African American Music – What I Love About New Orleans

This week’s show honors African American Music Month which is not much of a reach for a show of New Orleans music. Without the musical creations of African Americans, there would be no Gumbo YaYa program. (See this and that.) This week’s show only features musicians of African descent.

President Carter initially named June as Black Music Month in 1979. President Obama renamed the month with a proclamation that said “Songs by African-American musicians span the breadth of the human experience and resonate in every corner of our Nation — animating our bodies, stimulating our imaginations, and nourishing our souls.” He got that right.

Statue of Buddy Bolden in Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans

While the first jazz record was by the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band — the bandleader and drummer were sons of Sicilian immigrants, the earliest practitioners were mostly of African-Americans. No recordings exist of Buddy Bolden and his band, but many consider him to be the closest that jazz comes to having a father. Close followers Jelly Roll Morton and King Joe Oliver perfected their craft in New Orleans before taking it to New York and Chicago. Meanwhile, Oscar “Papa” Celestin and Kid Thomas were keeping the home fires burning by continuing to perform in New Orleans. You’ll hear music from all these African-American musicians in the first full set of the show.

Becky, a listener and fan of New Orleans, provides an intro for the second full set featuring Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, Dave Bartholomew‘s “Country Boy” and Fats Domino‘s first recording “The Fat Man.” Also in this set are less heard songs by New Orleans singers including one by Patsy Vidalia — a performer who might be a trans woman in this era but who in the 50’s found comfort singing as a “cross dresser” in night clubs.

The third set is New Orleans blues –a genre that is exclusively embedded in the African American experience yet is copied and propagated throughout the world by musicians of all backgrounds. Lizzie Miles, Lead Belly, and Champion Jack Dupree nail down that set.

The New Orleans Spiritualettes and the Treme Brass Band provide gospel numbers in a set that then rolls into two other brass band numbers, including “Who Dat Called Da Police” by New Birth Brass Band.

A few years back while performing on television, Miley Cyrus drew attention to a dance move called “twerking” but the music and dance moves that go with it are very much African American creations and also very much from New Orleans. You’ll hear the first “Bounce” record that could be played on the radio with a set that includes The Neville Brothers, Leyla McCalla, Professor Longhair and James Booker. You might call it the miscellaneous set since I really can’t cover all the styles of African-American music in two hours. Where’s the funk, Sweeney?! (sorry)

I finish the show with songs representing Mardi Gras Indians, the Northside Skull and Bones gang and Zydeco. Thank you for tuning in.

Black Lives Matter!

Photo of the Joy Theater Marquee by Davis Rogan. Photo of Mardi Gras Day participant and his shirt by Mary Groebner.

Louis Armstrong Park is a walk through jazz history

New Orleans does not have a comprehensive museum that tells the city’s story as the birthplace of jazz. In a way, the whole city is a museum. However, Louis Armstrong Park offers a few opportunities to touch the history of New Orleans jazz. This week’s show took a bit of tour through the park.

armstrongpark
Louis Armstrong Park sits on Rampart Street across from the French Quarter and on the edge of the oldest African American neighborhood in the U.S.

The park emerged from a botched urban renewal project where sadly many families were displaced and historic buildings destroyed.  The park contains the currently unusable municipal auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and a few buildings owned by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.  The common space includes a water feature and several cool sculptures.

Louis
As might be expected, a larger than life statute of Louis Armstrong holds a prominent spot in the park overlooking the unused auditorium.

Louis Armstrong grew up not too far from where his statue stands in the park. In fact, his statue stares in the direction of Storyville – a legal red light district that provided brothels, saloons and steady flow of clientele who enjoyed the music that evolved into jazz. it was this neighborhood that Armstrong grew up and began playing the horn. Once he left New Orleans for Chicago, he rarely returned but his impact on the city looms large like the statue over his park.

Buddy-bolden
The statute of Buddy Bolden in the Louis Armstrong Park captures his improvisational, open style of play.

If any one person could be considered the father of Jazz, Charles “Buddy” Bolden would likely have the strongest claim, and yet there is not a lot we know about his life except that for about seven years, he was the hottest musician in New Orleans. Bolden played his coronet by ear blending the many sounds he heard including rag time, gospel and blues to create an improvisational style of music that inspired other jazz pioneers. His career was cut short in 1907 when he was committed to an asylum possibly suffering from schizophrenia.

 

 

The grounds of the park are sacred because its where African Americans, slaves and free blacks, gathered on Sundays to trade, talk, play music and dance.  Congo Square is widely recognized as the cauldron from which the rhythms of jazz emerged.  Part of this area has been renovated and a sculpture depicting the Sunday jazz session quickly captures the visitor’s eye.

Congo-Square
Congo Square Memorial

 

TootieThe Black Indians of Mardi Gras do not perform jazz but rather perform their own unique percussion based music that includes call and response vocals. The park also includes a statue honoring the Chief of Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, Allison “Tootie” Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas.  Tootie Montana is known for elevating the practice of masking as Native Americans to a high art form. Originally a tradition that involved revenge and violence, Mardi Gras Indians today are revered for their detailed use of beads and feathers in constructing elaborate costumes. The goal is not be the toughest, but the prettiest.

My radio show inspired by this park is available here.

 

 

Careless Love follows carefree path to our ears

“Oh love, oh careless love, you’ve fly to my head like wine.”

Words of caution during this season of Valentine? Perhaps. But it’s also the opening to another enigmatic traditional song with uncertain origins that has become a New Orleans standard.

Like St. James Infirmary, Careless Love took its form from the 19th Century folk tradition. The song didn’t get locked down until it was recorded in the 1920’s, most notably Bessie Smith’s recording with Louis Armstrong on cornet. Even since then, the song’s lyrics have been malleable, adapted to jazz, blues and even bluegrass.

Buddy Bolden, holding the cornet standing in back, was never recorded but he is likely the reason why Careless Love is New Orleans standard today.
Buddy Bolden, holding the cornet standing in back, was never recorded but he is likely the reason why Careless Love is a New Orleans standard today.

The song’s strong association to New Orleans is most likely the result of Buddy Bolden who performed the song regularly at the turn of the 20th Century.  Buddy Bolden and his band performed a more bluesier and improvised form of ragtime and inspired jazz pioneers such as Kid Ory, King Oliver and Bunk Johnson who followed.

While there are no recordings of Bolden and his band, there are literally hundreds of other recorded versions of Careless Love, including those by Pete Seeger, Janis Joplin, Lead Belly, Madeleine Peyroux, Big Joe Turner, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.

Contemporary New Orleans artists, such Miss Sophie Lee, carry on the New Orleans tradition of performing Careless Love.
Contemporary New Orleans artists, such as Miss Sophie Lee, carry on the New Orleans tradition of performing Careless Love.

As for New Orleans musicians, Careless Love has been recorded by Kid Ory,  Sidney Bechet,  Bunk Johnson,  Dr. John,  Fats Domino, Snooks Eaglin, Champion Jack Dupree and the Preservation Hall Band.

Even today, you’ll hear it played on the streets (Tuba Skinny) and in the nightclubs of New Orleans (Miss Sophie Lee at the Spotted Cat).

And you’ll hear it on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa (probably more than once) this Monday.

Happy Valentine’s Day.