What's known as the "New Orleans sound" would sound a whole lot different if only a 16-year-old Cosimo Matassa had liked chemistry class.
"I enrolled at Tulane to study chemistry," Matassa, 80, recalled last week. "When I found out exactly what a chemist did, I dropped out."
Faced with his father's admonition that he needed to find a job, Matassa started working for his dad's jukebox business, which at the time -- 1942 -- was merely a side investment for the famed French Quarter grocer. But within a few years, Matassa transformed a tiny 10 by 12 foot space into J&M Studios, home to such local legends as Fats Domino, Earl Palmer, Deacon John, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair and, consequently, "the New Orleans sound." Or, as many know it, "the Cosimo sound."
"Cosimo was the type of engineer who believed in one type of scene," Dr. John, a frequent session player at J&M Studios, where he went by his given name of Mac Rebennack, reveals in John Broven's book, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans. "He would set the knobs for the session and rarely moved anything. He developed what is known as the 'Cosimo Sound,' which was strong drums, heavy bass, light piano, heavy guitar and light horn sound with a strong vocal lead. That was the start of what eventually became known as the 'New Orleans Sound.'"
"I tend to wince whenever I hear 'the Cosimo sound,' because I just wanted the sound of the guys playing," Matassa says, deflecting praise of his role in molding what many consider the golden era of New Orleans music. "All through my career, the one thing I tried to do was be transparent. I heard them in the nightclubs, and just wanted to stay true to the original, to get what they did on record. I didn't try to shape it -- I just did my damnedest not to mess it up."
His humility aside, Matassa's stamp on the music of New Orleans is significant, and as such he will be honored for his lifelong contributions at the opening reception for the 14th annual Cutting Edge Music Business Conference at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Contemporary Arts Center.
"Cosimo's legacy, of course, is the sound," says Cutting Edge founder Eric Cager. "But he's also important because of the studio space he created. Cosimo's studio was the seminal place for New Orleans music, where a lot of musicians could meet, exchange ideas, find work and hang out. The music grew as an extension of that."
Cosimo's first studio, J&M, at 838-840 N. Rampart St. was designated as a historic landmark on Dec. 10, 1999, the 50th anniversary of the day that Antoine "Fats" Domino and Dave Bartholomew recorded "The Fat Man," a song that many cite as the first to be retroactively labeled a rock and roll song. While Matassa doesn't recall the recording of "The Fat Man" from the countless others the two collaborated on at J&M, the engineer's hands-off approach in recording the tune, released in 1950 on Imperial, is indicative of the approach that fostered the genius of Fats Domino.
"You could present Fats with a song, and let him have a go with it," Matassa says. "All you had to do was watch him noodle around on the piano with a new song, add his own chords, and then the song was his."
"The sessions were always a very cooperative, group effort -- everybody would contribute their own ideas," Matassa says. "I just remember always having a good time. We never had a bad session. Even if nothing worked out, we still had fun."
Matassa then opened a studio in a larger space on the 500 block of Gov. Nicholls Street in a former cold storage space for avocados -- "great sound there," he says -- and then later expanded further when he moved to the 700 block of Camp Street in a building that also housed offices for his Dover record distribution business as well as a studio. Matassa also had a plant in Jefferson Parish to manufacture the records.
"I was trying to be a factor on the national level," Matassa explains of his expansion in the years leading up to the mid-'60s. "But every time I went to a bank for a loan, they'd throw me out. Unfortunately, people in New Orleans with money at the time were only interested in real estate deals or oil deals. That's why Nashville made it with the music industry, because the city had a couple of sympathetic banks."
"The downfall of Cosimo's music empire that he was building was not a lack of hits -- he had plenty of those," Cager says. "It was a lack of financing for music in the city that is still negatively impacting New Orleans."
After the failure of his businesses and studios, Matassa went on to work at Toussaint's Sea Saint Studios in Gentilly. After setting up tax shelters and attracting the unwelcome notice of federal agents, Matassa ventured back into the grocery business. Matassa's Grocery, now run by his sons, operates in the same location today as it did when opened in 1924.
While saying he's "more grateful to the guys I worked with than I could ever thank them for," Matassa insists it's the soul of the city that made the hit records that made him famous.
"To really understand this music, you had to be around during that time," Matassa says. "Music was just always around us. In the streets. At Saturday night fish fries. In nightclubs. That was New Orleans. That wasn't Cosimo."
- Allen Toussaint and Cosimo Matassa talk about their experiences producing local music.