The Big Easy. The Crescent City. N'awlins. Some adore it, some despise it. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans continues to be the testimonial travesty of the United States. With certain political officials claiming that New Orleans is "not worth rebuilding, I would have to strongly object. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a beignet with chicory coffee courtesy of the Café Du Monde, or Jambalaya, Crawfish Etoufee, Red Beans & Rice, Gumbo, Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce, or a Mint Julep or Hurricane cocktail courtesy of Pat O' Briens has to be grateful for New Orleans...and that's just the food. New Orleans also provides great education with institutions such as Loyola University, the University of New Orleans, and Tulane. New Orleans is also the home of that mystifying taboo we call voodoo with characteristic figures such as Marie Leveau and Baron Samedi, not to mention the hundreds of street musicians and performers. But, even with all of those wonderful things, there is one quantum and quintessential reason for New Orleans on this Earth: JAZZ!
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz music. Because New Orleans was a port town at the turn of the century, all kinds of ships came in with all kinds of people, bringing all kinds of culture and diversity into New Orleans. In a sense, New Orleans is a microcosm of this country: a diverse melting pot, both ethnically and musically. It was in Congo Square that the slaves in New Orleans would gather and sing improvised music on Sundays to vent their toils and frustrations from the week. Once upon a time, there was a man who refused to play music on paper, and only play the music in his head. This man was Buddy Bolden, the Father of Jazz. Unfortunately, Bolden was never recorded, so the only thing we have to remind us of Bolden's presence in jazz is where he used to play, which we now call the Funky Butt. These are the reasons (among many others) New Orleans is essential to our American history, and to jazz history. The following albums are some of the greatest representations of New Orleans jazz, so get hip, boil the gumbo, and dig these sounds. Le Bon Temps Roulez! (Let the Good Times Roll!)
Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings (Sony, 2000) It wasn't popular tunes like "Hello Dolly and "What a Wonderful World that made Louis Armstrong a genius to the jazz idiom. It was his display of quantum improvisations mainly within his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. This set contains every classic from "Struttin' with Some Barbecue, "Basin Street Blues, and "Potato Head Blues to "West End Blues with his opening trumpet fanfare that jazz musicians have been learning ever since. This is a must have for insight to the genius of Louis Armstrong, New Orleans favorite son.
Harry Connick Jr.: 20 (Columbia, 1988) Although this may not be the most famous or the most popular Harry Connick Jr. album out on the market, it is the one that lets the listener hear Connick's piano mastery as well as his roots from New Orleans. On this record, he gives a wonderful stride piano rendition of "Lazy River as well as a deep alter-interpretation of "If I Only Had a Brain. He also has stellar duets with Carmen McRae on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone, and with Dr. John on "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans, and if that doesn't send you to tears, you better check your pulse.
Jelly Roll Morton: Winin' Boy Blues (Rounder, 1993) Ferdinand "Jelly Roll Morton: the only man audacious enough to claim that he alone invented jazz music! With that said, anyone can guess just how much flair and bravura his music has (would you expect less from a New Orleanian?). That is what makes Jelly Roll so special. Not only was Morton a terrific arranger and the first to write jazz music down on paper, he was also an ace pianist in his own right. He claimed that jazz had to have a certain "Spanish tinge in feeling and rhythm. This disc (one of four in the complete Library of Congress Recordings) features Jelly Roll Morton in his most vibrant colors, and with tunes like "The Crave, "Mamanita, and "Spanish Swat you'll never be the same.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Voodoo (Columbia, 1989) The Dirty Dozen Brass Band carries the spirit of N'awlins wherever they go. Here, on Voodoo they feature some extra special guests with Dr. John sittin' in the vocal chair on "It's All Over Now, Branford Marsalis on "Moose the Mooche, and Dizzy Gillespie himself on vocals and trumpet on his composition "Oop Pop A Dah. Other wonderful highlights include "Voodoo and "Black Drawers that will get you on your feet in no time.
Sidney Bechet: The Definitive Sidney Bechet (Columbia/Legacy, 2000) Bechet was a child prodigy growing up in New Orleans, and if there were ever one man who could play toe to toe with Louis Armstrong at that time, it was Sidney Bechet. With an instantly identifiable sound on both clarinet and soprano sax, he was a vessel for the blues as well as the jubilant spirit of New Orleans. This is the best diverse and comprehensive collection out on Bechet. Classic takes of "Summertime, "Shag, "Viper Mad, "Blackstick, "Shake It and Break It, and "Egyptian Fantasy will have your jaw dropping wondering why anyone ever started listening to that other soprano sax guy with the sunglasses and perm.
The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration (Marsalis Music/Rounder, 2002) There's no question that the Marsalis Family are one of the most talented working families of all time. With this rare concert opportunity in their hometown of New Orleans, the entire family is united along with Harry Connick Jr. and Lucien Barbarin to celebrate Ellis Marsalis' retirement from the University of New Orleans. With Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, Jason, and Ellis Marsalis how could this disc let any listener down? Standout tracks include "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top, "Saint James Infirmary, and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue.
Kid Ory: The Legendary Kid (Good Time Jazz, 1956) Kid Ory is one of the legends of New Orleans jazz. In fact, his home that he grew up in was preserved as a national historic landmark. But, here on The Legendary Kid the listener can hear classic songs associated with New Orleans jazz such as "Mahogany Hall Stomp, "At the Jazz Band Ball, "Shine, and "Make Me a Pallet On the Floor. With these songs in the hands of Kid Ory, there's no turning back. You'll be hooked for life.
Nicholas Payton: Payton's Place (Verve, 1998) Nicholas Payton is one of the newest jazz stars to emerge to emerge from the Crescent City. With the power of Buddy Bolden, he brings the liveliness of New Orleans and that "je ne sais quoi (certain something) like no one else. Here on Payton's Place, he brings in guests like Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, and Joshua Redman to contend with his mighty trumpet. And with tune selections like "Zigaboogaloo, "The Three Trumpeteers, and "People Make the World Go Round, you will be spinning this disc over and over again.
Dr. John: The Very Best of Dr. John (Rhino, 1995) Dr. John is one of the first voices associated with the Big Easy. That gritty, raw, and soulful nature to his voice has been heard by almost everyone on earth. Not only is Dr. John one of the greatest soulful singers in the New Orleans tradition, he's a wizard at the keys as well. In this collection of greatest hits, you can hear songs like "Right Place Wrong Time that put Dr. John on the map, as well as soulful renditions of "What Comes Around (Goes Around). There is also a version of "Tipitina (named after the famous club in New Orleans) that displays his mad cat piano skills. The disc ends with an all-star jam session on "Goin' Back to New Orleans that features Dr. John along with the Neville Brothers, Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt.
Duke Ellington: New Orleans Suite (Atlantic, 1971) While Ellington is not an native New Orleanian, this suite is essential to the music and tradition of New Orleans. Written in the last years of Ellington's life, this is his final classic tribute to the spirit and inspiration New Orleans has given him. Ellington brings out every aspect of New Orleans: the grace, the profundity, the absurdity, the sexuality, the funkiness, the listlessness, and the proud. Some selections on this disc are musical portraits such as "Portrait of Louis Armstrong, "Portrait of Wellman Braud, "Portrait of Sidney Bechet, and "Portrait of Mahalia Jackson. Other tracks include "Blues for New Orleans, "Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies, "Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta, "Second Line, and "Aristocracy a la Jean Lafitte. If there were ever any man on earth who could capture and encapsulate the spirit of New Orleans without being a native New Orleanian, it would be the Duke.
Just think what a dark and listless place America would be without N'awlins. Harry Connick Jr. would have never made it to Hollywood, the Dirty Dozen would have never been formed and played with more familiar groups like Widespread Panic, and the world would never know the love and warmth that Satchmo gave us. Obviously, this is not everyone in the history of New Orleans music. Others, like the Dukes of Dixieland, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, the Neville Brothers, Freddie Keppard, and King Oliver, are among countless others. Yes, George Bailey, without New Orleans, without jazz...the world would have been a dismally different place. So remember, every time you hear "When the Saints Go Marchin' In a jazz musician gets his wings! The important thing is that all of these musicians are the spirit, soul, and the indigo in the veins of New Orleans, which is what has kept the city thriving for years. With that same spirit and freakish strength, New Orleans will rise again!