It may be a stretch to say that all modern music can trace its roots back to New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be much of one. Around the beginning of the 20th Century the old French colony was alive with a rare kind of musical cross-pollination, where the European tradition found itself inherited and reimagined by the children of freed slaves. Its loosely segregated bars and clubs bore witness to the birth of ragtime and jazz music, sounds that would eventually travel the world and evolve from the guitar and piano-thumping rhythms that pumped life into the city into something less visceral, almost unrecognisable. It was also the real birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll in the immediate post-war years, in order to fill the gap left by jazz as the pinnacle of modern danceable music.
With the final season of David Simon’s ‘Treme’ just around the corner, a show that has reintroduced New Orleans music to the rest of the world, it’s worth taking the time to have a look at the history of the city and the many diverse sounds that it still plays host to today, even in the post-Katrina years. The show represents the lives of musicians who have a different gauge on success than simply topping charts. That kind of appeal would rob New Orleans of the soul that makes its music so unique. Here, then, for the uninitiated is a brief and certainly not comprehensive look at the early sound that has made that city great in the eyes of the world’s music lovers.
Jelly Roll Morton – Black Bottom Stomp
In 1938 the archivist Alan Lomax overheard a piano being played in a bar in Washington DC. Lomax was at this time Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song for the Library of Congress and in this position he would interview and record folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, who he saw as keepers of the folk tradition and of Depression-era lore. Jazz was somewhat outside the remit of what Lomax was planning to record but something drew him to the sound he heard in that DC bar and he set up and recorded a legendary interview with Jelly Roll Morton, one of early jazz’s true greats. The interview paid homage to the music and the personalities of New Orleans in the first quarter of the century, much of which may have faded into obscurity without it.
Jelly Roll Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in 1890 and in his youth became a proficient piano-player when from the age of fourteen he began to work in a “sporting house” or brothel in the city, playing along to the rhythm of the work that was getting done there. It was there that he picked up his moniker Jelly Roll – a slang term for one the more overworked body parts at that institution – and “the devil’s music” first stuck its claws into him, never to let go.
Morton toured the Southern United States and Chicago in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts before he finally got the opportunity to do some recording sessions in Chicago in 1926. He formed The Red Hot Peppers, which comprised of some of the finest New Orleans musicians of the era. During these sessions he composed and recorded Black Bottom Stomp a classic example of the feel and the instrumentation of the type of music that was then popular. Trumpet, trombone, banjo, clarinet and piano kick in right from the start, while each instrument gets a shot at soloing. With its Charleston rhythm the song was clearly composed with a mind towards the dance-floor, but its rich textures and the band’s explicit talent are why the track still sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first put to wax.
Louis Armstrong – Potato Head Blues
Undoubtedly New Orleans’ greatest musical export, Louis Armstrong’s voice and trumpet playing are instantly identifiable, even to the casual listener. Whether he’s singing What A Wonderful World, blaring his trumpet over George Gershwin’s Summertime or sharing the silver screen with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in ‘High Society’, you can’t help but feel the positive vibrations that seem to emanate from him like sunbeams.
He almost seems like a grandfather figure to music but it doesn’t take a very in-depth study of the songs before we hear the devil in his music, no less prominent than in Jelly Roll’s. Particularly steamy versions of standards Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love and Baby It’s Cold Outside reveal what his trademark cheeky grin only suggests, that the world of jazz was not just loosely associated with non-mainstream ideas of sex, but that it was born of them and thrived on them.
But even before all this there was the Hot Five. Featuring several members of the band that played with Jelly Roll such as trombonist Kid Ory and banjo-player Johnny St. Cyr, Louis Armstrong proved his natural gifts were only a thing to be placed on top of his wonderful talent as a trumpet player. He followed in the footsteps of Jelly Roll and in 1927 took off to Chicago with a reshuffled band in the Hot Seven (Kid Ory missing out on the cut) and recorded several tunes including this take of Potato Head Blues. The song doesn’t feature Armstrong’s trademark skat or singing, things that would later become inseparable from his music, but it features an iconic stop-time trumpet solo, in which the instrument’s pauses give the false impression of a tempo change. In his 1979 film “Manhattan” Woody Allen would name it as one of the reasons that life was worth living.
Papa Celestin – Marie Laveau
Until the advent of rock ‘n’ roll seemingly all musicians had a single dress style. Papa Celestin may have been partly responsible for this as his Tuxedo Band in the 1920s was one of the most popular outfits on the New Orleans circuit. Louis Armstrong played in the Tuxedos in those days before going on to bigger things himself but when the Great Depression hit the kind of big band orchestration Celestin favoured became untenable for financial reasons and went out of style.
However in the post-war years Papa Celestin made a great comeback with his Tuxedo Brass Band and quickly became one of the city’s best-known tourist attractions. He died in 1955 but just managed to record an LP with his band the previous year, which featured a song called Marie Laveau.
Marie Laveau was a real life voodoo practitioner and Papa Celestin’s song, with its rumbling piano rhythm, tells of her life making “a fortune selling voodoo and interpreting dreams”. The song is one of many New Orleans numbers obsessed with the voodoo and the gypsy, a testament to both the African and the European influences that make up the city’s ethos and its call-response chorus is also typical of brass bands and other modern ensembles to this day.
Professor Longhair – Mardi Gras in New Orleans
At the age of thirty, after years of street hustling, Henry Byrd taught himself to play the piano and became a working musician. His style incorporated Cuban and other Caribbean influences, mildly reminiscent of Papa Celestin’s but blatantly obvious in the sounds of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint who would follow in his footsteps. A particularly witty club-owner noticed Byrd’s coiffure and bestowed unto him the name Professor Longhair, a moniker under which he would write and record one of the most famous of all Mardi Gras songs in Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras has its roots in Catholicism, still taking place on Shrove Tuesday every year, but the religious aspect of the event is generally overshadowed by the party tradition of which the city’s distinct music and a host of colourful costumes are now as much the purpose as the means of the celebrations. Mardi Gras is said to have started in New Orleans in the 1730s, and the city officials flirted with several levels of endorsement over the years (from funding to condemnation), but it has survived this long and for most of the world it represents the spirit of what New Orleans is.
This recording of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is not the first version of the song that Professor Longhair recorded, but it is the one that is trotted out every year for the celebrations. It played a prominent part in the episode of ‘Treme’ in which the first Post-Katrina Mardi Gras was represented.
Louis Prima – Buona Sera
A second generation American of Italian heritage, Louis Prima formed a New Orleans band typical of the era in the 1920s. But as the genre began to stagnate and evolve he showed no resistance and went right along with it. He saw through the tough war years performing at home amidst an unfriendly attitude towards Italians, but flew in the face of it by continuing to perform Italian songs. His popularity increased when Eleanor Roosevelt found him performing in DC and he was brought in for the President’s birthday celebrations.
In the 1950s he recorded Buona Sera. The song begins with the slow rhythms of an old Italian ballad, but after the first chorus it breaks out into a rocking shuffle that was reminiscent of the sound of his hometown, even as it rang out from the stage at the mob-owned Desert Inn in Las Vegas, where he became resident.
If his voice and skat sound familiar it may be because in 1967 he voiced King Louie in the Disney film ‘The Jungle Book’ and sang I Wanna Be Like You, arguably immortalising him to a greater extent than any other song he ever performed, a fact which by all accounts didn’t displease him in the slightest.
Mahalia Jackson – The Lord’s Prayer
The great tradition of black gospel music has a common ancestor with the blues that goes back to the pre-Civil War Confederacy and in New Orleans it was Mahalia Jackson who kept the tradition alive while the Dixieland jazz bands tore up the dance halls. Unlike those bands she stayed away from the dive bars of the city and instead toured churches and conventions with gospel choirs in her early career, eventually graduating to theatres and concert halls.
She made her name with standard gospel songs such as Amazing Grace and Down By The Riverside and her recording of Baptist minister and composer William Herbert Brewster’s Move On Up A Little Higher went on to sell eight million copies in 1948, an astonishing number even in those days. She was outrageously popular in Europe as well where radio appearances would be followed by thousands of requests for recordings of her songs. But a true impression of the singer is given in her sung rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. This recording is without a structured rhythm and has a simple tinny organ playing beneath Jackson’s thunderous voice as she eases her soul into every word. A wonderful video exists of her performing this song at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.
Jackson became an important part of the Civil Rights movement in the south. She was asked to perform at a fund-raiser for a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama by Martin Luther King, Jr. and suffered racial prejudice herself, even as a famous performer. In Chicago she had difficulty finding an apartment whenever landlords or neighbours discovered she was black and she had to seek police protection at one point when shots were fired through her window. She sang I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned in 1963 before Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
Snooks Eaglin – St. James Infirmary Blues
The blues came to New Orleans in a very different form than they appeared in the rest of the country, often being appropriated in more upbeat jazzy ways than the singers from Chicago or the Mississippi Delta tended to sing them. But Snooks Eaglin performed simple acoustic blues on the streets of New Orleans in the late 1950s as a young man and was recorded by an archivist with a Lomax-esque interest in the progression of American folk music.
St. James Infirmary Blues is a song thought to have originated in 18th Century England but by the time Snooks started singing it had become straight blues. Typical of New Orleans music it deals with sexual subject matters, but unlike the more forgiving jazz numbers, the blues song typically focuses on the negative side. The English ballad it is derived from is called The Unfortunate Lad which deals with a soldier who dies of venereal disease.
Although blind like several of the great blues men, Snooks Eaglin wasn’t a contemporary of theirs and he would go on to play much more eclectic music for many years, experimenting with Latin sounds and fuller instrumentation. But this simple recording of a great New Orleans standard captures a future great artist in a very stripped back setting, making it an essential part of the city’s musical canon.
Fats Domino – Blue Monday
The blues had barely set foot in New Orleans before it became rock ‘n’ roll. Long before Elvis Presley picked up a guitar in the Sun Recording studios Fats Domino released The Fat Man. The song contains the familiar bar-by-bar blues progression that would soon become the standard for danceable music. It was a million seller and was the first record to really strap a hard rhythm to those loose and sprawling jazz standards.
However Fats’s greatest moment came shortly after Elvis exploded through drug-store jukeboxes across America and the style he helped pioneer was suddenly in massive demand. Blue Monday was written by Dixieland composer Dave Bartholomew in 1954 but it was Fats’s version in 1956, applying the style he had already invented six years earlier, that is most noteworthy. It opens with a blues breakdown and features the very simplistic kinds of lyrics that would become popular once rock ‘n’ roll completely emancipated itself from the blues and became “youth music.”
Fats Domino is one of the few rock ‘n’ roll survivors. Where most of his chart-topping contemporaries ended up dead or in jail by the end of the 1950s, he is still living comfortably on royalties in his native town. In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit Fats stayed in his home and was later rescued and he made an appearance in season 3 of ‘Treme’.
Pete Fountain – Basin Street Blues
Storyville is the area of New Orleans where Jelly Roll Morton found his calling. It was the Red Light District of New Orleans in those days and for that reason deserved a song written about it. Spencer Williams obliged with Basin Street Blues, a number most famously recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928. The reference to “heaven on earth/they call it Basin Street” is appropriately non-committal enough in its specific subject matter to keep the bible-basher placated and the canny listener sniggering into his gumbo.
Like all the great standards of the day its lyrics get thrown aside from time to time while the jazzmen have a go at twisting the song’s melody into something different, which is what clarinettist Pete Fountain did on this version. It is not as hot and steamy as the song’s subject matter would suggest, but it’s an engaging piece of music nonetheless in that wonderful traditional New Orleans style.
Born with the considerably more musical name of Pierre LaFontaine, Fountain first took up the clarinet when a New Orleans doctor recommended he take up a wind instrument to combat a childhood case of weak lungs (did he prescribe guitar for arthritics? we can only hope so). In his career he has found success performing on television with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra and in owning jazz clubs in the city of New Orleans. Today he is the head of the Half-Fast Walking Club (say it aloud), one of the many “krewes” that march and play in the Mardi Gras parade.
These are just a few of the singers and performers who captured the New Orleans sounds that went around the world, the most familiar and instantly recognisable. But a far greater berth of sound exists in the city and its environs that are almost exclusive to that part of the world. The second instalment will look at the traditions of Zydeco and Creole music from the rural parts of Louisiana as well as the Indian music that is a key part of the Mardi Gras celebrations. There will also be a look at how the music of the city began to be adapted to the sound of funk music which was starting to make its way down from Detroit and other parts of the US through the influence of recorded music.
Read part 2 of A Brief Introduction to New Orleans Music HERE