danny Barker's Essential Legacy in New Orleans”