There’s a lot of music in New Orleans. There are also many books on New Orleans music. Until now, no one has been able to survey all of New Orleans’ historic styles of music—jazz, R&B, etc. in one tome. Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner, the authors of Musical Gumbo: The Music Of New Orleans (W.W. Norton & Co.) attempt it. In fact, they defy their own title and throw in Cajun music and zydeco from the other side of the state just for fun.
“Breezy” would probably be the most complimentary description you could give about the book. It presents the stories of most of the major figures in New Orleans music in pleasantly-written, anecdotal form, as digestible and nutritious as popcorn. The book is targeted at the Jazz Fest touristas who view New Orleans as an alien island of partying wackos with mysterious rites and strange varieties of music. It also has a few helpful indexes in the back for the unenlightened consumer—though, conspicuously, no index of the names listed in the book.
To be fair, the sections on the Marsalis family and Harry Connick Jr. show that the authors are real fans of more recent New Orleans music.
However, nobody should confuse this with a serious musicological book. Much of the research is skimmed from a handful of books that took years to write, and musical descriptions are quoted from other writers. Moreover, the authors—sisters who hail from New York—occasionally show some ignorance on their subject, both in errors and editorial slant.
Descriptions of Fats Domino in one chapter are the same old hack phrases of angst-driven music critics. Fats is a) “[not] dynamic onstage;” b) “hardly an incendiary performer;” c) “cuddly, warm, safe;” d) “reassuring and non-threatening.” They are mystified. “What accounted for his enormous popularity?” Perhaps they need to play one of his records.
Allen Toussaint is credited with producing a) Barbara George’s “I Know” b) The Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can” and c) Irma Thomas’ “I Wish Someone Would Care” (sic). He produced none of the above.
In listing the personnel of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the authors refer to baritone sax player Roger Lewis as “George Lewis”—possibly a psychic guilt slip, since clarinetist George Lewis was one of the jazz legends that they totally ignored in the text.
In the zydeco section, they devote large segments to Clifton Chenier, his son C.J., and Buckwheat Zydeco, smaller segments to Queen Ida (?) and Wayne Toups (?) and no space whatsoever to Rockin’ Dopsie, Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose, Nathan Williams, Lynn August or Terrence Simien.
In a section called “The Club Scene,” Lichtenstein and Dankner skim historical info from the book Up from the Cradle of Jazz on the Dew Drop Inn, list exactly one current club—Tipitina’s—and then incorrectly state that its interior was filmed in the movie The Big Easy.
The authors’ apparent fear of bringing too much depth to the book is perhaps best summed up by the fact that on the subject of the Mardi Gras Indians’ music—which underlies much New Orleans music—they devote exactly one paragraph.
In the end, Musical Gumbo tells you more about marketing and the politics of major book contracts than New Orleans music. Therein lies the rub. Perhaps our dedication to our music over its marketing is a sign of our backwardness. Perhaps it’s also why the world comes to New Orleans to recreate its music once every generation.