Writing a definitive book on Louisiana music is a daunting prospect. It's such a diverse subject, steeped in history yet constantly moving forward, that it warrants encyclopedia treatment. There's a number of excellent books that are genre-specific, such as Jeff Hannusch's R&B tome I Hear You Knockin', Ann Savoy's Cajun Music, Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones' Up From the Cradle of Jazz, Gambit Weekly Editor Michael Tisserand's The Kingdom of Zydeco and Ben Sandmel's Zydeco! But a complete survey of the state's musical resources has proved elusive, and the last high-profile effort, Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Danker's 1993 effort, Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans, was an amateurishly written disaster riddled with errors.
Veteran music journalist Rick Koster is the latest writer to attempt to climb the Louisiana music mountain. Koster's credentials are solid; he's the former critic for the Dallas Observer, author of the book Texas Music and current music critic for Connecticut's New London Day newspaper. Koster's always been a big fan of Louisiana music, making regular trips to the state, and he occasionally contributes to OffBeat magazine. His new book, Louisiana Music (Da Capo Press), is the most ambitious attempt yet to capture the breadth of the state's music scene. In just more than 300 pages, Koster discusses New Orleans' traditional and contemporary jazz, brass bands, blues, R&B, swamp pop, funk, zydeco, Cajun, rock, gospel, Mardi Gras Indians, rap, classical, and world music.
Covering that much ground in such space constraints results in the book's strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, Koster hits the ground running and writes in an enthusiastic, almost breathless voice, taking the reader on trips through New Orleans neighborhoods, Baton Rouge barrooms and Lafayette festivals. As he discusses the musical genres he's hearing along the way, Koster gives thumbnail overviews of their history and traditions, highlighting well-known performers and up-and-coming artists. He's particularly good at recommending albums of particular interest, offering Louisiana music neophytes plenty of options for building CD collections.
It's especially admirable that Koster devotes chapters to genres that are often slighted due to Louisiana's jazz and R&B riches. The diverse rock scene, our estimable gospel community, classic and contemporary Louisiana country music, and rap and hip-hop are all acknowledged here, usually in highly complimentary terms. Any book that recognizes the artistry and accomplishments of diverse artists like the Soulful Heavenly Stars, Webb Pierce and DJ Jubilee has a warm heartbeat.
Koster's breezy, conversational tone is a nice fit for this narrative structure, but descends to distraction when he interrupts his prose for breaks dubbed "From the Reporter's Notebook," flashbacks to Koster's research notes. Covering a 1999 show featuring the Savoy-Doucet band, Koster writes, "I'm pressed up front by the stage, and someone smells like ham. This is the first time I've seen this band; they're hypnotically great." These passages usually come off sounding lightweight and unprofessional, detracting from the otherwise admirable job Koster does as a tour guide.
The book's major flaw is its sloppy editing. Mistakes are bound to happen in a project of this scope, but for serious fans of New Orleans music, they pile up here with maddening frequency. Donald Harrison is referred to as Donald Hamilton, Kerry Irish Pub regular and former Alarm bandmember Dave Sharp is renamed Mike Peters, Jessie Hill's classic song becomes "Ooh Papa Do," and numerous musicians' names like Rod Hodges, D'Jalma Garnier and Fredy Omar are misspelled.
Still, Louisiana Music is a worthy and important book that deserves recommendation. Its generally seamless mixture of historical background, interview segments, CD reviews, and coverage of current bands makes it the most enjoyable overview yet on local music. For the thousands of new visitors and Louisiana music neophytes descending upon New Orleans for the 2002 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Koster's book is the best place to start a lifetime love affair with Louisiana's indigenous sounds.
Kudos to Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who brings important news with him to coincide with his Jazz Fest performance. After its successful launch in New York City, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Jazz for Young People Curriculum is coming to New Orleans. The program is the first comprehensive jazz appreciation curriculum for students in elementary and middle school (grades four through nine), and at a time when arts programs are increasingly in danger, the arrival of this curriculum in New Orleans is cause for celebration.
Rick Koster signs Louisiana Music 1 p.m. Sunday, April 28, at the Jazz Fest Book Tent.
- Rick Koster's Louisiana Music is the most ambitious survey yet of indigenous sounds.