Straight Answers from Michael White

American Libraries, June-July 2006 | Go to article overview

Straight Answers from Michael White


For every resident of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina changed everything. But for clarinetist Michael White, the floods. destroyed 30 years of collecting when they swept over his personal library of materials related to the city's musical and cultural heritage. The water reduced photographs, documents, recordings, and musical instruments to piles of rot and mold. The 51-year-old musician and educator at Xavier University talked with American Libraries about his devastating losses and his efforts at preserving the culture of his native town. White's own jazz stylings can be heard on his many albums, including the recent Dancing in the Sky. A longer version of this interview can be found at www.ala.org/alonline/.

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Tell us about your commitment to the preservation of New Orleans music and history. I was very fortunate when I was younger to discover this music and along the way to have some very special apprenticeships. I was able to develop a unique perspective on the music from both the inside and outside, and I use that as the basis of just about everything I do. I try to work on cultural preservation by putting together specialized concerts of music that, frankly, is not played much in New Orleans these days. The more classic music is much more difficult to play and is much rarer.

Talk about your private collection. I had an extensive library of over 4,000 books, the majority of which were on different aspects of jazz--just about every biography of a New Orleans musician that existed. Along with that, I collected around 5,000 CDs. I also had most of the early jazz records--classic blues, Bessie Smith, and quite a lot of country blues, prison songs, Louisiana folk music, too. Along with that, I had over 300 videos and films, some of them live concert performances.

Where was all of this material? All of this was in my home, which had an office space with five entire rooms of material. I had thousands of photographs, some of them very rare. Some were donated to me by the families of musicians; some had never been published in books. I was hoping to eventually publish some of those in a book of my own. I had interviews with musicians that I conducted--some where I just took notes, others I had actual tapes. I also had sheet music. I had a lot of transcriptions of music from special concerts.

Was there anything that you could salvage? …

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