“To me, this is just a next step—an advanced step—but it’s in line with everything I’ve done my entire life,” Melissa Weber explains, after being selected as the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.
The Hogan Jazz Archive, part of the Howard-Tilton Library at Tulane University, is one of the city’s leading research centers for the study of New Orleans jazz and many other music genres. It contains substantial oral histories on tape, sound recordings, film photographs, posters, sheet music, personal papers, discographies, correspondence, public documents and much more.
Weber, who started her new job on August 10, 2019, is widely recognized as DJ Soul Sister. She has dominated OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Awards and has won the Best DJ category every year since the awards inception in 2009 except for 2016. For 25 years, she has hosted her show, “Soul Power,” on community radio station WWOZ and is a highly-respected and award-winning spinner of rare vinyl grooves at gigs and parties. At first glance, some might deem deejaying and curating an archive as disparate occupations. But Weber, who earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of New Orleans and is about to complete the master’s program in musicology at Tulane University, declares, “All of that is related to my love of music.”
“Being a deejay was never an end game,” she continues. “I started out as a crate digger; not just shopping for records but hunting for records in situations that most reasonable people would not go through—like climbing in questionable storage facilities where things might crawl on you—all in the search of finding rare material.”
Feeling the need to share the music led Weber to volunteering at WWOZ as well as interning at OffBeat. “This to me is a prime function of education—sharing knowledge,” says Weber who will continue towards that purpose as the archive’s curator.
Weber fills the position of curator that was vacated by the much-respected Dr. Bruce Raeburn who, after 30 years, retired on January 1, 2018. Raeburn was the recipient for OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement in Music Education Award in 2016. She realizes the difficultly of the task as the personable Raeburn boasted a head full of musical knowledge.
“I feel I bring my own specific and unique credentials to add to their amazing legacy,” says Weber of Raeburn and jazz historian Dick Allen, whose names are so closely associated with the Hogan Jazz Archive. “I’m honored to be in that line—that’s my tribe. Of course, I’m thrilled to do this and even more excited about it because it is related to the story of New Orleans music. I’ve been a music story seeker since I was a little girl. I’m also lucky that the musicians know me, the music community knows me, the researchers and publishers know me, so I’m not a stranger.”
Having been in her new job only a few weeks at this writing, Weber is naturally just getting to know her way around: “I have been fascinated by the variety of genres represented in the collection,” she allows saying she intends to build on that foundation. She has her eye on bringing available information on New Orleans rhythm and blues, contemporary jazz and brass band musicians up-to-date and into the present in order for the collection to more fully represent this city’s music.
“New Orleans music and jazz is not just one story,” Weber offers. “I want to help uncover all of the stories and then make the stories available for other story seekers. This is our story. Documenting, preserving and building on it, I take very seriously.”
Recently, she received two emails from members of New Orleans musical families inquiring about researching their relatives. “Legacy is a very important thing to New Orleanians and the families of New Orleans musicians,” Weber—a native of this city herself—correctly proclaims. “They just want to look at photographs of them [their ancestors], hear their recordings, and just be able to experience their ‘presence’.”
During her short tenure at the archive, Weber has been doing her own exploring and making some unexpected and delightfully obscure discoveries.
For instance, she found a clipping from a 1980 edition of Figaro that advertised an original Meters reunion to be held at the Saenger Theatre that was sponsored by Popeyes. “That was a few years after the group broke up,” she says in amazement. Elsewhere Weber also saw an article detailing the Civic Theatre in the late 1970s when it was a discotheque. “That was completely off the cuff,” she exclaims. “I wasn’t looking for it but it’s there. It tells another story of New Orleans nightlife.”
Weber, 44, who stands as the first person of color and first woman to hold the prestigious curator position at the archive, enjoyed early exposure to music through her father’s record collection. “My dad’s side of the family were music-loving people,” she proudly declares, adding that her sister, Valerie George, once signed with Motown Records and currently performs at Seal’s Class Act with fellow vocalist Lisa Amos. Her cousin is the renowned, much-called-upon drummer Raymond Weber.
“Dad wanted me to play an instrument,” Weber said. “I consider my turntable an instrument,” she adds, deadly serious in the proclamation—though with a laugh. She will continue to spin her get-down vinyl at her “Soulful Takeover” show once a month on Fridays at One Eyed Jacks and at her monthly “Hustle!” parties on Saturdays at the Ace Hotel’s Three Keys.
When asked about taking on the position, Weber says she jokingly explains that for decades she has [lovingly] maintained an archive filled with recordings and memorabilia at her home. “I will take the same care of the Hogan Jazz Archive that I have to my own collection,” Weber sincerely promises.