New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus

From Chapter One: Storm Warnings

I could tell myself as I drove that there was certainly hope in the unmoving stillness of the drab panorama that spread itself out to the edges of the pictures. Whatever had happened to New Orleans, it was over, and somehow the city was still there. With the background sound of the gospel choir on the car radio fervently assuring their listeners of Jesus's love, I made myself think of other cities that had been destroyed by fire or flooding, by a tremor of the earth's surface or an act of our human destructiveness, cities like Chicago or San Francisco or Hiroshima, and that had built themselves again on the remains. As the weeks had passed after the hurricane, however, as new pictures of the disaster continued to appear for so many days and weeks, it was impossible not to feel a rising sense of dismay that New Orleans might not come through its struggles, that for years to come it would be a sodden shell of the city it once had been. And for so many of us, there was an unexpected sense of how much it mattered if New Orleans didn't come through.

What we suddenly understood, if we hadn't known it before, was that some cities matter. Some cities somehow become a definition of ourselves. We don't even have to see the cities, we only have to know they are there. Who would want to live in a world without Paris? Or London? Rio, Rome, or New York? A dozen others could be added to the list today: Florence, Tokyo, San Francisco, Sydney. Even if we never make the journey to see them, we want them to be there. Our lives would be smaller, somehow more barren and flat, without them. Even in the unspeakable violence of the last World War, the Germans spared Paris, the British and the Americans spared Rome. Even when every other city in Japan was left in ruins, the Imperial city of Kyoto, the temple filled center of Japan's traditional culture, was not bombed.

The number of cities on our list is always small, since each of them has to define something within us. Each of them must offer us offer us something that none of the other cities on the list can, however indefinable it might be. What New Orleans has come to mean is the soft and accepting side of us, the side that needs to know that there's an easy comfort there, and a side that, just as much, needs the feeling of the exotic. A place as accommodating and as satisfying as an unexpected glimpse of a face we remember from a moment in our past. New Orleans is a suggestion of the place within us that still believes in the possibility of romance.

In a more complicated sense, our feelings toward New Orleans have come to be mixed with our dissatisfaction with what we've done with our other cities. In their rush toward some kind of half realized economic success, most other American cities give a sense that they lost their communal souls in the push. New Orleans is the city that didn't. Its place in our emotions is the place we keep for the romantics who insist on doing the things we are conscious won't bring economic success - and as an ironic reassurance, New Orleans has gone on being poor, as if to show us that in our concern for civic improvement we've been right. But at the same time, we are conscious that we've paid a price New Orleans wouldn't consider.

Perhaps that's why it has always seemed so natural to think of New Orleans as the city that gave us jazz, since what else was jazz, in its racy early years, except a cheerful defiance to all the rules of musical decorum that had governed peoples for so many centuries? Where else could a music have come from, that in its beginnings accommodated so much, accepted so much, but at the same moment was so charged and steeped in its own romance, except New Orleans?

In the first days of the city's agony, as I hovered near the television set, each moment deepened my own concern, because for most of the 1950s I had lived in New Orleans. Like so many teenagers who grew up in the jazz and swing era, I had been transfixed by jazz, and once I'd read the handful of books that had been written then about jazz, I was even hungrier for a closer involvement, a closer feel for jazz and its colorful early story. Every jazz history that I had read set the early years of jazz in the first decades of the 20th Century in New Orleans, and in my own efforts to play jazz with my high school band clarinet, it was the New Orleans style that was the source of everything I did. At the same time, there was no way I could really know what I was doing, since I'd never been there. No one traveled casually in those years, since there was still a struggle to cope with the confusion of the postwar era. Also, there was such a mood of romance that hung over everything I read about New Orleans, about its way of life and its music, that it didn't seem possible that fabulous place could be part of the same ordinary world of the small city of Sacramento in central California where my family had moved.

A three day train trip, sitting up on the hard, gritty seats of a day coach, brought me to New Orleans in December, 1950, and as I walked along the dark streets that led away from the looming, gray entrance of the Union Station, hoping to find a cheap hotel somewhere close by, I had no way of knowing that my life was about to be changed. Within two or three days I found George Lewis, the older clarinet player I'd come searching for, and as he tried gently to show me how to find the spirit of his music in his kitchen in the French Quarter, lit by a kerosene lamp on the table, I became conscious that I had found so much more than a style of jazz or a way of playing the clarinet: I'd found a way of life. What I was feeling was still vague and unfocused, but late one Sunday afternoon I ran into George and his trombone player, Jim Robinson, walking on Royal Street in the Quarter, and they were dressed in neatly pressed suits, with shirts and ties and stylish fedoras. I'd never seen them dressed formally anywhere but on a bandstand, and, surprised, I asked them where they'd been. George said that they'd just been to a musician's funeral.

'Who was it?'

'Big Bama,' George answered in his soft voice.

'He was a real good trumpet player,' Jim added in his gruffer tones.

I nodded as if I understood, then told George I'd come to the house for my clarinet lesson the next afternoon. But as they walked away, talking quietly again, I stood thinking about what they had said. I had read all of the books that I could find about jazz, I had read them over and over, and I had never heard the name 'Big Bama.'

When I came to his small frame house on Dauphine Street the next afternoon, George was still taking his afternoon nap. He couldn't make a living only by playing music at the neighborhood restaurant where his band played on weekends, so he worked in the daytime as a stevedore on the docks, and his day began very early. I sat at the end of the bed and asked him about men like Big Bama. Were there other musicians I'd never heard about? What was their music like? George's voice began, slowly and carefully, and as he told me about musicians and bands and dances and parades I'd never heard of, he slowly drew back the curtain on a world of jazz that had been forgotten. He told me about musicians like 'Big Eye' and 'Cripple Pill,' about Buddy Petit and Chris Kelly, great cornet players who never got to make a recording, about old dance halls and neighborhood clubs with dance floors behind the bar, about parades he'd marched in and dances he'd played. As I listened, I realized that this what I wanted to learn about, and what I wanted to tell about.