Just try finding someone more involved in and essential to the New Orleans music scene than Jerry Brock. Before moving to New Orleans nearly 20 years ago to start a community radio station, the lanky, soft-voiced Brock was the youngest executive in the history of CBS Records, and managed three Discount Records stores in St. Louis. “At 19, I was making more than my father, who’d worked for years at the Phillips Petroleum Company. I had hair down past my ass. It drove him crazy.” Yet Jerry already knew that he would come to New Orleans—and be poor, as he puts it.
Jerry first entered broadcasting because of the influence of Lorenzo Milam. Author of Sex In Broadcasting: A Guide to Starting A Community Radio Station, Milam was an independently wealthy businessman who established independent community radio stations around the country. Because of an argument over community involvement for a new station in Dallas, Lorenzo dared Brock to set up his own station, to “see if he could do any better.” Brock quickly picked New Orleans. Helped by his brother, Walter, those early broadcasts 16 years ago had Jerry taping hours and hours of air time, and driving the tapes out to Nine Mile Point in for airing each day. The new “station” was the now very successful WWOZ at 90.7 FM.
As a natural progression of his love for jazz and all New Orleans music, Brock has branched out into record producing, directing documentary films about the music, and is co-owner of Louisiana Music Factory. Since starting with 100 CDs several years ago, Brock and partner Barry Smith have built the thriving business into an important place in the New Orleans music scene. Their stock of 20,000+ records, along with books, videos, and other related Louisiana products already ranks among the best independent record stores in America, such as the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago and the Jazz Record Center in New York. “We have two websites, one soon to be an interactive site for a huge mail-order catalogue of Louisiana music. We also are about to start our own record label to put out some of the music recorded at our live in-store shows,” says Brock.
“When my brother and I first came here, we had assumed we would have a much more eclectic station, but when we arrived we quickly discovered how vibrant New Orleans music and culture still was. We understood the importance of Louis Armstrong, of course, but we had no idea that you could still go to jazz funerals. Within the first week, I had met Ellis Marsalis, Kidd Jordan, Danny Barker, Al Rose. We were very lucky to have arrived in time for the re-emergence of the brass band.” Brock produced the first recordings of the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, and the Chosen Few Brass Bands. He has most recently produced what is probably one of the best brass bands in the city, the Treme Brass Band.
In New Orleans, the influence of the late Danny Barker on the brass band revival that began in the 1970s will be felt for years to come. “Danny was instrumental in getting me involved,” Brock says. “He took me to jazz funerals, introduced me to people on the streets, made me comfortable in the scene. Even though Danny had been away for so many years until he came back in the sixties, and was a very refined, worldly cat, he still understood and loved the New Orleans street culture and its relationship to New Orleans music.” Brock served as Danny’s manager for nine years and was pallbearer at Danny’s funeral in 1994.
For a time, the eccentric, troubled genius piano player, James Booker, lived with Brock. “The more I think about him now, the more I understand him. He was so complicated on so many levels. He loved to be abused and to abuse himself, but at the same time he wanted somebody there to take care of him.
“He would listen to nothing but Bartok piano pieces. It was really hip to discuss Bartok with Booker. But he was crazy, of course. Very late one night I woke up to find Booker shaking me: ‘Wake up, man. They’re stealing your stereo.’ I put clothes on and ran out to the living room and sure enough there’s a guy walking out with my stereo. I yell at him, ‘What are you doing taking my stuff?!’ And he says ‘Man, this guy’s been in my cab for over 24 hours and now he tells me he doesn’t have any money.’
“Every single day Booker would get up, eat breakfast, and rearrange everything in his room—completely. In really neat order, but still totally changed.”
Brock thinks of himself as a “media activist,” and believes that the “media affect our lives much more than people think. It’s really important to try to add a little balance to the world of media, to show some sincere, warm kindness that people can hold onto. So much of media these days is not very real.”
WWOZ, Brock insists, has been so successful because “the musicians have always greeted me with open arms. They felt good about participating in WWOZ, knowing that they would never be abused or ripped off by the station. I have always tried to help represent black culture in New Orleans. My brother and I were always most proud of the fact that WWOZ was the very first station with a 50% white and 50% black listening audience. No commercial or non-commercial station had statistics like that show up in the Arbitron or Harrison ratings. It’s a reflection of the uniqueness of New Orleans culture.”
Brock’s interest in making films came from having met Les Blank and Alan Lomax, veterans of American documentary film. Brock has since directed several music documentaries, the first, In that Number!, a tour of brass band music. It includes footage of James Andrews, the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, and a nine-year-old Nicholas Payton playing a solo on Jackson Square. The video is available through the Smithsonian’s film catalogue. Another was produced for Japanese television and named by the producers Spirit of New Orleans Music. Brock describes it as “sort of Jerry’s view of jazz as it exists in New Orleans, with lots of historical interpretations.” He also worked on Yeah, You Right, by Andy Copeland and Louis Alvarez, a documentary about New Orleans dialect and part of the Native Tongue series on PBS.
Some of Brock’s strongest praise is for music producer and performer Dave Bartholomew. “Dave is the genius. There is no one bigger than him who produced as much as he did of New Orleans music. He has credit on over 4,000 songs and has sold more records in the history of music than anyone but Elvis. To me the three people who had the biggest impact on popular music the last half of this century were Dave, T-Bone Walker, and Louis Jordan.
“There are a lot of wonderful people I’ve met here, many of them now gone. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life was with the Batiste brothers on Mardi Gras, and with the Baby Dolls. The men would all dress in drag. The women would all dress in satin baby doll outfits with fishnet stockings and sing these ribald songs like “My Pecker’s Pecked So Much My Pecker Won’t Peck No More.” I tried to get Lionel of the Treme Brass Band to record that song but he was too embarrassed to do it. Maybe he will on the next record. Another one is “Old Widow Brown’s Ass,” which is about her mule. There would be all these scheduled stops just for them, maybe in the middle of the projects or at someone’s house, a barroom. They would parade from stop to stop, have a drink at each one and wouldn’t finish until one or two in the morning. It was aimost surreal.”
Brock was once invited to Fats Domino’s house for a barbecue. “It was just me and him there. It was the first and only time I’ll ever eat barbecued pickled pig lips. If Fats is cooking in his back yard, you got to eat it. They weren’t as tough as you’d think. And at least the grill burned off the hairs. Fats has a funny diet.”
One Carnival week years ago, Dr. John hired Brock to chauffeur Mac in a cherry-red Cadillac to all his gigs and family visits.
Brock loves being in New Orleans these days, and cites the amount of excellent new music and a healthy, evolving scene. “You’ve got Wallace Johnson coming back out of the woodwork. The same with Rockie Charles, Little Freddy King. It’s really great having Doc Cheatham in town so much and working with him.” Brock had the enviable job of producing a new record (due April 15 on Verve) with the legendary trumpeter Doc Cheatham and local trumpet prodigy Nicolas Payton. He is very excited about the lyrical quality of the songs and the historical appropriateness of the record.
The 91-year-old Cheatham likes to tell a story about his days substituting for Louis Armstrong in Jelly Roll Morton’s band up in Chicago. “People used to tell me that Jelly Roll was a pimp. He was very nice to me and taught me a lot about music. I didn’t know what a pimp was and I didn’t care. All I cared about was the music.”
“Don’t forget,” Brock says, waving a cigarette, “that Doc didn’t start singing until after he was 70 years old. Maybe that should remind us that there’s always something to look forward to in life.”