The BEAT Goes On: A 25 Year Retrospective of OffBeat Magazine

OffBeat Magazine, the foremost authority on Louisiana music and one of the world’s longest-running jazz and roots music publications, celebrates its 25th anniversary with this issue. Here, we give a pithy history of how the publication grew in tandem with the popularity of the city and state of Louisiana’s music scene as it recaptured the glories of the early 20th century days when jazz was invented on its streets.

New Orleans music was running at full throttle when publisher Jan Ramsey founded OffBeat in 1988. Ramsey was the vice president of a market consulting firm in New Orleans, and had been a music lover and musician her entire life. She found herself interested in developing the music industry to help support the great artists in the city. “I was constantly out at night listening to music and went to all the local clubs,” recalls Ramsey. “It appealed to me and my entrepreneurial instincts to be able to get involved with something I loved, and to do something good for the city.”

Thressa Andersson bares all, OffBeat Magazine, April 2004

Looking back on a quarter century (Theresa Andersson, April 2004)

Ramsey was approached to buy the local music ‘zine Wavelength, but that pub was in financial trouble and she decided not to go through with the deal, and started OffBeat instead.

Though the godfather of the city’s musical renaissance, Professor Longhair, died in 1980, it was a time when the heroes of the city’s historic jazz and R&B scenes rubbed shoulders with a new wave of brass bands that pushed the boundaries of that genre. Meanwhile a generation of younger rock ‘n’ rollers who’d grown up on a mixture of New Orleans R&B, classic blues and the heroes of rock were coming of age. At the same time, a homegrown version of New Orleans hip-hop called bounce was developing outside of the mainstream. There was a deep current of tradition running through a music that had been passed down hand to hand through family bands, yet at the same time there was plenty of room for creative expression for those who wanted it. OffBeat was there to cover it all and capture the spirit of the music in the words of its practitioners. Every Louisiana musician of importance since those days was interviewed in depth by OffBeat‘s staff of writers. Its pages contained some of the most compelling stories in American music history, from Dr. John to the Neville Brothers, Danny Barker, the Marsalis family, Irma Thomas and Trombone Shorty.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was slowly gaining a reputation as the best music festival in the world, a dramatic consolidation of the most eccentric collection of roots music ever witnessed. OffBeat grew along with Jazz Fest to a point where the magazine’s May issue, nicknamed “The Jazz Fest Bible,” became an indispensable tool for festival attendees.

Looking back on the early issues of OffBeat, it’s obvious that the same creative freedom that Louisiana’s musicians enjoyed applied to writing about that music. The history reflected in OffBeat’s pages offers profound commentary on cultural crosscurrents in America. Few regional magazines in the U.S. have been able to accomplish this.

The Early Issues

OffBeat Magazine, July 1988, first issue

The first issue of OffBeat, published July 1988

The early issues offer poignant images that resonate with historical perspective. Here we have a much younger Uncle Lionel Batiste leading a jazz funeral with stately aplomb, captured in a Michael P. Smith photo; there we see soul queen Irma Thomas as a sassy young diva well aware of how hot she looks.

These early issues of OffBeat reveal how unselfconscious New Orleans was about its music. The musicians and the locals knew what the secrets were and were happy to be a bit inscrutable about them. Even major label touring bands like the Radiators eschewed standard promotional tools and cultivated a palpable air of mystery and confusion. Nothing in New Orleans was transparent and OffBeat’s coverage reflected that with its own brand of gnostic journalism. The slogan on the cover of the first issue, Summer 1998—“The Outsider’s Guide to New Orleans Music”—defined a mission for the magazine that identified it as essential resource material for tourists. The magazine was conceived as a local publication that could bridge the “inscrutable mysteries” of local music and make it more accessible for consumers who perhaps weren’t as familiar with the music’s performers and traditions, with the first issue designed to be distributed to the massive media reps expected in New Orleans for the 1988 Republican National Convention held in the city that August.

The focus was completely on music. Over the magazine’s first five years, the bulk of the publication was taken up by the most important part of its editorial content, its unique and comprehensive club listings. Today such listings are ubiquitous on blogs, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s OffBeat was the go-to source for what was happening on a nightly basis, for locals as well as tourists. I remember spending many hours poring over the upcoming month’s calendar when each issue came out.

The editorial content in the magazine’s early years was a fascinating mixture of ideas that reveal a publication working hard to find its point of view. The first issue was a classic that featured several memorable articles, including a witty A to Z guide to New Orleans music by Bunny Matthews, who showed his willingness to oppose mission statements right at the beginning of his OffBeat career when he cited “the fear of outsiders” as “New Orleans music’s raison d’etre.” Matthews was in fact predictive—the slogan was quickly changed to “The Insider’s Guide to New Orleans Music and Entertainment.” Matthews also featured a collection of his iconic Ninth Ward Yat culture cartoons, “Vic and Nat’ly,” which were historically best represented in OffBeat’s pages. Actually, Matthews’ cartoons were inserted as space fillers at the last minute when neophyte publisher Ramsey discovered that editorial left a hole of several pages in the premiere issue.

Two well-written pieces by Erik Bookhardt (a future Gambit art writer) covered the history of voodoo and Storyville. But the real prize in that first issue was a brilliant piece on Mardi Gras Indians written by the great cultural historian John Sinclair, who would become an important voice in the magazine in the ensuing years.

Essential Stories

Mystikal, OffBeat Magazine cover, June 1995

Mystikal, OffBeat Magazine cover, June 1995

As the magazine went through growing pains, it became a home for stories of immense historical resonance: Jason Berry’s essential piece on Snug Harbor (February ’89); Linda Atnip’s story on Tipitina’s (March ’89); Ben Sandmel’s Cajun music overview (April ’89) and several great jazz pieces from Kalamu ya Salaam—a two-part ”The Roots of Jazz” (June-July ’89), a three-part account of the history of brass bands (November-December ’89 and January ’90) and an analysis of New Orleans modern jazz (January ’90).

Then there were the interviews. Historian, WWOZ co-founder and future co-owner of the Louisiana Music Factory Jerry Brock’s terrific interview with Danny Barker (August ’89) was the first in a series of vital oral histories with various legends of Louisiana music. This wealth of anecdotal and historic material is the true treasure trove of the OffBeat archives.

In 1990 a gifted young writer named Keith Spera joined the staff, fresh from graduating from Texas A&M. Spera was eager and ready to learn, and eventually became the magazine’s first full-time editor.

Spera penned creative pieces about Bourbon Street and the New Orleans club scene. He also joined a series of OffBeat writers and editors who wanted to make a case for New Orleans as a hotbed of contemporary rock, promoting bands such as Shot Down in Ecuador Jr., Tribe Nunzio, Tabula Rasa and The House Levelers. Mark Meister also championed local rock, eventually writing a column (“Feedback”) about it.

May ’90 was the first issue to concentrate on Jazz Fest, with a series of music recommendations by “Almost Slim,” aka Jeff Hannusch (his pseudonym was developed because, being Canadian, he had not yet gained his U.S. citizenship, and was afraid of deportation).

Hannusch, who had written a seminal book about the development of New Orleans R&B (I Hear You Knockin’) would become one of OffBeat’s key writers on New Orleans’ musical history. The issue also contained a list of “requisite” Louisiana records and an in-depth interview with Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis. An article on local food by the mysterious M. Gourmand shows how much cuisine has advanced in the city since then—recommendations included Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, Tortilla Flats and the Court of Two Sisters. The year 1990 also featured special issues on Caribbean music, “Cool Style,” “Watery Art and Music,” Elvis (Presley, not Costello), the blues and the first Christmas-themed issue. In September 1990 we come across the first OffBeat film review, of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and a story about Louisiana festivals. The well-known New Orleans writer Ronnie Virgets appeared (November ’99) with “Lakefront Remembrance.” More records were reviewed in July 1990, but the first proper reviews section came in November with Geraldine Wyckoff’s pieces on three new albums along with reviews of art, cinema and video. Wyckoff freelanced for Gambit, and also became one of OffBeat’s regular writers, with a specialty in jazz and New Orleans street culture traditions.

Poet and writer Kalamu ya Salaam’s offered a detailed interview with R&B pioneer Dave Bartholomew in the June 1990 issue. In November ’90 Branford Marsalis gave some controversial observations about contemporary jazz. Early versions of the magazine offered extensive coverage of Cajun and zydeco music as well as articles on local gospel musicians and gospel scenes. Slowly OffBeat expanded the cultural mix to include art and food.

In 1991 the February issue included an in-depth piece on Pete Fountain, and historian Rick Coleman wrote an excellent story about Clarence “Frogman” Henry in April, which was also the third annual edition dedicated to Acadiana, including a list of Cajun dance halls, with a hand-drawn map created by Bunny Matthews.

May 1991 was the most comprehensive Jazz Fest issue to date, a thick (82 pages) edition including wall-to-wall coverage of the Fest, the first appearance of the iconic daily “cubes”—never published in that format before by local pubs—and a good supporting feature by Rick Coleman on the Dew Drop Inn. Record reviews returned in this issue and have been a reliable feature ever since.

In the November 1991 issue we see our first reference to writer Alex Rawls, who would become a growing editorial voice at OffBeat. Rawls, at the time an active poet, was hosting a program called “Celebrity Lit Crimes” at the Maple Leaf.

December 1991 included an extensive interview with Walter “Wolfman” Washington and a look back at the previous year, a feature that would become a staple of the magazine’s content in the future.

In January 1992, Spera and Anthony Clark (the magazine’s first intern, who went on to a writing career in Florida) detailed the history of Black Top Records, founded by brothers Hammond and Nauman Scott. Black Top was a key link between the old R&B giants that had been rediscovered and revitalized and the young roots rock and R&B players who emulated them. But it was clear that the magazine was still trying to identify what the local scene actually consisted of if you look at the reviews section, which was almost completely about national acts.

The magazine continued to grow during 1992, finally beginning to identify important recordings of local music. The June issue included a review of Indian Blues, the historic record saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. made with his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians. This is the album that inspired a similar storyline in the HBO series Treme. “Having established himself in the jazz mainstream, Harrison now proves himself a real Mardi Gras Indian,” wrote Anthony Clark. The final issue of OffBeat’s first incarnation, August ’92 was a keeper. The bulk of this stripped-down edition, the last issue in a series that were the size of classic comic books, was dedicated to a mammoth interview with Mac Rebennack by Keith Spera, the second in a record six cover appearances by Dr. John.

Changes

Dr. John, the Night Tripper, OffBeat Magazine, cover April 1989

Dr. John, the Night Tripper's first of many OffBeat covers (April 1989)

In September ’92, the first issue printed in the approximate 8.5”-by-11” format it has used to this day, and featured the first of the magazine’s “concept” covers, “Go Back to School with Cowboy Mouth,” that shows the quartet posing with props in a classroom. Spera’s piece told the Mouth story well and thoroughly. But another story by Spera in this issue may have been even more significant when he became the first local writer to tout a 24-year-old blues phenom from Houma, Tab Benoit. OffBeat publisher Ramsey had started a blues society in New Orleans, and the magazine had sponsored a series of blues competitions at the Rock ’n’ Bowl; Benoit was the first winner. Spera also contributed a thoughtful interview with Meters bassist George Porter Jr. Porter has gone on to give so many interviews to OffBeat they could be collected into a decent biography.

Other changes in September included a full-fledged reviews section in which Minneapolis transplant Michael Tisserand offered a dim view of Zachary Richard’s latest release, while Rick Coleman had good things to say about the Batiste Brothers Band. The biggest change, though, was the addition of bona fide columns. By the end of the year (November ’92), the “Random Notes”-style news column “Spare Parts” was replaced by a new column penned by editor Spera, “Dis ’n’ Dat,” which would become an institution. The first installment included what amounted to a small feature on the legendary vocalist/bassist Becky Kury, a member of the new wave rock bands Cartoons and RZA as well as the Rhapsodizers, and “a major figure in the development of both the Radiators and the subdudes.” Spera also continued to write his rock column “Ear to the Ground,” which was joined by “Film and Video Bits” by David H. Jones, “Blues News” by Kat Stratton, a Cajun and zydeco column titled “Ten West” by Michael Tisserand, “Strictly Jazz” by Geraldine Wyckoff, Karen Cortello’s hip-hop column “Street” and Gene Scaramuzzo’s “Caribbeanna.”

Jones, a public relations professional who was later tapped to become president of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, took over the editorial role in subsequent years after a stint in Hollywood as a television writer. Later came book and rock columns from Alex Rawls, Doug McCash’s art column “Eye Music” and Julie Posner’s festival column “Pass a Good Time.”

OffBeat had finally arrived at a workable approach to its editorial mix. From September 1992 until 2006 the magazine was pretty well defined by its columns, which would also include coverage of art, books and food.

Columnists allowed OffBeat tremendous latitude to cover the multiplicity of cultural beats in Louisiana and ensured that a wide variety of viewpoints were brought to the table instead of a monolithic editorial vision. This latitude enabled OffBeat to be on the cutting edge of everything that was happening musically, including the crucial New Orleans strain of hip-hop, bounce, that was slammed in the mainstream press and banned from WWOZ. In his 2012 book Bounce, Matt Miller writes, “Of several local critics whose views are examined in this chapter, only one—OffBeat [sic] columnist and one-time WQUE music director Karen Cortello—approached bounce with anything resembling an open mind.” Cortello worked for years at local radio station WYLD and had her finger on the pulse of contemporary black music. A valuable contributor to OffBeat and a mentor for several young performers, Cortello died tragically in November 2005 at the young age of 42.

Columns were not a perfect medium, of course. Writers would get sick or leave without notice, and sometimes were hard-pressed to come up with compelling material month after month. But there was so much going on during this period that it really did require a dozen or more dedicated writers covering their areas of expertise to report the day’s developments. And columns—and writers—shifted month to month, constantly renewing the perspective.

Stabilizing the magazine’s editorial direction also allowed OffBeat to be a little daring. October ’92 included a piece by Delfeayo Marsalis that offered a withering critique of the music industry. His account of the career of Harry Connick. Jr., the virtuoso New Orleans pianist who turned in his ambition “to combine the harmonies and ideas of Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner with the stride piano of like [Thelonious] Monk, James P. [Johnson] and all them older cats” in exchange for a career in Hollywood, is a good example of the tenuousness of Louisiana’s music legacy. It could all disappear in a generation, and OffBeat was the place to read about that reality and come to terms with it. The October ’92 issue is also notable for Michael Tisserand’s “Boom Town,” perhaps the best piece on the new generation of New Orleans brass bands ever written.

January ’93 included what this writer perceived as the best cover visual in the magazine’s history up until that time, “Les Men De Zydeco” by Jose Torres Tama. The issue included a wonderful Wilson Anthony “Boozoo” Chavis story by Tisserand. Tisserand, a truly gifted writer who blossomed at OffBeat (he later became editor of Gambit and wrote a seminal book on zydeco music) followed with an extremely detailed and informative piece on Mardi Gras Indians in the February issue and an equally impressive story on the Iguanas in March, the “Jimmy Buffett” issue dedicated to his mini-empire, Margaritaville. The issue is notable for what may have been one of the worst covers in the magazine’s history.

Golden Age

Kermit Ruffins, OffBeat Magazine, March 1995 cover

In the mid-90s, musicians like Kermit Ruffins ushered in a new era of New Orleans music.

Tisserand and Spera appeared to be engaged in a writing contest during this period, which is really OffBeat’s golden age. May ’93 could be called “the Spera issue” for the staggering amount of copy he produced covering Jazz Fest. In addition to “Dis ‘n’ Dat,” Spera contributed probably the best interview with Earl King ever done and good pieces on Aaron Neville and Kermit Ruffins, who had just released his first solo album, World on a String. The issue also featured part two of the epic interview with Zachary Richard conducted by Spera and Tisserand, as well as a bunch of smaller pieces by Tisserand, including a great Congo Square story. Tisserand followed in August with an award-winning piece, “Jerry Lee’s Legacy,” which recounted some stranger aspects of Jerry Lee Lewis’ hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana.

Spera hinted at the controversy caused by House of Blues opening up a New Orleans venue in September ’93 when he reported that longtime Tipitina’s booking agent Sonny Schneidau had been hired by HOB. Despite fears that this signaled the end of the Tipitina’s era, it actually reflected the growing popularity of New Orleans as a music destination for tourists and an important stop for rock acts on national tours.

The real changes would occur elsewhere. In John Sinclair’s “Crescent City Bounce” column, he listed a plethora of clubs presenting live music in Treme. The only one left at this writing is the Candlelight Lounge. Sinclair also wrote a great cover story in October ’93 on Johnny Adams, with an iconic cover painting of the “Tan Canary” by California artist George Buck.

Spera’s account of the December 17, 1993 fire that completely destroyed the Fair Grounds grandstand appeared in the January ’94 issue. He quoted festival producer Quint Davis’ eyewitness account of the destruction: “I thought I recognized some of the windows that the flames were coming out of.” The fire actually hastened the expansion of Jazz Fest later that year: “It’s kind of ironic,” said Davis. “For years we’ve discussed the option of expanding into the parking lot with tents. Now, out of the ashes of this catastrophe, it may happen.” That issue also contained a wide-ranging interview with Danny Barker by Tisserand. The cover of Danny Barker, shot by eccentric and talented photographer Craig Dietz, depicted Barker in a leather jacket as a rock star—totally unlike his dapper regular persona. Three months later Barker died, with the OffBeat cover being used as an icon at his funeral; Barker became the first of numerous essential Louisiana artists interviewed by OffBeat to subsequently pass away. In the same issue that remembered Barker, April ’94, the cover story was another Tisserand piece, this one on zydeco great Beau Jocque. Jocque would tragically die of a massive heart attack after a 1999 gig at the Rock ’n’ Bowl at age 45.

May ’94 celebrated the 25th anniversary of Jazz Fest. The issue was a massive undertaking that resembled subsequent Jazz Fest guides. It’s packed with priceless interviews—two monsters in particular by John Sinclair, with Harold Battiste and Dr. John; and three gems from Keith Spera, with Cyril Neville, Irma Thomas and Quint Davis. The Fest Focus section was enormous and the reviews section the most comprehensive yet. Geraldine Wyckoff wrote a fine supporting feature on the history of the Gospel Tent at Jazz Fest.

Significant changes took place during 1995. The magazine began printing some issues with glossy stock covers for its growing cadre of subscribers all over the world, and to get the magazine on newsstands. That strategy began with the February issue with a Snooks Eaglin Mardi Gras cover, a dramatic improvement on what had been hit-and-miss cover designs over the first seven years.

The March issue introduced a new column by intern and Tulane student Alex Oliver, “Plugged In,” based on a cyberspace poll conducted at offbeat@neworleans.neosoft.com. Oliver convinced the skeptical Ramsey to let him create a website, offbeat.com, the first magazine website in the state.

Current managing editor Joseph Irrera joined the staff for the May 1995 issue under the title “Jazz Fest Data Entry.” With Tisserand sitting out that issue, Spera shouldered the editorial burden with a superhuman effort that included a magnificent story on Alex Chilton and Harold Dejan, an enormous interview with George Porter Jr. and Art Neville, and an Ivan Neville Fest Focus. Spera followed with the definitive profile of hip-hop star Mystikal in June and R&B great Tommy Ridgley in July.

Best of the Beat

Ernie K-Doe, OffBeat Magazine, cover, February 1996

K-Doe Fever! Ernie K-Doe on the February '96 cover of OffBeat

The wholesale changes continued in 1996, including coverage of the first Best of the Beat awards show at the House of Blues. The back end of the magazine was now anchored by the Backtalk interview, a feature that first appeared in the September ’95 issue. Joseph Irrera became business manager and began to subtly influence the magazine’s editorial mix, which was weakened by the departure of its two iron horses, first Spera who took over as music writer for the Times-Picayune, then Tisserand. Film writer David Jones inherited Spera’s position as editor but not his thirst for column inches. With Tisserand gone, “Dirty Rice” columnist Todd Mouton and Arsenio Orteza picked up the slack in Acadiana coverage. “Bluesworthy” columnist Scott Jordan took on added responsibilities as a feature writer while also trying to sell advertising, an uncomfortable pair of positions to hold simultaneously. Jordan finally moved over into an editorial position for the October issue, conducted many fine interviews for the magazine, was eventually hired by Gambit as its music writer, and left there to edit The Independent, one of Lafayette’s alt-weeklies.

Irrera, whose background was in banking, brought a more numbers-oriented approach to OffBeat, which appealed to Ramsey, herself a former marketing and business consultant. But the ad reps and publicists who doubled as writers on the OffBeat staff created an ongoing dilemma. It was all in service of the magazine’s ongoing crazy quilt of coverage, which yielded such gems as John Sinclair’s hilarious exchange with Ernie K-Doe (February ’96), Spera’s swan song Dash Rip Rock cover (March), Jason Berry’s important analysis “Rethinking the Roots of Jazz” (June), Geraldine Wyckoff’s extensive interview with Blue Lu Barker (October) and Jeff Hannusch’s obit/appreciation of Jessie Hill (November).

Toward the end of the year, writer/academic Alex Rawls penned a series of thoughtful musings on aesthetics in an attempt to tie art, literature and rock together in a manner reminiscent of the Art Forum writings of Greil Marcus.

Irrera’s own account of his entrance into OffBeat completes this storyline: “I started managing bands while employed as a banker at First NBC in New Orleans. This gave me the opportunity to promote my bands to the local media. I approached Scott Aiges, who was then the music writer at the Times-Picayune, and Keith Spera at OffBeat. Both eventually wrote stories about my bands, with Scott giving me a full page in the ‘Lagniappe’ section on Friday. During this time I made friends with most of the club owners, including Jimmy Anselmo of Jimmy’s and Jack Groetsch of Howlin’ Wolf, and I met Jan.

“Although I had success with managing bands, the work was thankless and difficult. Imagine managing unruly young children and you will get the picture. So I stopped doing that and started helping OffBeat, mostly with bookkeeping duties and other financial things. The bank that I worked for was sold and I was basically out of a job unless I moved to Columbus, Ohio. By that time Jan and I was a couple. I took a vacant office at OffBeat at 333 Saint Charles Avenue. The office was actually the storage room in the hallway. I didn’t interact with the other employees and I worked mostly at night while my job at the bank wound down. Keith Spera left to work for the Times-Picayune and we hired David Jones, our film writer, to be editor.”

Toward the end of the 1990s, the city’s musical landscape was changing as young people flocked to New Orleans for the creative freedom and sense of community they found here. OffBeat had been ahead of this curve and was well positioned to run cover stories about such new entities as Royal Fingerbowl (March ’97) and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars (September). Keyboardist Jon Cleary, who’d just landed a major label contract, was another cover subject, as were OffBeat mainstays Cyril Neville, Delfeayo Marsalis and Allen Toussaint.

Mojo Mouth

OffBeat Magazine, 10 Year Anniversary issue, cover August 1998

OffBeat's 10th Anniversary issue, August 1998

The May 1997 issue was the moment when OffBeat finally completed its brand. The banner headline declared it the “1997 Souvenir Jazz Fest Guide” and the cool cover illustration of James Booker by Lolet Boutté and Edwin D. Riley is indeed collectible. This edition is the most detailed and thorough guide to Jazz Fest ever assembled up until that point, and it reflects the fact that tens of thousands of music fans the globe over were descending on New Orleans at the end of April to celebrate the city’s musical cornucopia. The magazine also got a long overdue redesign that made it easier to read—and at 206 pages, that was a lot of reading. But the moment of realization came with the introduction of a new columnist—publisher Jan Ramsey, aka “Mojo Mouth.” Ramsey would quickly begin to use the forum as a soapbox to promote local music, rail against its detractors and hammer on themes that are still relevant to the survival of New Orleans music today.

Ramsey immediately started going after Louisiana politics in general and City Hall in particular. Arbitrary club closings, police harassment of musicians and ridiculous noise ordinances became her favorite targets and she has returned to them repeatedly over the years. Her voice was strident but much needed in a city that still insists on treating its musical institutions poorly while at the same time relying on them to drive the tourist trade. Ramsey’s column has become a rallying point for pro-music forces in New Orleans, where the issues she first brought up in 1997 are still unresolved 15 years later. The music may be more threatened today than ever.

Ramsey had been looking for a new editor for a while as 1999 dawned, and more big changes were in store. OffBeat moved to its current location at 421 Frenchmen Street for the December ’98 issue. Jones left, Keith Pandolfi took over as interim editor and I agreed to become an editorial consultant for the magazine while it reorganized. My first contribution was a May 1999 story about the previous 10 years of Jazz Fest, a companion piece to the thoughtful “Whither Jazz Fest?” in which Kalamu ya Salaam asked some very pertinent questions about the changes Jazz Fest was undergoing. The issue was also notable for the comprehensive improvement on “Jazz Fest A to Z,” which made its first appearance the year before, and David Kunian’s detailed club guide.

Most significantly, Joseph Irrera was now listed as managing editor. Traditionally that’s a purely business and management position, but Irrera was intricately involved in the day-to-day editorial decisions at OffBeat.

Jazz Fest Distribution

James Booker, Jazz Fest Bible, OffBeat Magazine, cover May 1997

James Booker on the cover of OffBeat's May 1997 Jazz Fest Bible

That Jazz Fest issue of OffBeat was also significant in that it included a hilarious but ultimately controversial swipe at the event in one of Bunny Matthews’ cartoons. It also happened to be the year that OffBeat had to go to court the day before Jazz Fest opened to get a temporary restraining order against the city when the NOPD tried to prevent OffBeat from being distributed freely on the streets outside the New Orleans Fair Grounds. The city—at the urging of Jazz Fest producers, who also benefit from the sales of the official program—attempted to convince the judge that OffBeat was equivalent to ad brochures for time-share sales, and that it created massive litter in the area. The judge granted the restraining order based on freedom of the press.

When I became involved with OffBeat, my main objectives were to promote the magazine’s best writers and toughen our news coverage, moving it away from cliché and adding some zest to the boilerplate cultural history. Keith Pandolfi responded to the news coverage need with a terrific piece covering the City Council crackdown on street music, “Louisiana Music: State of Siege” (July 1999). Mark Meister’s piece on the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra in the same issue accomplished the latter goal. Jeff Hannusch wrote a really fine Deacon John story for the August cover. Alex Rawls put together an overview of the Beat tradition in New Orleans based on Jack Kerouac’s visit to the city.

While I was there Bunny Matthews was hired as associate editor, leading to the most tumultuous six years in the magazine’s history.

The brilliant, eccentric, antagonistic and highly opinionated Matthews dropped controversy with every turn, wrote outrageous headlines and baited his conversationalists during interviews. He wrote copiously with an acid wit and devastating purpose and contributed numerous cartoons and illustrations. Irrera was largely running the editorial during this period, riding herd on Matthews while relying on a small stable of writers including myself, Roger Hahn, Robert Fontenot, Jonathan Tabak, Todd Mouton, Dan Willging, Geraldine Wyckoff and Hannusch (until he stopped writing for the magazine following a dispute with Matthews). Michael Hurtt, who would contribute a lot to future issues, began writing for OffBeat during this period. Meanwhile the reviews section, Irrera’s primary interest, was expanded. After mounting a project to define the 100 essential recordings on CD in Louisiana history, Irrera launched his “Masters of Louisiana Music” series in May 2000, providing a great opportunity for the magazine to write about contributors to the culture who were no longer with us. Unfortunately, as the series progressed a number of the deceased subjects were musicians who had been vital forces when OffBeat first started publishing.

Katrina

OffBeat Magazine, Hurricane Katrina, December 2005

OffBeat's first issue post-Katrina, December 2005

The Matthews era came to a sudden, violent end when Hurricane Katrina stopped New Orleans in its tracks in 2005. “We lost our entire staff after Katrina and couldn’t publish two issues [October and November 2005],” recalls Irrera. “The September issue came out the same day the storm hit and it remained at the printer’s warehouse. After about two weeks, I loaded up our SUV and started distributing in the French Quarter since many places were open. I’ll never forget what happened when I walked into Molly’s on Decatur. As I put OffBeat magazines down on the bar, I got a standing ovation. I remember Rio Hackford from One Eyed Jacks was standing outside on the curb and thought it was terrific. The same [thing] happened when I went to Johnny White’s Bar in the French Quarter, a standing ovation.”

During the months after the flood, OffBeat really proved its worth to the community. With little money and serious damages to address, the magazine’s future hung in the balance. No staff members were left, and there were no means to hire new people. I immediately volunteered to help Ramsey and Irrera put out an issue and rebuild the staff. By the time we got the first post-Katrina issue out, Ramsey had already resurrected the magazine’s online edition, offbeat.com, and pumped up the magazine’s weekly online newsletter, the Weekly Beat, which was providing one of the key social links for New Orleans musicians. Many went missing for a long time before being tracked down in the numerous destinations where they’d scattered after the flood, and OffBeat religiously kept a list of who had been contacted and who was still missing. Irrera came up with a plan to enable the readers to fund a refurbished OffBeat by selling lifetime subscriptions.

“Since the website was still up and running, and we had continued to publish the Weekly Beat after reorganizing in Baton Rouge, we could send out information on Joseph’s plan to raise some money with lifetime subscriptions,” says Ramsey. “Right after the storm, I was numb, in shock, and it took me a little while to realize how dire the situation was. Then the depression set in. We didn’t know what we would do. But all of a sudden we started getting checks in from people ordering lifetime subscriptions from all over the world. It was sorely needed capital to get us back on our feet, but more importantly, those subscribers saved OffBeat because they gave us the moral support we desperately needed to literally start over again.”

Ramsey continues: “One of my most treasured memories is of a subscriber from Greece who called one day on my cell while we were in a Home Depot in Baton Rouge, buying stuff to repair our house. He asked if we took credit cards because he wanted to send us several thousand dollars to keep us going. And he did. That was amazing to me, that OffBeat had fans who would send us money to help keep the magazine going. What was really wonderful is that he came to the city for the 2006 Jazz Fest, I got to meet him when he visited us in the office, and express my everlasting gratitude.”

All Glossy Redesign

John Boutte, OffBeat Magazine, cover September 2006

John Boutte on the cover of OffBeat from September 2006

We got back in the business of covering New Orleans music quickly. I wrote the first three cover profiles after the flood, while a new editor, Alex Rawls, was brought in after having served as Gambit’s music writer for about a year. Rawls took over as associate editor in March 2006 and he and Ramsey immediately embarked on a complete overhaul of the magazine. By the May 2006 Jazz Fest Bible issue, all the columns except “Mojo Mouth” were gone in favor of a section of mini news features titled “Fresh.”

The magazine was also totally revamped, redesigned and switched from newsprint to a glossy format. “I was seriously interested in upping the ante for music exposure,” says Ramsey. “I wanted to show musicians and fans that we—and the music—were coming back stronger and better than ever. I’d long wanted a better-looking magazine, and after Katrina, we worked with Elena Reeves, a local designer who redesigned our look and even our logo.”

Ironically, of all the mainstream music critics working in New Orleans, Rawls was probably the least sympathetic to local music, which emboldened him to broaden OffBeat’s scope but put him at odds with the magazine’s historic direction. He ran OffBeat while contributing extensively to Rolling Stone, Spin, the Oxford American and various local newspapers, and brought several national writers into his editorial mix. With Rawls as editor I wrote stories about the return of musicians to New Orleans after the flood, the succession of leaders in zydeco, the history of the Andrews family in New Orleans, an examination of Davis Rogan vs. Davis McAlary on the HBO series Treme and a piece about a generation gap among Mardi Gras Indians. At the same time I was assembling material for my book about the city’s cultural revival, New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Future of New Orleans.

Trombone Shorty, OffBeat Magazine, cover June 2010

Like those who came before him, Trombone Shorty leads a new generation of New Orleans musicians (cover June 2010).

Art director/photographer/writer Elsa Hahne had come on board, adding a fresh voice to the magazine’s coverage. Rawls wrote a strong piece on Susan Cowsill and demonstrated talent as a business writer at Ramsey’s urging, analyzing the corporate success of Preservation Hall in expanding its brand and following the commercial ascent of Trombone Shorty, Amanda Shaw, MyNameIsJohnMichael, Givers and Meschiya Lake. Rawls left the magazine in June 2012 to guest edit the Oxford American’s annual Southern Music issue.

Once again OffBeat was in search of editorial guidance. I was brought in to assist Ramsey, Irrera and Hahne with the transition. Hahne’s talent for design and layout and her distinctive photographic style have given OffBeat a compelling new look since she joined the staff in June 2008. Of all the creative people who’ve contributed to OffBeat in its 25 years, Hahne may well have had the most dramatic impact on the magazine’s look. Ramsey asked Hahne, in addition to her visual work, to develop a story on musicians who cook, resulting in the regular feature “The Gravy,” which has been collected for a soon-to-be published book, The Gravy—In the Kitchen with New Orleans Musicians.

It was great fun for me to get the chance to edit the August 2012 issue, a tribute to my favorite musician, Louis Armstrong. I’ve taken an active part in the editorial process while OffBeat searched for a replacement for Rawls. Amanda Schurr was finally chosen to fill that role. Her cover story on Ingrid Lucia in the November issue proved she could identify an important story about New Orleans culture and tell it better than has anyone else. After surviving the regimes of several alpha males, OffBeat’s future is now in the hands of a female editor for the first time. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that’s a good thing.

  • Rick Bear

    Great article. Keep on keepin’ on.