Wednesday September 02, 2009
Some New Orleans books are instant classics, labor and love writ large on every page. Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II, is one of them.
This indispensable history, published in 1986, is back in an expanded new edition, updated with the history of the music scene in the late '80s, and with an especially moving chapter about the struggles and resurgence of the musical scene here since Katrina, and the diaspora that scattered our musicians throughout the country. Writers Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, and the late Tad Jones (who died in 2006), have created one of the cornerstones of musical knowledge of our city.
The prologue begins with a hilarious tale of veteran newsman Bill Elder, determined to get an interview with the elusive and shy Fats Domino. Domino seemed to acquiesce, but instead paraded Elder around his Lower 9th Ward neighborhood, asking him to perform his signature sign-off line for the evening newscast. Elder never got his interview, but we can imagine Domino's 9th Ward neighbors were vastly entertained and surprised to find him on their doorsteps.
So much is woven into this one anecdote -- the way musicians are rooted in the fabric of life here, from neighborhood to television culture, the determination so many have felt to report on that musical culture, the deep affection we feel for our iconic cultural figures, and how living and vibrant the culture itself is, refusing to be pinned down, determining its own story, in a way. And more than that, how deep the yearning goes to be a part of it.
The history of music in New Orleans is largely a family affair: Whole dynasties have come down through history, or at least the 60-plus year time period in this book. The Lasties, the Turbintons, the Battistes, the Marsalises, the Nevilles, the Harrisons, the Montanas -- all families that are claimed with affection. Here too are iconic figures such as Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, as well as more recent arrivals as John Boutte and Irvin Mayfield.
The authors also examine the rich surround of nightclubs and radio stations and recording studios that made the early days of R&B stand out in New Orleans
The section called, "The Caribbean Connection," is one of the best histories of the Mardi Gras Indians we have, still required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the culture.
Berry shines in the final chapter, "The Memory of the Flood," an angry, insightful overview of the way the post-Katrina tragedy ravaged our musical culture. Many will remember the story of Domino being rescued by boat and taken to the Superdome; the losses suffered by Allen Toussaint, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Chris Thomas King, the Nevilles, Dr. Michael White; the emergence of musicians as public spokesmen -- Harry Connick Jr., Wynton Marsalis, Glen David Andrews; Sylvester Francis' restoration of the Back Street Cultural Museum; the representation of music in Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke"; the Silence is Violence movement created in the wake of the violent deaths of Dinerral Shavers and Helen Hill; the death of Alvin Batiste. Time and music march on, right up to the recent release of "The River in Reverse" by Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello.
"The world can be an unforgiving place," Berry writes, "yet this maddening, charm-dripping, tragicomic town at the bottom of America registers a life force, like the Mardi Gras Indian, that won't bow down."
"Up from the Cradle of Jazz" echoes with the best sounds and stories of our city, a true celebration, scholarship in the service of art.