New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History

By Simons, Andy | IAJRC Journal, September 2009 | Go to article overview

New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History


Simons, Andy, IAJRC Journal


New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History By Bruce Boyd Raeburn University of Michigan Press, 342pp, 2009, $25.

The author of this 'must have' tome is son of bandleader Boyd Raeburn and vocalist Ginnie Powell, and long-time curator of the most significant New Orleans jazz archive, at Tulane University. And prior to taking that post he did his time researching in that repository. This book should' ve been published twenty years ago, but, knowing my mate's diligence as I do, it's only been better for the wait.

Some readers may recall John Gennari's book on jazz critics, Blowin' Hot and Cool, reviewed in the February 2007 issue. If that book was of interest (and it should have, to each and every one of you), this book will tempt as well. And the same can be said for Charlie Suhor's Jazz in New Orleans : The Postwar Years Through 1970. Here, within just three years, generations after the fact, we've finally got definitive works on the origins of jazz and how the music was sold to people like us.

As it sits on the shelf, Bruce Raeburn's work is about New Orleans, but it's really about that old devil moon, authenticity. Maybe we don't give a cat's whisker about that anymore, but, to a reader, we decidedly did at one time. Raeburn's unpacking of this moral issue is rather diplomatic but he's not afraid to wag the index finger when appropriate. And above all, he's a champion of New Orleans as an innovative place. Think about it: jazz is often highly improvised, but this can contradict some folks' notions about what's traditional jazz and what ain't. Like Suhor's book, this puts an arm around the purist's shoulder to convey the swing sage Sy Oliver's wisdom, 'T'ain't What You Do (It's the Way That Cha Do It. After reading this, I do hope that any purists still standing learn the lesson.

When the first lot of jazzers spun gold in Chicago, the remaining Crescent City cats continued to innovate. Credit is given to guitarist Danny Barker, who resuscitated the 'waning tradition' by allowing the 1970s generation to express themselves however they wanted. Hence, we had The Dirty Dozen Brass Band incorporating the James Brown bass in the 1980s and the next generation making teenage brass band rap records in the 1990s. Where else but in New Orleans would you see a hooded lad on a bicycle wearing a Sousaphone?

One of the many revelations in this book is the official distance that Orleans Parish kept between its establishment self and the...the...J-word. The city's major newspaper didn't embrace this culture until 1961 and some early editorial malice, and readers' angry responses, are unpacked in the last chapter. The final subdivision of the book is especially worthy for the struggle that all jazz, even 'modern jazz', battled against the local culture. The multi-saxophonist Al Belletto, ex- Woody Herman and Stan Kenton orks, returned home only to find work in strip clubs, where the dancers dug bebop, thinking it was a "music created especially for them. …

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