It was a time of new beginnings. The great Professor Longhair had recently passed away, the Meters had just broken up, James Booker would be dead within two years, and some had proclaimed the death of jazz. Yet, Tipitina's was only four years old, the legend of the Meters was growing, and emerging names such as Marsalis, Blanchard and Connick were poised to resurrect the music. It was a time when the second-line/brass-band culture would march on with new swagger, WWOZ could be heard playing in the streets for the first time, and the Jazz Fest was only 12 years old. It was 1981 in New Orleans, and Gambit Weekly was in print for the first time.
During its 25-year history, Gambit Weekly both reflected and helped shape a music scene that formed the rich cultural New Orleans we know today. We asked some of our former and current writers to share their perspectives on what it was like covering that scene over the past 25 years.
Jason Berry, a long-time contributor from the paper's earliest days as well as the noted author of such works as Up From the Cradle of Jazz, saw the period leading up to the paper's inception as a time of great potential. "The '70s was a rich, fertile time artistically," says Berry. "People began to really reflect the vast cultural terrain around them."
As colorful expressions of music and culture wove together in the 1970s, many new institutions were formed in response. For example, names we now know as pillars of the cultural community -- Contemporary Arts Center (1977), Tipitina's (1977) and WWOZ (1980) all formed or blossomed during this time.
The giant seed that stimulated this outpouring of expression was the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which was created in 1969 and rose to prominence over the course of the ensuing decade. The festival provided even wider exposure for New Orleans artists who were to become icons -- the Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint, the Meters and Dr. John -- alongside a wide range of other local talent. With Jazz Fest, organizers had articulated a culture of music specific to New Orleans.
Previously isolated in their genres, artists performing jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, zydeco and beyond realized they were all enveloped in one music scene. And with national and then international interest in the festival expanding each year, the music scene increasingly benefited from the full growth of this collective New Orleans effort.
The result was an explosion of music, led by feisty trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, a nine-time Grammy-winning performer and founding artistic director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center whose debut album, Fathers and Sons, was released in 1982. Brothers Branford (saxophone), Jason (drums) and Delfeayo (trombone) would soon follow.
This was the environment that Gambit found itself in when it began. Like the other organizations mentioned, Gambit realized it had to adapt to and in part evolve to respond to this changing landscape. In the beginning, short staffed and with limited resources, the paper had no regular music column. However, music articles by writers including Rock Adam flowed from Gambit's pages from the simple need to present cultural expressions that weren't receiving mainstream media coverage.
"Gambit has consistently been an alternative voice, and that's a good thing," says Berry. The first editor, Gary Esolen, also recognized the importance of providing weekly entertainment listings, making Gambit a natural hub of information for the music scene.
Gambit solidified that coverage by providing an extensive preview of Jazz Fest. Coverage included in-depth interviews that allowed music lovers to view the people behind the music. Writers also produced cultural and music-history pieces, putting the music into context.
"In the mid 1980s, I was new to New Orleans, and Gambit's Jazz Fest coverage steered me to music that changed my life," says Michael Tisserand, recent former editor of the paper.
In 1985, the paper introduced yours truly, Count Basin -- the annual authority on Jazz Fest. Count Basin would spur festival attendees to seek out their copy of the preview issue every year as a must-have item to navigate the festival's myriad offerings.
In 1981, Jazz Fest was considered a world-class event, and it was the only game in town. But by 2005, New Orleans had become a large enough music hub to accommodate two more popular music festivals. The Essence Music Festival and the Voodoo Music Festival, revealing national interest in more than just the more traditional forms of Louisiana music.
Concert goers would also come for contemporary R&B, hip-hop and funk provided by both national touring and New Orleans acts as well as the latest in modern and alternative rock.
In addition to the Jazz Fest coverage, Gambit added a weekly music column that delved deeper than the traditional album review or artist profile. The column closely documented important cultural happenings like the renaissance of the brass-band/second-line culture, offering a more street-level view of the musical culture.
As the Dirty Dozen Brass Band first emerged from Danny Barker's influential Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band in 1977, and with the creation of the Rebirth Brass Band that followed in 1983, two things were clear: The second-line culture had passed on to a new generation, and there was a renaissance underway.
"The revival had been energized by young musicians and musical perspectives," says Tisserand, "It was both preservationist and progressive."
Indeed, the brass-band scene would evolve mightily over the years as more acts followed. The scene even delivered a local icon: trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who left the Rebirth to become a star in his own right, reminding us of Louis Armstrong's amiable charm with his own gravelly force and trumpet swagger.
Two writers and one event in particular helped shape Gambit's coverage of, and presence in, New Orleans' music scene. With the second-line and jazz traditions screaming for attention, Geraldine Wyckoff, a former typesetter at the paper, began writing a music column in the mid-1980s that stretched to 15 years -- exploring the social aid & pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indian tradition that produced the second-line bands as well as a slew of new brass bands that were created from the movement. Wyckoff wrote about the second-line revival virtually from the beginning. She believed in covering the scene by immersing herself in it in order to provide an up-close perspective, "because I'm part of the community. I second line every Sunday I can during the season. Because I love the music and the people. I'm not just a journalist, observing, I'm part of it."
Gambit then enlarged its community role when it created the Big Easy Entertainment Awards in 1988, honoring and celebrating Louisiana music annually for years to come as the first and largest of such awards programs in New Orleans. The awards ceremony, which added theater honors in subsequent years, established itself as a touchstone for local musical achievement. Special awards were developed to honor lifetime achievement, contributions to the musical heritage and business community, an ambassador, and an overall entertainer of the year that could come from either music or theater. To win a Big Easy became a big deal, and this year's cancellation of the awards due to Hurricane Katrina (for the first time ever) disappointed its supporters. Its scheduled return in 2007 will carry on the tradition of honoring a tradition.
As Gambit adopted positions on political issues, its music writers also raised issues in the music community. The second crucial addition to the staff helped spur that debate when Scott Jordan became the paper's first music editor (1998-2003) after a long stint at the Louisiana music magazine OffBeat.
Jordan's award-winning writing, which was alternately fearless and fair, would address such previously taboo subjects as why community radio station WWOZ wouldn't play certain New Orleans music like rap, or why the French Quarter Festival refused to pay participating musicians. Jordan sees this as part of the paper's ongoing mission regardless of the writer.
"They (Gambit writers) are taking on larger issues, as an ongoing editorial on the things going on in the music scene," says Jordan.
For younger, non-native New Orleanians, it may be hard to imagine that when Gambit started, there not only was no House of Blues, but also no Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, The Howlin' Wolf, Palm Court Jazz Caf, Caf Brasil, One Eyed Jacks -- heck, not even a Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Caf. Tipitina's was just a 4-year-old pup; Snug Harbor, which morphed from the Faubourg, was an infant. But when you think of seeing live music in New Orleans, these are the venues that come to mind along with the venerable Preservation Hall, the Maple Leaf and a handful of other veterans.
There have been other popular places to see a show through the years, not the least of which was A Warehouse, Dorothy's Medallion, the Dew Drop Inn, the Mermaid Lounge, the Dream Palace, and so on. They are now faded, but sweet, memories. But it is these aforementioned clubs -- along with a scrappy group of second-tier but popularvenues that include the entire Frenchmen Street strip, Le Bon Temps Rouler and the Circle Bar -- that truly represent the diversity and depth of New Orleans music over the past quarter-century. Rock, pop, jazz, funk, rhythm and blues, Latin, brass band, blues, Cajun and zydeco, folk, electronica -- has there ever been a time when so many clubs have presented so much music?
The importance of all these clubs' existence cannot be overstated, because they spring from a time when New Orleans' music scene just may have grown up and even made an effort to join the rest of the United States. With the 1994 opening of House of Blues -- with its corporate backing and VIP vibe -- New Orleans' live-music venues sensed what it was like to truly have a big dog in the neighborhood that could wolf down the top acts. House of Blues also showed it was self-aware enough to book even bigger acts into the Saenger, and it forced the rest of the players to reinvent themselves. Tipitina's, previously the big dog on the block, went through a bit of a wilderness before establishing its own niche catering to local bands and partnering with the upstart Superfly Productions to tap into the funk and jam-band scene.
The importance of a club like Rock 'n' Bowl to a scene as organic and idiosyncratic as New Orleans. Rock 'n' Bowl has both in spades -- the only club in town with the balls to charge Mick Jagger a cover or show him the door. Its character is only matched by its Cajun/zydeco bookings.
By contrast, Tipitina's has evolved over the years to become a leader in the music community, what with a foundation whose annual band-instrument fund drive is crucial to local schools.
Hurricane Katrina placed all of these clubs in some form of financial hardship. After all, with a city that was small to begin with getting much smaller and growing back ever so slowly, one has to wonder if this cluster of diversity can stay alive. One thing is certain: With the clubs' vibrancy comes the scene's vibrancy. For the music scene to survive, they must as well.
By the 1990s, the roots music of New Orleans and Louisiana that had become more prominent in the 1970s had firmly established itself in the community. Whether influenced by specific genres or the overall creative atmosphere, a growing number of bands sprang up and almost immediately developed a national following. Galactic, inspired by the Meters, sought to infuse more a rock 'n' roll sensibility into its work, an identity that is constantly progressing even today. Bands such as Deadeye Dick, Cowboy Mouth and especially Better Than Ezra showed that a New Orleans rock band doesn't necessarily have to reflect the city's roots heritage to succeed. Gambit followed in stride with the new music as it, too, had taken root in the community.
"Anybody who takes covering the music scene seriously will be willing to branch out and listen to the stuff that's outside your normal listening patterns," says Jordan.
Like many other alternative weeklies, Gambit faced the formidable challenge of covering the exploding Dirty South rap movement that overtook New Orleans in the late 1990s, as rap figures such as Master P (representing No Limit Records) and Ronald "Slim" Williams and Brian "Baby" Williams (Cash Money) became record moguls seemingly overnight. The two labels featured an endless array of gold-record-winning hip-hop talent that included Mystikal, Juvenile, U.N.L.V., BG, Silkk the Shocker, Soulja Slim and the notorious C-Murder -- the latter of whom is still fighting a murder charge. While the critical praise of these artists varied wildly, their impact on New Orleans' music scene is incalculable, and Gambit often struggled to present consistent coverage of a genre that often reinvents itself at warp speed.
Music labels came and went over the 25-year span; some met with steady success, others never really seemed to gain a foothold -- further testament that no matter how great the music was in New Orleans, the business to promote it from within to the outside world remains a struggle. Whether it was NYNO Records, Black Top, Louisiana Red Hot or Mardi Gras Records, the music business in New Orleans has always been one shaky rollercoaster ride through the years.
The most consistent force over the past decade, though, has clearly been the Samuels brothers' Basin Street Records, whose roster has grown steadily since its inception and now features such popular locals as Los Hombres Calientes, Irvin Mayfield, Kermit Ruffins, Jon Cleary, Theresa Andersson, Jason Marsalis, Dr. Michael White, Henry Butler and the legendary Headhunters. Collectively, they speak to New Orleans' oft-lauded diversity of sound, and Gambit has covered that growth through profiles and columns as well as including Ruffins and Mayfield in a recent roundtable "trumpet summit" moderated by then-music editor Alex Rawls -- who post-Katrina assumed editor duties at OffBeat.
But, as usual, there are businesses bubbling up from the ground, including the DJ-savvy Media Darlings label, showing that New Orleans, sooner or later, changes with the times.
Currently, Gambit navigates the music scene and its future through a post-Katrina lens that we all are forced to use. The scene, as it always has, mirrors what's happening in the city. Some musicians are back, some are scattered, and some will never come back. Musicians are waiting for levees to be secured and more housing to be available just like everyone else. And while everyone and anyone has an opinion on what should happen next, there is one thing everyone can agree on: The music will always be here in New Orleans, it's only a question of how it will change.
"Gambit has always had a vital role in how this city takes music and musicians seriously," says Tisserand. "Now that I'm a Gambit reader and not an editor, I look forward to opening the paper and continuing to learn more about the city's music." There is plenty of cultural expression that is sure to emanate from the wild pendulum of despair and inspiration that New Orleans currently swings upon that will need covering. But the music will still be here.
"I also look forward to the musicians heralding a revitalized city," says Tisserand. "I just can't imagine anything else."
Samuel H. Winston and David Lee Simmons contributed to this report.
- A.J. Sisco
- Wynton Marsalis emerged as a bona fide modern-jazz star trumpeter not long after Gambit Weekly started hitting the streets. This rising star, as well as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, helped define an era.