Although most people do not associate New Orleans with modern jazz, there is a modern jazz scene here. Thanks to the ascendency of Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., and, to a lesser extent, Branford Marsalis and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, jazz fans are beginning to want to know more about the modern Jazz scene in New Orleans. Here’s a brief guide.
THE FIVE AGES OF JAZZ
Stylistically, since its early development at the turn of the century, jazz has had five major eras: Traditional (1900s-1920s), Swing (1930s), Bop (1940s-1950s), Avant Garde (1960s-1970s) and Fusion (1980s). When people refer to “modern jazz” they generally mean post-swing and pre-fusion forms of jazz.
The traditional era was defined and dominated by the early New Orleans jazz greats including King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and, of course, Louis Armstrong. In addition to what is now called “trad jazz,” another popular style developed which is known as “Dixieland” jazz. Today, trad is best exemplified by the music one can hear at Preservation Hall and Dixieland is best exemplified by the literally thousands of bands who play in the manner originated by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
The swing era is also known as the big band era. More often than not, swing was a dancehall and ballroom music, and is exemplified by the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman on the one hand, and Glen Miller or the Dorsey Brothers on the other hand. The bebop era was a conscious, stylistic break with rather than an inevitable development of the preceding eras. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach are considered among the founding fathers of this jazz movement. Bebop was much more a concert rather than dance music.
The birth of the avant garde is figuratively given as 1959, when Ornette Coleman arrived from the west coast with his quartet in New York. Although many jazz fans found the avant garde difficult to understand, it really was a logical and almost inevitable extension of the break with tradition that bebop heralded. The main movers of the avant garde movement include Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and the AACM collective out of Chicago (e.g. Anthony Braxton, AIR, the Art Ensemble of Chicago).
Jazz fusion, as we know it today, was popularized by trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd, and by keyboardist Herbie Hancock. Stylistically, it has more in common with swing than with either bebop or the avant garde.
ALL THAT JAZZ
Jazz-wise, New Orleans is a musical gumbo which has every major form freshly stirred into the pot. While other cities went from era to era, discarding the previous era in favor of the newer era, musically New Orleans is unique in that there is a constant layering of eras, one on top of the other. Trad jazz remains just as active as any other form of jazz. In New Orleans, all of the traditions of jazz are alive and kicking.
Paradoxically, because trad is still going strong (from Preservation Hall to Pete Fountain or the Dukes of Dixieland), and a swing/pop oriented band like the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra has a significant following, modern jazz often gets lost, especially when you consider the overwhelming popularity of New Orleans R&B. In fact, many modern jazz musicians also double as R&B musicians. Sometimes, as is the case with the multi-talented James Rivers, even when he is billed as a jazz artist people expect and request that he play R&B oriented material although he loves bebop.
It is difficult to pin-point a specific event or individual and say this is when or this is who started modern jazz in New Orleans. First, unlike trad, which was born in New Orleans, modern jazz is an import. Second, New Orleans musicians tend to play across genres much more so than in other cities, so that there are hardly any musicians dedicated solely to one style of music, not to mention dedicated to one style of jazz.
Keeping the above caveat in mind, most of the New Orleans musicians who play modern jazz point out the Clyde Kerr band as the transitional group between swing and R&B styles and modern jazz. Saxophonist Red Tyler, for example, vividly recalls practicing at Clyde Kerr’s house. From his perspective, this is where modern jazz in New Orleans begins.
The Clyde Kerr big band was however not the ideal format for bebop, which primarily featured small four, five and six piece ensembles. So although Ellis Marsalis fondly recalls the impact of seeing Dizzy Gillespie’s big band play at Booker T. Washington High School Auditorium in the ’50s, Ellis’ preference was to play in the small combo format.
Although, many musicians exchanged ideas and performed modem music with Clyde Kerr’s bands, most of them were learning much more by listening to the new recordings going from the bebop innovators. When clarinetist Alvin Batiste heard recordings by Charlie Parker, he says he knew at that moment what he wanted to do. “I never thought about doing anything else but playing like Charlie Parker on the clarinet.” A mainstay of traditional and swing jazz but seldom used in modern jazz, the clarinet was Batiste’s chosen instrument and bebop was his chosen music.
ALL FOR ONE
In the early ’50s, a coterie of young musicians came along who wanted to play bebop and who generally did not want to play trad or swing. In addition to those already mentioned above, the young turks of their day included Melvin Lastie, Nat Perilliat, Edward Blackwell, Kidd Jordan, Richard Payne, Warren Bell, Earl and Wilson Turbinton, James Black, John Boudreaux and others who are less well known.
But as with any movement, it’s usually one or two individuals who figure out how to provide structure and organization and for modern jazz in New Orleans, Harold Batiste is that person. If Clyde Kerr served as midwife who helped the new music be born, certainly Harold Batiste was the big brother who took on the task of keeping the family together.
At Dillard University, Harold Batiste pulled together musicians to woodshed and gig. Batiste took a particular interest in a young tenor player who permanently switched to piano after hearing Nat Perriliat play. That ex-tenor player was Ellis Marsalis.
After his college years, Ellis Marsalis, along with Alvin Batiste, Edward Blackwell, and Harold Batiste, headed out to Los Angeles, where they hooked up with Ornette Coleman. A demo tape of the New Orleans modern jazz artists playing with Ornette has subsequently been lost, although all concerned recall making it.
Blackwell stayed in California working with Ornette Coleman. Harold found work as an A&R man for a small record label. The others returned home after a short period. When Harold Batiste returned to New Orleans he really wanted to record jazz, but his job called for producing commercial R&B hits. Out of his work in New Orleans came the great Barbara George “I Know” single, and Harold plowed the profits from that hit into the recording of the American Jazz Quintet, The Ellis Marsalis Quartet and other jazz projects. Some of the recordings from this period have subsequently been issued as a four-record set called “New Orleans Jazz Heritage 1956-1964”.
This group of musicians, under Harold Batiste’s leadership, formed the AFO Executives (All For One), one of the first anywhere of musicians operating as a collective to take care of the business side as well as the artistic side of their music.
The next major wave of modern jazz musicians included a number of musicians who moved to New Orleans from other places in the country: Tony Dagradi, Tim Green, James Singleton, James Drew, and others such as Phil Parnell, Rick Margitza and others. Chief among them is Tony Dagradi, who formed the band Astral Project and subsequently also put together the New Orleans Saxophone Ensemble. Recently, in addition to recording and touring with the Carla Bley Band, Tony Dagradi organized a jazz series in 1989 at Tulane University. The series proved to be a major success, and he has already planned to expand the series for 1990.
Much like Harold Batiste, Tony Dagradi is very concerned with promoting jazz in general and not just his own career (is it coincidental that they both are tenor players?). Other than the perennially popular James Rivers, Tony Dagradi probably works more than any other modern jazz saxophonist in New Orleans, and he has certainly recorded more than any other. He has recordings available on both the Rounder and Grammavision labels as a leader, and appears on numerous other albums as an accompanying musician.
While Tony Dagradi is the leading member of this wave, it is important to point out that pianist David Torkanowsky and drummer Johnny Vidacovich (both of whom are from New Orleans) have been historically associated with Tony Dagradi. Along with bassist Jim Singleton, Torkanowsky and Vidacovich make up the most recorded modern jazz rhythm section in New Orleans. They can be heard on recent Tony Dagradi and Red Tyler recordings, as well as in numerous nightclub settings.
A HOME GROWN COLLECTIVE
A third force on the modern jazz scene has been the musicians associated with CRS (Composer’s Recording Studio), the Louisiana Jazz Federation and Musicians For Music. Harpist Patrice Fisher has been a leader in writing grants, producing recordings and setting up the recording studio. Others associated with CRS include Steve Masakowski, Jimmy Robinson and Denise Villere.
Every year Musicians For Music, a non-profit organization, runs a grants program to record three Louisiana jazz composers. Fisher, Robinson and Fran Comiskey also run Broken Records, an independent recording label with a catalogue of 23 recordings including releases by Jasmine, Woodenhead, Mars, Scott Goudeau, Joel Simpson and Larry Sieberth.
The Louisiana Jazz Federation is responsible for the annual “Jazz Awareness Month” activities each October. Additionally, they have produced videos on jazz artists, and were the organizational force behind the very successful “Jazztown” radio series which was produced by Steve Pierce. A major federation project is the educational “Dr. Jazz” program run by bassist Eric Glaser. A survey of jazz, “Dr. Jazz” is touring over 32 schools throughout the state.
Within the Federation, Pat Jolly and Jason Patterson are the major behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. Their work is extremely important to the modern jazz scene in New Orleans. Pat Jolly also produces the “The Jolly Jazz Calendar”, a weekly listing of both venues (phone numbers are included) and musicians.
THE VENUES FOR MODERN JAZZ
For modern jazz, recording opportunities are few and far between, and venues are equally as scarce. Snug Harbor and Tyler’s are the two best known clubs, however in both cases R&B, blues and pop groups are just as likely to be featured as a modern jazz band. The CAC does a music series which has at least two modern jazz features a year. Also, some small lounges, hotels, and occasional special concerns feature modern Jazz. The Columns Hotel on St. Charles is the most consistent in this regard, and, not surprisingly, Tony Dagradi is actively involved in their weekly bookings. Tipitina’s, which rarely features jazz, has started a Sunday series to offer exposure to young and upcoming modern jazz players; many of those featured are students or graduates of NOCCA.
In many ways the radio and television scene is abysmal as far as modern jazz is concerned with one bright exception: WWOZ. Even the pop, blues and R&B New Orleans artists have a hard time breaking into the media here because they program their stations in the same way as similar stations around the country. Were it not for WWOZ, it is doubtful that any New Orleans artist would receive any airplay. Not only do the ‘OZ jocks play jazz (WWOZ programs more jazz than all the other radio stations combined!), they also actively publicize jazz events and frequently interview jazz artists on the air.
Because of Wynton Marsalis et al, many people around the country have heard of NOCCA and sometimes mistakenly assume that the educational scene is very strong in jazz. The reality is far different from the supposition. On the other hand, there is a great deal of hope that two newly instituted programs will prove to be very successful.
The University of New Orleans Jazz Studies Program under the leadership of Ellis Marsalis (who brought Harold Batiste on full time) is the current flagship of the developing modern jazz educational scene. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Inc. is also backing a jazz school under the leadership of Edward Kidd Jordan. This effort includes active input from board members Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Germaine Bazzle and Iman Wali Ra’oof.
Of course, the Loyola program continues under John Mahoney’s leadership and NOCCA’s jazz program is now led by Clyde Kerr, Jr. On a less well-known, but perhaps equally important level, percussionist Johnathan Bloom is doing an excellent job at the junior high school level with a program through the public schools. While most assume that active jazz education programs will turn out future jazz greats, the fact is that very few graduates of these and similar programs have ever made a major impression on the jazz world, and in those few celebrated cases that do, it is generally conceded that other influences were equally, if not more, important in their development as jazz artists.
Ellis Marsalis offers an interesting insight into the potential of jazz education. “What needs to happen is that we turn out a group of teachers—people who can teach and influence youngsters about jazz. We don’t have that now, we just don’t have many people who know how to teach jazz.”
NOW’S THE TIME
Charlie Parker’s famous recording aptly sums up the modern jazz situation: “now’s the time.” As Ellis Marsalis says, “For years we’ve been complaining. Well now we’ve got the ball and if we don’t score, we’ve got nobody else left to blame.”
The modern jazz scene in New Orleans is at a pivotal point. Because of media attention to the careers of some young New Orleans musicians, and also because of significant commitments from some sectors (such as the Chamber of Commerce) which previously had not been actively involved in the propagation of modern jazz, there is an opportunity for modern jazz in New Orleans to achieve a level of public awareness and garner public support to a degree heretofore impossible to even imagine.
For reasons that sometimes have nothing to do with the aesthetics of the music, there is a major interest in modern jazz in New Orleans coming from diverse sectors of New Orleans society. The question is not why there is the interest, nor even how long this interest will last. The real question is what will we do with this opportunity.