Dr. Bruce Boyd Raeburn’s work turning the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane into a resource for students, researchers and fans of New Orleans music is a remarkable achievement that ensures an enduring legacy. He’s also Director of Special Collections at the Tulane library and manages to find time to teach a jazz historiography seminar as well.
Raeburn was born into a musical family. His father Boyd Raeburn fronted his own big band and his mother was jazz vocalist Ginnie Powell.
“We grew up in New York City. A lot of musicians came over so I was really exposed to that world. I was given a miniature drum set for my sixth birthday but I lost interest very quickly and I think it was because I didn’t want to compete with my father.
“Ginnie died of meningitis in 1959. She was just 33. Boyd kind of lost his ability to provide for me and my sister Susan so we got fostered out to different families. I ended up with an uncle in Los Angeles, our mother’s brother, who worked for Capitol Records. The thing I loved in high school because I lived in LA was to go surfing. My uncle wanted me to be an attorney. I started UCLA when I was 16 years old as a pre-law student.
“I was apart from Boyd for about four years before I saw him again, Christmas 1965. He had been in a car accident and passed away August ’66 after I came out basically to live with him in Lafayette. I burned all my bridges to be in Louisiana with my dad and I lost him. But it was a very good place to be in the mid-’60s so I don’t regret that at all. In fact it remade me in interesting ways.”
The most dramatic change for Bruce was switching from UCLA to USL at Lafayette.
“UCLA was by comparison impersonal because it was a huge system. USL was smaller; you really got to know your professors. It quickly became apparent that I didn’t want to go to law school. I wanted to become a historian. A husband and wife team, Milton and Patricia Rickels, specialized in folk tales. That’s how I ended up with a minor in English because the Rickels absolutely fascinated me with their grasp of Louisiana folklore.”
As a history major he found mentors in Vincent Cassady and Mathé Allain.
“It was a big contrast to being in Los Angeles with the Top 40 and the American record industry dominating, it was Cajun and Zydeco music and I really got opened up to that message by both of them in an important way. I met James H. Dormon who was into the kind of confluence of anthropology and history, what we would call cultural history, taking methodologies from ethnomusicology and anthropology and applying those to historical study.”
In Lafayette Bruce finally started playing those drums.
“I didn’t start playing drums until I got to Lafayette and both parents were gone. I was 17.”
Raeburn started playing with a guitarist named Clark Vreeland.
“I had a band with Clark in Lafayette before I moved to New Orleans. He was like the first musician I knew there.”
That connection put Raeburn in direct contact with a host of interesting New Orleans musicians when he moved there in 1971 to work on his Ph.D. at Tulane.
“When I came to New Orleans the only guy I knew there was Clark. Clark was in a band called Ritz Hotel. The drummer quit onstage one night so Clark called me up and said ‘Go find a drum set and come do this.’ That’s how I met Reggie Scanlan, that’s how I met Becky Kury. The band split into two factions and I ended up working with both of them, kind of bouncing from one to the other throughout the ’70s and into the early ’80s. Clark put together a band called the Mystery Monitors and at one point we were part of a regular show at the Absinthe House. The Mystery Monitors would do a set and then Becky Kury would do a set and then we would all back Earl King up. It was one of those wonderful opportunities but that’s the magic of being in New Orleans. Ed and Clark were living together on Waldo Drive and that’s what hatched the Rhapsodizers. When Frank Bua couldn’t make it I would come in and cover some Rhapsodizers shows.”
While working on the graduate thesis at Tulane, Raeburn quickly became involved in the school’s extensive jazz archive. Henry Kmen, author of Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years, introduced Raeburn to the organization.
“Hank was a clarinetist who had worked with the big bands. He’s also the guy that brought in black studies and urban history at Tulane. He was aware of who my dad was so he provided some of the connections that brought me into the jazz archive when Dick Allen was running it.
“The first curator was Bill Russell. He had his own way of doing the oral history interviews. Dick Allen was the one who came up with the idea of a research facility. He went to William Hogan, the chairman of the history department, with the idea for a master’s thesis and Hogan said ‘We can do more than this, let’s get some forward money and build a research center.’ Dick became the understudy to Bill Russell and they collaborated on the interviews. He took over in 1962. By the mid-’70s when I met him he was under fire. He’d dedicated himself to building the archive instead of getting his graduate credentials together. Dick was demoted to a halftime oral historian position. I became the go-between for the new curator and Dick.
“I started as a low-paid student worker in 1980 and over the course of the ’80s I worked my way up the ladder and learned every phase of the operation. The curator who replaced Dick was in a car accident which triggered a latent condition of MS. By 1988 it became apparent that he was not going to be able to continue. I was appointed interim director and fortunately because I really knew the operation I was in a good position to apply for that job and I was lucky enough to get it. It was a dream job for me which I never thought would open up in my lifetime.”
Since 1989, Raeburn has marshaled the resources of the Jazz Archive with a senior educator’s insight into the value of this information to history. He brought the archives into the digital age, beginning with its first digital exhibit, “Riverboats and Jazz.”
“We’ve also added a lot of other things thanks to my staff here. I have a small but incredibly talented staff. Our associate curator for graphics is Alaina Hébert. If you like the look of our web page, that’s her creative activity. Lynn Abbott, who was the drummer with Bruce Daigrepont for 10 years, is the curator for recorded sound.
“We now have the Tulane Digital Library which is a lot more than jazz material. It’s a wonderful tool which is part of a consortium with UCLA now so it’s getting a lot of use. Post-Katrina we got some Grammy Foundation funding to complete the digital transfer of the oral history collection. The oral history stories remain the core of this collection. It’s unique material. The work I do as a historian I could not do without that content. It’s the voices of several hundred men and women who created jazz in New Orleans.
“Then the Music Rising foundation came up with a grant that became the platform for delivering the audio and in many cases full transcripts of the oral history collection from the Hogan Jazz Archive. So people all over the world are now accessing that material, including the great-grandchildren of the people who were interviewed who go to school in New Orleans but don’t necessarily have access to historical documentation. I had a bucket list of things to do before I retire and I have to say it’s pretty much all checked off now. That was probably the biggest one, getting that content on the web for free community outreach even more than scholarly engagement.”