To know New Orleans music is to live it. Author Charles Suhor did just that, and tells the story from the inside track as a Crescent City native, an avid jazz fan, musician and journalist in Jazz in New Orleans -- The Postwar Years Through 1970 (Scarecrow Press).
Suhor throws a light on this period of New Orleans' musical history, which previously suffered from a lack of documentation. Jazz was abuzz during the era, but as the author points out, it received little respect from the establishment or the press. This led to the frequent misperception that a void existed on the New Orleans jazz scene between the rise, fall and subsequent revival of traditional jazz, and the emergence of modern jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The dearth of historical data on this time frame presented a big gap that remained ripe to be filled with misinformation and myth.
"Nobody wrote seriously about jazz," says Suhor, whose articles on the subject appeared in Down Beat, New Orleans Magazine and other publications through the 1960s and 1970s. Many are reprinted here along with essays aimed at setting the time and the stage. "You'd be astonished at the quality of writing in The Times-Picayune and States-Item," he continues. "Some people panned it [jazz] in the dumbest sort of way."
In a chapter that deals predominantly with the 1960s called "An Invisible Generation: Early Modern Jazz Artists," Suhor writes, "The local dailies were basically tone-deaf when it came to jazz." The author later quotes a 1966 letter he wrote to the editor of the States-Item. It said, in part, "Has New Orleans ever heard of, much less given exposure to, gifted local modernists like James Black, Bill Huntington, Ellis Marsalis, or Jimmy Zitano?"
"It wasn't until the new journalism came along," says Suhor, "and I mention [in the book] the Vieux Carre Courier -- that they really found writers who were sparking journalism in New Orleans."
Fortunately, Down Beat's then-editor Don DeMichael was interested in New Orleans' musical activity -- and Suhor's knowledge.
"He was just hip; he knew that things were happening down here," says Suhor, who gained access to DeMichael through his brother, clarinetist Don Suhor, and New Orleans Jazz Club founder, drummer Gilbert Erskine. (Erskine also wrote reviews for the magazine.) "Michael was just an eyes-open guy. He wanted to start covering more cities in the 'Where & When' listings and the 'Ad Libs' column that were short pieces on events in various cities."
It resulted in reporting on such events as this city's first major music festival, the 1968 New Orleans International Jazz Festival. Suhor's lengthy and extremely comprehensive review gives an excellent account of all the goings-on during the multi-faceted eight-day music festival. This article also dispels the myth that the 1970 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was this city's premiere musical event. Many of the elements that became a part of Jazz Fest originated in the festivals held in 1968 and 1969. (The 1969 festival is also fully reviewed here.)
"[The 1968 festival] was the peak of when the establishment first expressed its love of jazz -- or its lack of contempt for jazz, I should say -- with money," explains Suhor. "I think they [the city] found out that people all over the country loved Pete Fountain on Lawrence Welk's [television show]. They found out Al Hirt was knocking them dead in Las Vegas and with hit records, and that the Dukes of Dixieland before that were selling record-breaking LPs. And then [the opening of] Preservation Hall, I think, crowned it. By that time they were saying jazz is something we can sell when we sell the city."
Setting the record straight on this and other important events and issues was one of Suhor's aims in compiling his work. Local readers should enjoy reading the author's often anecdotal accounts of such institutions as the New Orleans Jazz Club and its predecessor, the National Jazz Foundation, and will undoubtedly recognize a host of long-defunct nightspots. Many of the artists who were pivotal during the era continue to be active in the jazz community today. As a New Orleans native, Suhor understands its quirks, making his perspective ring true while offering his opinionated view of the music, the players and events that surrounded and affected them. "In writing the book, I was insistent on getting musician's names on the record who had been left out," says Suhor.
The environment for jazz has greatly improved since Suhor's 1961 Down Beat column, which began: "Ask the average jazz fan to name several cities producing good modern jazzmen in abundance. It will probably not even occur to him to mention New Orleans." However, some of the problems that jazz faced during this period remain in evidence today. It makes Suhor's work all the more compelling.
- 'In writing the book, I was insistent on getting musician's names on the record who had been left out.' -- Charles Suhor