Sunday, December 10, 2006

New Orleans, 1960

New Orleans, 1960
By William Claxton and Joachim E. Berendt

In 1960 German jazz writer Joachim Berendt and American photographer William Claxton set out on a road trip across America to record the jazz scene in all its regionalisms. The result was their classic collaboration, Jazz Life, from which New Orleans 1960 has been excerpted.

Berendt writes they were repeatedly warned not to bother with New Orleans, because “jazz in New Orleans is dead.” (p. 17) Indeed, pre-Katrina it was conventional wisdom to dismiss the jazz of New Orleans following Louis Armstrong’s departure for Chicago as simple museum-piece recreations. In actuality, Claxton and Berendt found a lively music scene and many surviving members of jazz’s pioneer generation. Many were clearly characters in an endearing sense, like famed clarinetist Alphonse Picou, renown for his “High Society” solo. Berendt writes of seeking out Picou at his club for an interview:

“They told us not to arrive after eleven in the morning if we wanted to find him sober, but even that was obviously too late. Alphonse Picou was happy there were still people who remembered him.” (p. 21)

Not all the figures profiled are as endearing. Nick LaRocca, the leader of the white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, has been portrayed as a racist who purloined the jazz of African-American musicians in most recent jazz histories. Despite his insistence he created jazz, LaRocca’s interview with Berendt, and his unfortunate word choices, confirms this view of the trumpeter. Claxton does more to help LaRocca’s image with a beautiful silhouette photo on page 67. Figures like LaRocca and Papa Jack Laine are usually only seen in weathered early photos from their heyday, shown Ken Burns style. One assumes they had died by the 1930’s. Seeing them in their advanced years in Claxton’s gloriously printed photos from 1960 is a revelation.

The abundance of color photography is another surprise of New Orleans, 1960. Claxton is probably best known for his photos of Chet Baker and Steve McQueen, the most famous shots of which were black and white. Previous Claxton collections, like Jazz Scene are largely black and white (except for select photos including Miles, Mahalia Jackson, and some New Orleans parade photos also included in 1960). For parades his use of color often emphasizes the gold of the brass or the red of a marshal’s sash against the black and white of the musicians’ suits, and the white clapboard houses and the grey stone of the cemeteries.

Also included is an interlude to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which as Berendt notes, has been immortalized for having incarcerated Leadbelly. One of the inmates they talked with was Robert Pete Williams, who would later record for Prestige and tour the folk-blues festival circuit. Williams exemplifies the spiritual duality of religious blues artists, pulled by spirituals in one direction and the Devil blues in another. Williams told Berendt and Claxton:

“Music always pursued me. I tried to stop playing, because I thought I should prepare my soul for God. You have to realize, I was a Christian before I came here. I can also play spirituals, but I’ve strayed from God. He wanted me to become a preacher, but I didn’t.” (p. 170)

Claxton and Berendt found in New Orleans a city much more vibrant musically then they had been led to expect. It was a city consciously built in a precarious location. As Berendt writes of the city founders: “The instinct that led them to found the city in a bend of the Mississippi between the river and big Lake Pontchartrain—in an act of deliberate disobedience to a directive from the Paris court—is still worthy of admiration 250 years later.” (p. 22) However, when Katrina hit in 2005, the geography of New Orleans was devastating.

In the years following 1960, many of the surviving jazz legends would blow heir final choruses and the brass bands and parade societies would fall on hard times in the early seventies before seeing a rejuvenation led by bands like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. In 2005, as in 1960, the jazz scene in New Orleans was actually stronger than many realized. Hopefully it will rebound again.

New Orleans, 1960 records the city and its jazz scene as it was then, warts and all, including the harsh realities of segregation. It is a beautiful tribute to music produced in the city. It vividly captures the link New Orleanians have to their music and documents jazz history that can never be recreated with some amazing images.