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Riffing on the Tradition: The state of the music (Part 1)

My friend W. Royal Stokes opens his book, The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990, with two quotes. The first is from the venerable Danny Barker, who said, "My family, they encouraged me to play music because they had a psychological attitude that if you give a kid an instrument he becomes attached to that instrument and that becomes a part of him and he'll be respected."

The second quote from Alan Jaffe, one of the Preservation Hall's founders says,  “New Orleans is the only place I know of where you ask a little kid what he wants to be and instead of saying, ‘I want to be a policeman,’ or ‘I want to be a fireman,’ he says, ‘I want to be a musician.’”

We may be encouraged to cite these as evidence that musicians in New Orleans are traditionally viewed as respected culture bearers, but in spite of the importance of the cultural economy to our tourism-dependent city and our sizable cultural workforce, I question the genuineness of that respect.

On one hand, in the inception of jazz, some things were better. Jazz aficionado Dr. Karl Koenig has mapped almost as many New Orleans music venues 100 years ago as there are restaurants today. As a teen, Sidney Bechet, for example, was earning around $15/week from gigs, a bit more than the average working adult. On the other hand, playing vernacular music was, for many, less than respectable. Bechet's parents were not alone in their opinion that music associated with the town's "rougher element" was not a worthy profession. Often, playing in Storyville meant a loss of status in the community. Jelly Roll Morton stated implicitly that, "... families never had an idea that they wanted musicians in the family to make their living. They always had it in their minds that a musician was a tramp, other than, er, other than the exceptions." (Exceptions, for example, were musicians working with our French opera.)

Interestingly, if we look at the findings of Sweet Home New Orleans in their 2010 “State of the Music-Community Report” and factor for inflation, the young Bechet was making more than the median income of today's musicians. This well-presented report also indicates that compared to pre-Thing conditions, the number of paying music jobs is still down 50 percent, earnings from performing are down over 40 percent, and yearly income levels of our city's culture bearers are down by one-third. Comparisons of Sweet Home's data against government employment statistics reveal that yearly incomes for musicians are less than two-thirds of average incomes in New Orleans.

Figures like these are among the evidence that I think our presumed respect – as well as our self-respect, since it is we who continue to work under these circumstances – seems dubious. These statistics also make it seem even more ironic that after Hurricane Katrina, most musicians felt that New Orleans respected us more than wherever we ended up, given that 80 percent of us were back even before 50 percent of the population had returned. Clearly, things cannot and should not continue as they are.

Check out the report from Sweet Home New Orleans, and next, let's riff on the larger factors challenging today's musicians.


Clarinetist 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.

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]