Riffing On the Tradition: Giant Steps
I returned to New Orleans this week from a short three-week tour with small victories in some of my favorite cities, including Washington D.C, San Diego, and San Fransisco. My visit a couple of weeks ago to the fabulous Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix (read my last column here) still had me feeling inspired about the meaningfulness of musical service.
For musicians of my generation, that’s important to keep in mind. We need to recognize that our leadership can promote change and innovation when we commit to using our music to bolster our community's values and influence people’s sense of life.
This Facebook post from about a week ago by my friend and colleague, Gerald French, sparked a conversation that illustrates that commitment.
"I am at a loss for words when the oldest active jazz band in the world is not playing Jazz Fest in its own home town! The band will be 102 years old soon and its a shame there are bands from all over the world coming to play in New Orleans and we are from here, born and raised here and have been excluded from the jazz festival! Something is wrong with this picture. - Giant"
Now, this is much more than a simple matter of a musician's passed-over bid to perform at Jazz Fest. This matter, Gerald told me over the phone, is about “...giving jazz its proper place in the hierarchy."
"If not for jazz," he continued, "none of the other musics have a base.”
You see, Gerald is a perfect example of a New Orleans musician who grew up seeing an incredible brotherhood of musicians whose musical service reinforced community identity, and he's passionate about continuing that tradition.
The band is the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, who's leadership he inherited last year from his uncle, drummer Bob French. Before that, it was led by his grandfather, Albert "Papa" French. Founded in 1910 by cornetist Papa Celestin, it was a society band that played some jazz and also worked as a brass band. Some of the most famous names in early jazz passed through the Tuxedo's ranks, as well as some of the best musicians active on the scene today.
Gerald explained that the Tuxedo band’s presence on the scene is important historically and musically, because it embodies the “enduring New Orleans spirit.” For the band to not be visible at our highest profile festivals, Gerald says, “shows a disconnect and takes away from the fabric of the music."
"Yes, I grew up with second lines and street parades," he told me, "but there's more sides to the music. ... I’m trying to show how a traditional band should look and sound TODAY. Musicians as time goes on are influenced by different things; certain elements have to be in the music, but we still have to stay modern."
Gerald wrapped up our conversation by expressing concern for younger musicians. “The young cats need to do their homework. ... I understand the music moving forward, but if they don't start with our rich music history, I tell them all the time, it's putting the wagon before the horse.”
His “mission” for the band?
“I want to show that New Orleans jazz is still alive and still moving. We represent the music even though we're not 80 years old."
... And the music represents us.
[ NOTE: In the end, Jazz Fest officials did find a slot for the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band on the first Friday. Gerald was also happy to report that the band will also appear at French Quarter Fest. Like many musicians, Gerald gladly supports the community feel of French Quarter Fest, in spite of the limited financial reward. He did concede that, in his personal opinion, “they could at least help us with musician parking and a shuttle to get to the stages.” The band has a regular home on Monday nights at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse.]
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of Nola Art House Music. Click here for an interview with the artist. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie.