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The New Orleans Jazz Scene, 1970-2000: A Personal Retrospective

Charles Suhor By

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The New Orleans Jazz Scene, 1970-2000: A Personal Retrospective
Thomas W. Jacobsen
208 Pages
ISBN: 0807156981
LSU Press
2014

This article first appeared in the American Book Review (January-February 2015 issue).

Full disclosure: I've long been an admirer of Thomas Jacobsen's writing, the catholicity of his musical tastes, and his warm personal regard for New Orleans musicians. The last was evident in his 2011 work for LSU Press, Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music, and his articles for Mississippi Rag and Clarinet. His new volume is a follow-up to my 2001 book, Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years to 1970. Jacobsen writes, "I freely admit that Suhor's book was, to a certain extent, a model for mine. I would be delighted if the present effort begins to measure up to its ideal."

When Jacobsen spoke to me casually about his plans for the book, I frankly wondered how he could get a handle on the task. I had found considerable clarity in the contours of the developments in the city's postwar jazz scene. But the recklessly proliferating jazz activity and layered social contexts of the last thirty years of the twentieth century would be far more difficult to sort out.

Jacobsen ably ferrets out and explains the dominant patterns and underlying currents, making it look easy through organizational skill and a readable style. He sets the scene in the prologue by reviewing the 1960s, then proceeds to describe each decade in separate chapters. Some of his choices of categories for inclusion are obvious and inevitable—the traditional and modern jazz clubs (e.g., Lu and Charlie's Music Club, Tipitina's, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, Palm Court Jazz Cafe) and dozens of the musicians who were featured there; the continuation of the Jazz and Heritage Festival; the more jazz-oriented (and totally free) French Quarter Festival; the upsurge of brass bands; advances in jazz education; the "Marsalis decade" of the 1980s, which ushered in an era of belated recognition of New Orleans as a source of modern jazz talent.

Less obvious yet important sites, events, and artists of the decades are also uncovered. Jacobson's survey includes the Norwegian Seamen's "jazz church," the 1984 Louisiana World's Fair, George Buck's influence through Jazzology Records and the Palm Court Café, the appearance of new record labels, big bands of the 90s, and several instances of racial disputes.

Jacobsen's framework of major events, issues, and evolving trends rescues the book from being a mere catalogue of names and places. Readers who aren't already familiar with the city's innumerable artists and clubs—after all, only Preservation Hall, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Harry Connick, Jr., and the Marsalis family are household names—will find many new names embedded in interpretive contexts, such as the trend in the 1980s of major hotels featuring jazz. Jacobsen also provides perspective by highlighting underrated musicians and groups (trumpeter Connie Jones, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers brass band). Over 70 photographs lend further context and coherence to the text.

A recurring theme also lends continuity to Jacobsen's narrative—generational factors in the development of New Orleans jazz. The segments touch on many jazz styles and are fraught with irony. Jacobsen notes that the 1961 Preservation Hall revival of first generation jazz artists perpetuated the myth that "pure jazz" was the sole province of the earliest players. He cites Harlan Wood's charge that by 1976 the remaining great players were surrounded by "second-rate musicians who could have never made it up the river to Chicago and whose only musical virtue is simply their age." The Hall was thriving on "antiquity for antiquity's sake."

The ironies multiplied as the foundational artists passed away. Jacobsen notes that it was mainly enthusiastic young immigrants from foreign countries (Lars Edegran and Clive Wilson), not locals, who first understudied the surviving originators. But the Hall needed greyheads to maintain the aura of authenticity. Aging local modernists (trumpeters John Brunious, Leroy Jones) revisited the early repertoire, comfortably interweaving old and new elements into their solos. Jacobsen quotes reedman Jack Doheeny: "Professional players here, older cats in particular.... simply know a ridiculous amount of material. They have to, in order to make a living."

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