Between semesters, there are few places as relaxing as building on a university campus. No students, no drama and easy parking—it’s a good environment for thinking. With no students, you can keep it casual, and Edward Anderson is doing just that, sitting behind his desk in a dark blue golf shirt and olive cargo shorts. Anderson is the director for Dillard University’s Institute of Jazz Culture, and it’s a program in transition. Irvin Mayfield started the Institute of Jazz Culture in 2003, when he made Dillard the home for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. In January 2006, Mayfield and the NOJO moved to Tulane and the nature of the program changed. “Irvin’s focus was more external to try to create the NOJO and things like that,” Anderson says. “That’s part of my plan too, to create a smaller combo to do some touring. For the main part, as far as the curriculum, we want to create a program here that will be nationally recognized and marketed as such.” Anderson plans on having the Institute of Jazz Culture fully operational by 2008.
Anderson and keyboardist Darrell Lavigne are Bleu Orleans, who have released two albums, Bleu Orleans in 2000 and Bleu 2 in 2006. With Bleu Orleans, Anderson and Lavigne have made a contemporary jazz that reflects an awareness of modern iterations of soul and blues. It’s not as outré as that description might sound, though; if anything, it simply sounds urbane. Bleu Orleans will perform Sunday, August 5 at 2 p.m. at the Satchmo SummerFest.
What’s happening with Bleu Orleans?
Actually, we’re pretty happy where we are now as sort of an experimental group. When we started the group, one of our influences was Steely Dan because the two gentlemen started this group and they bring in these high-level musicians to work with them, but compositionally the concept is theirs. That is how I am with Darrell Lavigne who, to me, is one of the most underrated musicians in New Orleans. The jazz community knows of his immense talents, but I don’t think he has received what he should have based on those talents. As a composer or as a player. As a composer, it blows my mind what he comes up with.
One of the things about Bleu Orleans that I’m proud of is the fact that we try to really stay in touch with what is artistically emotional. Right now, everyone is trying to tap into the emotional ride of Katrina. We’re no different. I was in Los Angeles; he is now living in Houston, just the challenges of that. It’s just so much to tap into, and we’re trying to build upon that right now.
One thing I find fascinating about Bleu Orleans is that you are trying to make genuinely contemporary jazz.
I don’t really know where to begin with that. You get so much doublespeak with that. People say, “We really want the jazz to be contemporary,” but when you really hit them with something that you feel is representative of today sometimes, the people aren’t ready for it or the critics aren’t ready for it. The people we call the jazz police, the club owners and what not, they are, like, “This isn’t really what we cater to.”
The problem we run into in New Orleans is that so much of the jazz is defined by tourism. That’s the reality that no one wants to deal with. People want to keep it safe and regulation so that it is something that will easily market to tourism. When you come up with something that is confrontational or something that is controversial in a sense, then you have to deal with that. We understand that at this point. We’re not so naive to understand that we’re not going to run up against that. At this point in time, it’s a beautiful thing that happens when you reach close to middle age, you stop caring. You understand that you can’t let some body else’s ignorance justify your direction. You have to do what is true to you artistically.
The irony is that contemporary jazz …
… it’s already 40 years old. That’s the point. There’s no way I’m going to out-Coltrane John Coltrane. There’s no way I’m going to out-Miles Davis Miles Davis. That is something Max Roach said when I was 20 years old taking a jazz camp. He said there’s no way you’re going to out-Dizzy Gillespie Dizzy Gillespie. At the time I thought it was kind of cute, but 15 or 20 years later it makes a lot more sense to me.
The whole circumstance of what inspired him is totally different than what inspires us as artists today. He didn’t have to deal with Katrina. He dealt with racism and the issues of his day. He dealt segregation and stuff, and those sorts of issues are what inspired his music to sound the way it sounded. That’s what inspired bebop—the musicians were trying to prove that they had the same intellectual prowess as classical musicians.
They started checking out Stravinsky and all that stuff, and started to incorporating theory and playing breakneck tempos just to show that they could do it.
When Rahsaan Roland Kirk spoke of jazz as Black classical music it was a progressive thought; today, when musicians like Wynton Marsalis treat jazz as Black classical music, it seems conservative.
We all owe Wynton a heck of a lot. You can’t question, you listen to those records, and he is playing his trumpet at a phenomenal level. It’s a mastery of that instrument, but music is immense and there are a lot of different angles to approach it.
There are a lot for different perspectives that take on art. It’s huge. It runs the gamut from classical to popular music. It goes on and on. For us to sit here and recreate what Wynton did in 1985, once again that’s 20 years ago, really isn’t creative. You have to go through that to get to something because that is part of the study process. You have to check all that stuff out and try to emulate it and try to understand what was going on so you can build on it. You have to understand some of the rules, in a sense.
People think that certain musicians’ personalities only come through in the way they sound or the way they play, but it is the whole perspective. It’s why Thelonious Monk sounds different from Bud Powell, but they were from the same generation. Although they are connected in a sense, from a sound standpoint they have such independent personalities.
In New Orleans, that monkey of tourism is like a monkey on the back of musicians. The musicians are being used to fill up hotel rooms and the convention center. In order to eat, they have to shape their music a certain way. Entertainment becomes such a crucial part of that formula. If you go to New York or the east coast and even parts of the west coast, the entertainment is the art value. Not the fact that the artist is smiling and cajoling with the audience. There is a whole other level of involvement that the audience can tap into. I’m not saying our music is sub par, what I’m suggesting is that there are other things we can do to strengthen the artistic content of our music.
Is it possible for jazz to reach a broad audience again?
The problem becomes how much are you willing to become a martyr. That really became the reality for us. How much are we willing to lie down and just take the sword for this? I’m not saying we’ve totally washed our hands of that because we haven’t. We’re just checking out different things. That was a rough period because I don’t know how deep you want to get, but we can go as far as the Jazz Fest frowning upon the music and saying, “This is not really what we like to promote.” Clarence Johnson III, Darrell Lavigne, Donald Ramsey, and myself, we can play and the audience is digging it. What’s the problem?
There is a whole sector that really wants to see that music in a nice safe jar. Let’s sing, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Shit, I’ve been there and done that and got the T-shirt. Believe me every time I hear Nicholas Payton play, I’m inspired. Some of those musicians are really searching, and you can tell.
There’s a phenomenon I see in most popular music and certainly in jazz; it’s the tendency for fans to isolate a certain sound or style and declare that it is the real thing, and everything else is second rate. Really, what they want is music and artists they can claim some measure of ownership of.
It is elitist. That is what is so unfortunate. That’s why jazz only gravitates certain people, and those who have a certain level of education. New Orleans is unique because we have the whole tradition of second line thing; it’s the music of everyday people, celebratory music.
When you talk about modern jazz, it’s become so elitist. I cannot even listen to it all the time; half the time, I’ve heard it, I hear a new recording, and I’m like, “Okay, that’s what Coltrane did.” It’s a different melody, but he is playing a Coltrane solo. It can’t inspire me because I just don’t hear any vision. Once again, there are musicians who want to deal with it, but they’re being crucified. Nick is a perfect example, I’m not here to speak for Nick, but I witnessed it. He came out with Sonic Trance, and Nicholas was the one who was, to me, being groomed to be the ambassador of New Orleans. When he came out with Sonic Trance and he started doing Bitches Brew type stuff, people just shut down on him. He has been kind of outcast ever since, and all the focus turned to Irvin. Then with Katrina, he just headed up and got the hell out of time, so we lost one of our finest musicians that we should have been embracing and begging to come back and help get this music started. I think he is in Arizona; what the hell is he going to do in Arizona? Watch the cactuses grow or some shit?
We have a story in this issue on Louis Armstrong’s legacy, and it struck me that many of the musicians involved seemed to relate to Armstrong more as a performer than a musician.
I guess as a trumpeter, especially coming up under Ellis Marsalis and Harold Battiste, we had to deal with him as a musician, and that is quite an undertaking. I was in there trying to transcribe “West End Blues.” He was a genius, the way he was able to not only express his music emotionally, but the creative ideas were so natural.
They flowed out like a poet speaking or like a dancer dancing, they bubbled out of his horn. If it was a ballad, you could feel the sadness. If it was a bubbly pop tune that he was interpreting, it had a bounce. It had a humor. His emotions and his genius were so connected through his trumpet. I don’t think it’s ever been duplicated. We have exceptional musicians like the Charlie Parkers and Dizzy Gillespies and others, but Louis Armstrong was just a unique entity. He was a godsend; he is one who was sent down to point us in the right direction.
One thing that amazed me when I realized it was how what seemed like a seamless composition had a solo integrated into it.
Those guys played gig after gig after gig, day after day after day. They became organic. They melded together like a family relationship because of the fact they played so much. Today, you have musicians who tour and practice a couple of days and you go travel and go do some gigs. Even the busiest musicians have a lot of down time, but those guys didn’t have down time. They just played and played and played. So if you imagine a group that is playing together even after six months, playing those songs day in and day out, and in some cases two or three gigs a day by the time six months are over, they are killing. They are basically just telepathic with each other. You can hear that with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, people couldn’t understand how they did that. One would start the sentence and the other one would finish the sentence. That is my understanding and my explanation, and Wynton has talked about that as well. Those guys just played all the damn time.
To change subjects, what do you know about the bill to put music education back in high schools? Do you what that will mean?
Specifically, no, but I’ve been asked to be on a board with a group of people. There was a study put together by an outside consulting group that Mitch Landrieu’s organization hired. There are about 20 of us on the board talking about ideas to bring back the cultural economy. Education was a part of the discussion, although I would have liked it top be a larger component of that discussion. My understanding is that there is an initiative to bring back music education in all the schools. I think that is a great idea and it would bring so much positivity to our young folks today. I just hope if that initiative does take place, that they remove some of the politics from it. I know that is wishful thinking, but I hope they let the experts do what the experts do. I hope that they find the money to do it and they hire some director that is qualified and open-minded and let him set it up so that is it is really what it’s supposed to be. If so, I think it will have an amazing impact on the city culturally.
Studying music is something that creates independent thinkers. Which is usually why kids get caught up in stuff, because they are submitting to peer pressures in the wrong way. The movement today at least in jazz is anti-drugs. You don’t see jazz musicians walking around with their pants hanging off. They don’t carry guns and don’t do drugs for the most part. So it can only be positive.
It seems to me that jazz is a music that benefits from an audience with a musical background.
I don’t know if everybody had a musical background when they were listening to Coltrane. My father’s generation was really locking into that sound when they were dealing with the Civil Rights movement. It was a special era in time, but those artists were inspired by what was going on. Just like they connected to Coltrane, they connected to Marvin Gaye, and just like they connected to Marvin Gaye, they connected to Stevie Wonder.
The problem today is that the musicians are so busy trying to validate themselves by showing that they can do what Trane did or what Miles did that they’re not connecting to the current stream of the world today. That is kind of where we started. We really wanted to identify with culture today. You can’t get mad at kids who are listening to Beyoncé and whoever they are listening to on the top 40 radio station when they get confused when you play some Coltrane. They aren’t going to get it. It’s not connecting with them. When they listen to Norah Jones, even though she’s not singing swing tunes, she is taking some of the influence from those earlier artists and she is injecting it into that alternative-pop sound today that is so popular. She is bringing some of that to the table, and kids can hear that. She sounds good, but it is deeper than what they are listening to on pop and top 40 radio. That is the approach that is missing now. You study your horn, but at the same time you have to be tuned into what is happening now. That is why Miles was so hip. People criticized him, what was he going to do—keep playing Kind of Blue for 40 years?
So the real challenge for a musician is to find a context for his or her art?
Think about this. Today we have a war going, we’re in the most turbulent time since Vietnam. What is coming out of it in jazz? Nothing. What kind of statement is that for art? Today in art in general, you just don’t see it. Life may imitate art, but as far as these musicians today. I’ve not seen a record today that is really protesting a political statement, or making a socio-political statement of any sort, or speaking up for the common man so to speak.
The one thing I think art reliably does is document how people responded to their moment.
We have Katrina, we have this war. There are all sorts of issues we could be dealing with as artists. That is the point once again when you talk about the tourist thing. People don’t understand how much of a hurdle that is to get to art. You have to really be brave and have courageous to say, “Screw that, I’m not going to be safe.
I don’t care if it’s going to keep me from getting a gig at your club or at this convention. I’m still going to go ahead and be an artist and express what I feel musically,” and that’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what Bleu Orleans is about.
People gave Wynton a hard time for the spoken word component of his recent album [From the Plantation to the Penitentiary].
It worked for me. He is definitely not going to be in competition with any rappers. He’s not a great rapper, but I appreciate his effort in trying to identify with that genre and get down on their level. And he still did it with a jazz twist.
Nobody can ever say the man isn’t courageous and doesn’t have guts. That is what we need more of. For so long, he has been the point man because he has been the most controversial in a sense. We need more people that are willing to make themselves controversial.
From a performance standpoint, what you don’t see in New Orleans are high level performing art productions. Irvin Mayfield was the only one that was trying to do that, and once again people criticized him. NOJO was what we needed. We need something where people can actually play sophisticated program music. I’m tired of going to gigs and seeing guys playing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” It’s not moving me anymore. I’ve seen a couple of things at the CAC—Tom McDermott did a really nice thing three or four months ago. We need more of that.
What are you doing here at Dillard?
I’m the director of the Institute of Jazz Culture here. Basically, we’re on a mission to move jazz into Dillard, first of all, on a high level. This school, Ellis Marsalis is a graduate, Harold Battiste, Roger Dickerson, Fred Wesley—there is a heritage here. We really hope to create a curriculum that will be strong and nationally competitive, something that can really stand up with some of the more respected institutions, and that’s what we’re beginning the process of now. We have the musicians; we have Donald Harrison, artist of the year for Jazziz. Delfeayo Marsalis is not only a trombone player, but also has done a lot of things as a producer working with Wynton and Bradford, so he is an expert in that. We have the expertise here, we just have to organize it and really bring it together.
And we have the need. McDonogh 35, for instance, they aren’t as recognized as NOCCA would be, but there was a production of Dreamgirls at the theater last year—I was mesmerized at the level of talent. If that talent were really harnessed in the correct way, the sky is the limit for those kids. Same thing with music. They have some really talented kids, but they need not only instruction but also the inspiration. A lot of kids turn away from jazz because they aren’t inspired. A lot of kids think jazz is just going out there and blowing your horn and making some change. They don’t understand what the pay off is. They don’t understand how rewarding it is to master an instrument and to really be able to perform on many different levels and be rewarded for it. So we want to bring that in. We also want to create a synergy amongst the different high schools. We want to create a performing art series where we can have serious and world caliber local, national, and international artists performing on a wonderful stage.
We’re working on partnership with Loyola and UNO to really create the synergy because what is happening in New Orleans is that we have this real tribal thing that goes on where we each have our own little camps. What is ridiculous about it is that we all know each other. It would be different if the same guy didn’t grow up down the street from you and you used to eat at his house when you were kids, but that is how ridiculous it gets sometimes. I think there is an effort right now to try to change that.
Are you part of the consortium that is with the Monk Institute?
Yes. John Snyder [coordinator of Loyola’s Music Business program] seems to be really heaven-sent in that he has a vision. The important thing about John is, and I hope I’m right about this and I think I am, he understands that the pie is big enough and we can all get a piece. There is more strength in consolidation. If we have a consolidated effort with several great minds working toward something to create a synergy, we can get a lot more accomplished than an island over here and an island over there.