Pass It On

Traditional jazz lives. Michael White's new CD, Blue Crescent, soars with original compositions that recapture the dawn of jazz.



COV-White 05-27-08 Photo by Donn Young/Courtesy of Basin Street Records

Photo by Michael Photo by Donn Young/Courtesy of Basin Street Records Photo by Cheryl Gerber Photo by Cheryl Gerber "Jazz is a way of life, and there are many lessons that apply. The blues and hymn styles played by the early brass bands came about originally when jazz was dance music."

— Dr. Michael White

"John Scott used to always say, "Pass it on." That's what the early musicians I knew, when I was coming up, were all about. Pass it on. Pass on the jazz tradition."

— Dr. Michael White The night is cool on May 13 as Dr. Michael White unfurls a rippling clarinet solo on "What A Friend We Have in Jesus," backed by the Hot 8 Brass Band in the Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation's reception hall on North Rampart Street. Wearing dark slacks and a blue dress shirt with white stripes, White cuts an image of formality that stands out in high relief from the guys seated behind him in T-shirts emblazoned with insignia of the Hot 8.

Three young players are in dreadlocks. Another sits in a wheelchair.

The irony of appearances is not lost on the 35 people drawn to the rare evening of performance laced with commentary about music and the state of local culture.

White, a leading exponent of New Orleans style, has just released a new album of traditional jazz called Blue Crescent. Most of the songs are original compositions that are sure to advance his standing as a jazz artist pushing the threshold of an idiom that many people think of as static, its boundaries set and closed by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. He also just received the 2008 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, the highest honor in the field of traditional arts in this country, given for artistic excellence and contributons to America's musical heritage.

In contrast to White's embrace of traditional jazz, the Hot 8 is steeped in funk, a hard-charging street style that is long on rhythm and short on melodic polish — a groove popular with rappers and hip-hop fans. The Hot 8 was the first band on the streets after the 2005 flood, when the city was like a war zone with more journalists than musicians. In 2006, the band reached out to White, a professor at Xavier, hoping to learn more about early jazz, a style that all but bypassed them in the 1980s as they moved through public schools and street gigs during the group's formative years.

"Jazz is a way of life, and there are many lessons that apply," White begins. "The blues and hymn styles played by the early brass bands came about originally when jazz was dance music."

White stands at a podium behind a photograph of the late Tom Dent, the poet and historian who served as Jazz and Heritage Foundation president in the 1990s. "New Orleans jazz was functional," he continues. "They played it for picnics and parades of the social aid and pleasure clubs. Jazz was a voice of the African-American community seeking freedom."

The young brass band sound that came out of Treme in the 1990s was the voice of a community, too, though in a style that had strayed far from the tight weave of instrumental voices in the original jazz style. Both approaches were blown out of the water, literally, when Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005.

White evacuated to a hotel in Houston as his home in Gentilly filled up with 8 feet of water, destroying his large collection of books, CDs, sheet music and antique instruments. His loss became a touchstone in media accounts of a battered city and the toll the flood took on countless people.

The musicians sitting behind White have dealt with hard losses of their own, losses that hold a mirror up to the city's jagged social divide. A large, oak-shouldered tuba player named Benny Pete founded the Hot 8 in 1995. In 1996, the band's trumpeter, Jacob Johnson, was murdered in a home robbery that netted his killers $40. Trombonist Joe Williams was shot dead by police in 2004 when he failed to heed orders to stop the car he was driving. NOPD claimed it was stolen, a charge disputed by Williams' friends. In late 2005, the band's popular snare drummer, Dinerral Shavers — the bandleader at L.E. Rabouin High School — died of a shot to the head while driving with his family on Dumaine Street. The accused assailant, a high school student in a beef with Shavers' stepson, was acquitted recently at trial.

The band was still recovering from the loss of Shavers in early 2006 when trumpeter Terrell Batiste was struck by a car in an accident near Atlanta, which led to the amputation of his legs above the knee. Batiste sits in a wheelchair wearing shorts, holding a trumpet. Seated around him are Henry Cook on bass drum, Samuel Cyrus on snare, Benny Pete in the grip of a large sousaphone, trumpeter Greg Williams, trombonist Gregory Gills and tenor sax man Wendell Stuart.

The Hot 8 would not be where it is today were it not for Lee Arnold, a freelance events producer for MTV and the NBA, who reached out to help the band. A graduate of Newman School and Columbia University, Arnold was helping family members with a flooded home; he approached Michael White about working with the Hot 8, and White, in a recovery mode of his own, said yes.

"Today we have problems in education," says White. Heads nod at the oblique reference to bloody turf wars in downtown high schools.

"Jazz can have uplifting effects on young people," he continues in a soothing tone. "There's a positive influence that comes with participating in school bands, learning the value of teamwork. It's a lot easier to become a member of a band than make it to the Hornets."

Few public schools had solid band programs before Katrina, and apart from New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) there is little instruction on the fundamentals or history of jazz today in the Recovery, Charter and Orleans Parish school districts. Louis Armstrong got his first horn when he was 12 years old, in 1913, after being sent by a Juvenile Court judge to the Colored Waifs' Home for firing a gun on New Year's Eve. Armstrong began music lessons at the home and throughout his life credited that experience as setting him on his professional road.

Later known as Milne Boys Home, the large building in Gentilly closed well before Katrina with nothing similar to take its place. The blandly named Youth Study Center on Bayou St. John near I-610 is a way station for young offenders. The environment for at-risk youth in New Orleans was actually much better in 1913 than in 2004 or 2008.

White introduces the next song, "Bye and Bye," one of the church hymns popularized by the musicians who paraded in brass bands in the early years of jazz.

If you had conducted a blindfold test on identifying who was playing the song that night, White's swirling clarinet lines might have registered with people familiar with his sound. But who would have recognized his accompanists?

The Hot 8 led a ragtag second line, more reporters than street folk, on debris-strewn streets in September 2005, a funeral march to memorialize Chef Austin Leslie, who had died in Atlanta. That day the band let out smoking section riffs and repetitive rhythms as they swaggered along in a dead city.

What a contrast with the sweet, rolling harmonies of a church groove as they play alongside Michael White this evening, moving the melody in medium tempo with Benny Pete's sousaphone humming like a bullfrog in deep bottom.

The Hot 8 sound downright beautiful.

White's 2004 album DANCING IN THE SKY signaled a shift in his career as he reached beyond the canonical works of early jazz, writing songs of his own to compete with long-selling recordings by Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll and others.

That year, White spent two months at A Studio in the Woods, the artists' retreat at the far end of Algiers, writing songs that reimagined the early 1900s, when jazz began. The title cut, "Dancing in the Sky," and another called "Give It Up (Gypsy Second Line)" pay homage to the joyous streams of dancers behind the brass bands. On that album, White's clarinet played off the lyrical trumpet work by Nicholas Payton and Lucien Barbarin's swinging trombone in songs with rich melodic lines and spontaneous improvisations rooted in New Orleans style.

White made a long string of recordings before his 2004 retreat, both as an accompanist with Wynton Marsalis and in a lead role with his sidekick, the trumpeter and vocalist Gregg Stafford. Working through the repertoire of early jazz, he refashioned lesser-known gems like "Shake It and Break It" and standards like "Burgundy Street Blues," which featured George Lewis' thrilling clarinet solos in the 1960s. Absorbing the structural dynamics of those tight ensemble pieces, White realized how demanding it was for any group to perform the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton, like "Black Bottom Stomp" or "The Pearls" — songs rarely played here today.

White used vocalist Thais Clark for a tune called "Angel in the Day [Devil at Night]," while Stafford sang lyrics of the title cut. Dancing in the Sky is White's homage to the street tradition of Sunday church parades, a tradition that was all but extinct before Katrina. "I could never forget the beauty and dignity of those events and the graceful strut and conviction on the faces of the marching church members," he wrote in liner notes.

A Studio in the Woods is an artist-in-residence program sponsored by Joe and Lucianne Carmichael in association with Tulane University. The working retreat allowed White to "look deeply at the music of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, wondering how does the music pass on?" he remarked later.

"I got to see the river in isolation, like a long entity nurturing," he continued. "Confronting that Mississippi River — like confronting the unknown — provided a spiritual connection to the deeper parts of my consciousness and a new way of expressing musical feelings locked inside me for a long time."

Dancing in the Sky featured 10 of the two dozen songs that White wrote during his stay at A Studio in the Woods. The rest of those compositions, which he had planned as a sequel CD, were lost in Katrina's floodwaters.

Last December, some three years after his spiritual sojourn, White returned to the Algiers retreat once more to compose new works. They have now been released as Blue Crescent. An aching sadness fills a dead march that bears the simple, epic title "Katrina." The song starts with surging sounds of rushing water followed by the solemn boom of a bass drum, which opens into a song of intense melancholia rarely heard on any kind of record — and a gamble, in the commercial sense, to convey such unremitting sadness in a song.

The album shifts to an instrumental, "London Avenue Breakdown," with a lilting swing as the clarinet floats along like a bird over sun-dappled waters, a feat of surpassing irony by White, whose wrecked home backed up to the London Avenue floodwall.

No other jazz artist, save for Wynton Marsalis, has approached early jazz as something ripe for aesthetic dialogue, challenging time-tested standards with new works to expand the canon. White's sustained focus on how the music emerged, from 1900 to 1920, has led him down a poetic trail, writing lyrics that recapture images from the dawn of jazz. On Blue Crescent, a cut called "Sunday Morning" could be set in the Ninth Ward or the upriver town of Hanhville, where White once played in church parades with one of his mentors, the late Doc Paulin. In a swinging parade beat, White's clarinet plays harmony with Nicholas Payton's trumpet as Gregg Stafford sings:

Come together

Sunday morning

The light pulls darkness

from the skies

Sunday morning

when I see you

we shall march together

by and bye

Sometimes life can be full of hardships

and we feel

hope for brighter days

and we count our savior as Jesus

He'll take all the sadness away

Come together

Sunday morning

the light pulls darkness from the skies

Sunday morning

when I see you

we shall march together by and bye.

Back in the Jazz Fest building, White and the Hot 8 play a medium tempo version of "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," a hymn that became a funeral dirge in the 1930s.

"Jazz can teach us about history," says White, picking up the thread of his earlier comments. "We learn where we come from and how we can become better people if we understand our ancestors."

He pauses. "There is a parallel to democracy. Democracy is about the freedom to create, to participate as an individual with the group. In a band, one instrumental voice responds to the roles of melody and harmony with the other members of the band."

Jazz as a metaphor for democracy is a leitmotif in the writings of Albert Murray, whose classic work Stomping the Blues holds that the Saturday night dances in honky-tonks were another riff on the Sunday morning services of danced religion — a theme resonantly captured in White's "Sunday Morning." Ken Burns' PBS series Jazz followed Murray's notion of jazz-as-mirror-of-democracy like a thread through a needle.

As White calls on the Hot 8 members for comments on how the music has changed their lives, they speak of foreign concert tours, enjoying places like Switzerland and Italy, and, as trumpeter Greg Williams puts it: "You learn how much people love our music in other parts of the world."

Nodding, White resumes his talk.

"Self-worth. Respect for others. Teamwork. Learning about one's traditions and ancestors — these are things that have been at hand for us, and we can use those lessons in schools. These programs need to be in the schools. Katrina taught us that we have something important. But people" — he lets the word hang — "don't realize that the only thing created here that had any impact in the world was traditional jazz. That's what put New Orleans on the map."

He pauses. The room is as silent as a crypt, eyes on him like a diamond.

"My colleague at Xavier who died last year, [the artist and sculptor] John Scott, used to always say, 'Pass it on.' That's what the early musicians I knew, when I was coming up, were all about. Pass it on. Pass on the jazz tradition."

From the audience, Stafford, a longtime public school teacher who sings on Blue Crescent, adds, "The vehicle for passing it on is not just the bands in the street. There is no money in the Recovery School District for music as it should be taught. The second-largest university in Japan has 50 or 60 kids who learn the instrumental techniques of early New Orleans jazz. Those kids come to New Orleans on a pilgrimage and they're disappointed that so few youngsters here know how to play the music. Imagine that those kids from Japan know more about the ancestors than certain students I had."

Hot 8 founder Benny Pete, standing 6-and-a-half feet tall, rose to defend his generation. "I have to applaud a lot of the young bands. I'm on their side. We never really knew about the other style of music before." He gestured appreciatively toward White. "But we're here, we're looking at it."

"The Hot 8 wants to pass it on," says White diplomatically.

They close with a tight swinging take of "Whooping Blues."

This is part of a periodic series on the state of jazz in the city.

Michael White (far right) marches with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Michael White (far right) marches with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band.
After Hurricane Katrina, White helped the Hot 8 Brass Band, known for its funk style of music, explore the early roots of jazz. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • After Hurricane Katrina, White helped the Hot 8 Brass Band, known for its funk style of music, explore the early roots of jazz.
White plays at an outdoor concert in New Orleans. - DONN YOUNG/COURTESY OF BASIN STREET RECORDS

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