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.

 

 

Mardi Gras Indians integral to New Orleans sound

You cannot truly understand New Orleans music without having some awareness of the Black Indians of Mardi Gras, or what is more commonly referred to as “Mardi Gras Indians.”

Golden Blades Second Chief Leonard Brooks parades down LaSalle Street during the 2010 Super Sunday celebration – Photo by Matthew Hinton – The Times/Picayune

This more than century-old tradition of certain African Americans in New Orleans wearing elaborately designed, handmade suits in honor of Native Americans on Mardi Gras Day belies any easy explanation.

I like the Folklife in Louisiana tribute to Allison “Tootie” Montana as a good starting point on this unique folk tradition.  (I also highly recommend again the book “Nine Lives” which features Tootie’s story from the perspective of his wife, Joyce Montana).

Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana is remembered with this statue in Louis Armstrong Park on Rampart Street.
Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana is remembered with this statue in Louis Armstrong Park on Rampart Street.

Tootie Montana was known as the Chief of Chiefs for his role in elevating the practice of “masking” and “suiting” up to a high art. In an effort to diminish the violent history of Mardi Gras Indian gangs, Montana incorporated sequins, beads and large garish feathers into his suit, using egg cartons for an undercarriage that provided a three-dimensional look. His stunning suit changed the game by swapping the battlefield weapons of guns and knives with needle and thread.

While you should feel lucky and relatively safe if you ever have a chance to observe a Mardi Gras tribe in full display, the violent tradition still colors their music and rituals. Make no mistake about it, there is still rivalry. But instead of who is the toughest, the goal is who is the prettiest.

A percussion-driven music is an essential part of this tradition with the tambourine being the most common instrument. The songs speak to the traditions and history of the Mardi Gras Indians, using words with origins that reside deep in the linguistic stew of New Orleans and is more simply stated as “creole.”

Author Jay Mazza who was lucky as an outsider to observe a Mardi Gras Indian practice, describes the music this way in his book Up Front and Center:

“The lyrics of Mardi Gras Indian music are based on boasting and improvised vocal rhymes. Each Indian took a turn until he ran out of words, began repeating himself or was pushed out of the spotlight by another Indian.”

Not surprisingly, the words, rhythms and vibe of the Mardi Gras Indian have worked into New Orleans music in countless ways.

Songs like Jock-O-Mo by Sugar Boy Crawford and Iko Iko by The Dixie Cups  draw their origins from Mardi Gras Indian chants. Earl King’s historic “Big Chief” which was recorded with Professor Longhair has references to the Chief’s “Spy Boy and Flag Boy” both important roles in the tribe. These were musicians who borrowed from the tradition.

Big Chief Bo Dollis brought the music and rhythms of Mardi Gras Indians to music lovers everywhere. He died January 20 after a long illness.
Big Chief Bo Dollis brought the music and rhythms of Mardi Gras Indians to music lovers everywhere. He died January 20 after a long illness.

It wasn’t until the early 70s, that the world heard the real thing outside of New Orleans. Bo Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, and Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles collaborated on recordings, starting with the single Handa Wanda and later two albums in 1974 and 1975 respectively. Both continued to record and perform with their own gang and other musicians over the years. Last Tuesday, January 20, Bo Dollis died and the city is mourning.   Monk continues to perform and will be at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The Wild Magnolias recordings were followed closely by an album release of Wild Tchoupitoulas. George Landry, otherwise known as Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, fronted a powerful group of musicians, including his nephews Cyril, Art, Charles and Aaron Neville, in a seminal album of Mardi Gras Indian songs. On the back and inside cover of the Neville Brothers’ release Fiyo on the Bayou where they reprise some of the songs, you’ll find a tribute to Chief Jolly.

If you are a Treme fan, then you’ve witnessed the fictional story of Albert Lambreaux, the Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame. The model for this character is the real chief of the Guardians of the Flame, Donald Harrison Sr. whose son, Donald Harrison Jr. has applied his highly regarded jazz musicianship to fusing jazz and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms in some of his recordings, including Spirits of Congo Square.

To get more detail on the music of Mardi Gras Indians, I recommend this article by former WWOZ Show Host Thomas Morgan. To hear more of this music as well as other great New Orleans music, be sure to tune in on Monday for Sweeney’s Gumbo Ya Ya.