Thursday, October 05, 2006

New Orleans Playing a Jazz Chorus

New Orleans Playing a Jazz Chorus
By Samuel Charters
Marion Boyars

Katrina’s destruction and the prolonged recovery process in New Orleans will be a subject of intense interest in the jazz community for years to come. New Orleans holds a special place in jazz’s heart, both for its historic role as the cradle of jazz, and for the contemporary jazz artists hailing from the Crescent City. With personal ties to the city, writer and record producer Samuel Charters, journeyed back to New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm, chronicling what he saw in New Orleans Playing a Jazz Chorus.

In fact, Charters illustrates a mixed bag of reactions, some good, some tragic, some ugly. One of the sadder consequences of Katrina was the eventual closing of St. Augustine’s Church, which like New York’s St. Peter’s, is known for its jazz congregation. Charters described St. Augustine’s unique décor:

“It was certainly the only church in the world where a flamboyant portrait of Louis Armstrong hung next to a stained glass window depicting the Virgin. Under a 19th century oil painting of Jesus across the church, Louis, in a green tuxedo jacket, raised his trumpet—and his eyes—as if in tribute.” (p. 188)

Sadly, soon after attending a service at St. Augustine’s Charters writes: “I still was surprised and upset when I read in the newspaper a few weeks later that the Catholic Diocese of New Orleans had decided the church would have to be closed.”

Charters witnessed ugly events too, like extremist protesters exploiting the tragedy in New Orleans for their own agenda. At a protest in Armstrong Park, Charters noticed a group of demonstrators who made him uneasy:

“They stood in a group on the sidewalk talking in low voices, each of them holding a neatly lettered sign that looked like it may have been created by a professional advertising agency. The slogans were predictable—they protested the war in Iraq, they protested government policies, they demanded that the American troops be brought home.” (p. 94-95)

Charters offers up the possibility that these protesters were plants designed to discredit the overall protest, but based on the Katrina protests and panels I have attended here in New York, I highly doubt that hypothesis. Far too many have looked to exploit the suffering in New Orleans for political purposes. In doing so, they hurt recovery efforts by creating a divisive political atmosphere.

Fortunately, Charters had some good to report in Jazz Chorus as well, as the musicians there soldier on with their music. Many like the Hot 8 Brass Band continue to build a fan base, as they develop their modern take on the New Orleans brass band tradition. Traditionalists, like Lars Edegran and Barry Martyn keep the flame of classic New Orleans jazz alive and well.

Perhaps the touchstone figure for Charters return to New Orleans was the versatile drummer Johnny Vidacovich. When Charters first heard him play in a small venue, he was blown away, telling Vidacovich: “this was the only new jazz group I’d ever heard that I could boogie to.” (p. 127) Vidacovich impressed Charters with his facility to play in a such a wide variety of contexts, but the drummer declined to chose a favorite style, saying:

“What makes it work for me is just playing with a good group of people. I don’t think it’s any kind of style that makes it ‘close to my heart.’ It’s the people you’re up there playing with that help you get that feeling, and when the music feels good, that’s it. Period.” (p. 175)

Charters is a passionate advocate for New Orleans music scene. He has deep connections to the city, having lived and played in the city for years, and his son’s family now resides there. However, sometimes the author’s voice intrudes a little too much, as readers are treated to a few too many scenes of Charters ruminating while driving through wreckage-strewn streets, looking for particular landmarks. The real soul of New Orleans is not the now storm battered buildings or uprooted trees. It is the music of the city and the musicians who play it. When Charters focuses on their stories, Jazz Chorus is a valuable contribution to understanding the New Orleans music scene, and the continuing challenges facing its artists.