A Trumpet around the Corner : The Story of New Orleans Jazz

Article excerpt

A Trumpet Around the Corner : The Story of New Orleans Jazz by Samuel Charters (University Press of Mississippi, 2008. xii + 380 pp. Hardback. $40.

First review:

The author's name should be familiar to everyone interested in the history of New Orleans jazz and indeed jazz generally. Of the 15 or so books he has written about jazz and other music, this latest one must be regarded as his magnum opus.

The somewhat whimsical title is derived from a quotation taken from his own writings: "In the 1950s, when New Orleans was quieter than it is today, if I found the place where the Eureka Brass Band was meeting for a parade, but I got there after they had already started, if I just stood still and listened, I could hear a trumpet around the corner."

His first book, Jazz: New Orleans 1885 - 1957, was a pioneering work in its day (1958), produced in an alphabetic/biographical format, providing detailed information about many of the early jazz musicians whose names were then unknown or little known to us. Ten years later it was followed by New Orleans Jazz : A Family Album, compiled by two other specialists, Al Rose and Dr Edmund Souchon. Forty years on, today the only comparable reference work to appear is the gargantuan and still too little-known The Song For Me A Glossary of New Orleans Musicians and Others of that Ilk, by Brian Wood and readily available from him on CD-ROM: TBW504 @ aol.com

The volume under review is part of this University's American Made Music Series and is a handsome tome, well indexed and with a good bibliography. There are some 70 pictures scattered throughout the text, many taken by the author or from his own collection.

Charters understandably writes with authority. The original intention was to update his first book, but this proved to be impracticable, so we have here a completely new treatise. His account covers in detail the founding of the city of New Orleans and the lives of its early inhabitants, the way the music evolved and details of its early practitioners, ultimately spreading to the West Coast and Chicago, then to New York. He takes the story up to the revival in the early 1940s and beyond, to the effect of Hurricane Katrina and the scene today. His approach throughout is even-handed, giving equal credit in the evolution of jazz to blacks and whites. Much new information is included and so I am happy to recommend this serious study to our members.

Horace Meunier Harris.

Second review: History and Heresy in the Story of New Orleans Jazz

The new book by Samuel Charters is his most ambitious effort yet. He sets out to give a sweeping history of jazz in New Orleans from pre-jazz to post-Katrina days while entering the ongoing controversy about the contributions of black and white musicians. The book is a good read for lay audiences, thanks to Charters' prose style, his warm personal contacts with musicians, and a wonderful array of 64 photographs.

For serious jazz fans and historians, though, the book is an odd mixture of new and familiar material, fresh viewpoints, near-heretical judgments, copious but inadequately documented detail, and inexplicable omissions. I'll unpack the strengths and weakness here and promote a heresy of my own along the way.

Charters' failures are perhaps the result of long overreach and short follow-through. Far from covering the story of jazz in New Orleans up to the present, the book loses its focus in the 1940s, showing slim evidence of Charters' claim of "incorporating recent decades of research." His bibliography is unaccountably limited, relying heavily on a few sources like Tom Bethel, Lawrence Gushee, William Russell, and Pops Foster. Even then, pages and pages of valuable detailed narrative pass with attribution only for direct quotes.

Charters often dismisses what he doesn't exclude. The influence of Gospel music on early jazz in New Orleans is tossed out with reference to the fact that the downtown Creoles of color were mostly Catholic. …