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Riffing On the Tradition: Music is the mission

Maybe the headline of my previous column was a bit tabloid-esque, but valuable discussions ensued. Of course, Mayor Landrieu doesn’t “hate” live music. Alex Rawls, in his blog My Spilt Milk, explained well that the "War on Live Music" is more hype than substance. But, even though we don't see a conspiracy against our culture, it’s clear that the “Master Plan” for our city’s future equates cultural economy with tourism and views culture-centric businesses, such as music venues, as entities to be aggressively regulated.

Unfortunately, our city’s leadership is acting on their plan BEFORE adequately overhauling New Orleans' conflicting zoning ordinances and arbitrary permitting process. The result is an environment that is, in fact, unfriendly to musicians (and business-owners) who have historically had the expectation in New Orleans, unlike most other places we could be living, to have our creative energies and expressions viewed as assets, not nuisances.

Matt Lemmler

In the end, war or no war, at least we’re finally talking about it and starting to organize.

Many readers didn’t seem surprised at all about gentrifying trends that aim to sanitize our sense of history and identity by commodifying our culture. We see it all over the world; why not here? Apparently, the next generation of New Orleanians have spoken and in the Master Plan music is trumped by better retail shopping.

Others of you recognized the problem of overestimating the depth of our current efforts. I agree. Without raising our level of artistry, connecting to our youth, and producing music that creates true meaning for our citizenry, not just nostalgic tourist-fodder, how can we expect to be an integral element of the city’s “plan for the 21st century” beyond filling hotel beds and “go-cups”?

A few people fascinated me with what seemed like unconcern fueled by quiet confidence. My colleague Matt Lemmler, one of the most talented pianists and arrangers I know, was among these. A native New Orleanian whom I came to know better after his four-year exile in Houston, Matt spoke with me at length about the “mission of music.”

I had imagined that returning home with a deeper understanding of the music business was why he didn’t seem worried about the future of music here. But, although his Texas period was very productive, booking nightly for a club and leading a regular working band, it was an invitation to be a resident jazz composer for a forward-thinking church that he says formed his mettle.

Following the tradition of Bach or Handel, in a manner, was very validating for Lemmler, and “learning to follow one’s passion 100 percent regardless of money” taught him “more about understanding the gift of being allowed to be a creative composer.” Furthermore, what drives Lemmler now is “understanding the healing role of music ... self-fulfillment as well as helping others have a positive outlook.”

Even though he talks about his musical revelation having a divine nature, it’s a philosophy that he knows has many names. This is evidenced in the title of Matt's newest CD project, UBUNTU, which he’ll release this week.

This African principle, which he came to by way of his musical inspiration Quincy Jones, who got it from Nelson Mandela, describes a universal interconnectedness that allows us to accept our best efforts as a service to the greater community, even our world. Essentially, Lemmler’s UBUNTU is a collection of artfully arranged “hymns” (quotation marks because they are decidedly not all religious), performed by a large ensemble of master musicians including Brian Blade, Shane Theriot, Kim Prevost, Bill Summers and John Ellis.

I look forward to experiencing UBUNTU in action this week, and not only for the music. Following the divisive hyperbole I chose last week to describe our current situation, it’s probably a better guiding ethic.

Showcases for Matt Lemmler’s New Orleans Jazz Revival Band on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (The Southern States in Song: A Celebration of the South), UBUNTU CD release concerts on  Friday at 8 and 10 p.m. at Café Istanbul, and Sunday at 8 and 10 p.m. at Snug Harbor.

Evan Christopher writes Riffing On the Tradition for NolaVie. All columns are archived at www.ClarinetRoad.com

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at [email protected]