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Who's Steppin' It Up? Meet Charles Chamberlain – Rock 'n' NOLA Musical Heritage Tours

When I first moved to New Orleans in 1994, Dr. Charles Chamberlain was one of the first people who helped me research New Orleans clarinet. He was working at the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University and made “academic research" enjoyable. For me, it was a personal project, taking clarinet lessons from ghosts by listening to the archive’s collection of oral histories. It ended up being a great way to get to know the city, because the musicians who were interviewed often mentioned specific clubs, restaurants, dance halls, as well as places they lived.

Many musician friends also helped my education. Driving to a gig, they might point things out saying, “See that parking lot? That used to be the ‘such-and-such’ club.” or “That shotgun, there? 'So-and-so’ grew up there.” It was usually like that; where places used to be or where people used to live. From older musicians, I learned about the neighborhoods and how things have changed. I remember thinking that some of those musicians would make great tour guides. But as most of us know, it takes a special mind to not only see beyond potential or opportunity but, also, to be able to take that opportunity and organize, collaborate, plan and market it.

Chamberlain is now putting those pieces together. His newest venture, “Rock ‘n’ NOLA Tours,” may be the first tour company that focuses on the musical heritage of New Orleans. If there are other music tours, I find it highly unlikely that they are offered by anyone with even a fraction of Dr. Chamberlain’s knowledge. He told me, “I have always thought that there was a need for a tour that educates people about the city's rich music heritage. Certainly, we are known as the birthplace of jazz, but the city has such an incredible music history even outside of the jazz story.”

After nearly a decade at the Jazz Archive, and another decade of work at the Louisiana State Museum, positions he described as, “incredible learning experiences," he got the entrepreneurial bug. "Every aspect of Louisiana history and culture is fascinating,” he continued, “...it was a blessing to be an historian in this state.” And so, last year, he started working for himself as an independent historian and decided, “the time was right to open a tour company that really focused on combining historical authenticity with entertainment.”

However, Chamberlain’s “big picture” goes well beyond just a high-quality history tour. For example, earlier this year he invited me to sit in on his meeting with a local video company. Their goal is to, “...produce a series of videos that explore local sites and connect them to current artists in their own neighborhoods.” Production will start this spring as a form of education and entertainment, as well as promotion.

Also, his tours will include music. He told me that he plans to bring, “...an iPod and a small portable speaker connected via blue tooth. ...So as we pass important historic sites, I provide a wide variety of musical samples to help illustrate the history.  The samples include everything from authentic bamboula rhythms that one might hear at Congo Square, to songs performed by some of the great legends such as Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Fats Domino or some of the great rock legends such as Led Zeppelin.”

If any of this is sounding interesting, you’re in luck. A confluence of events, conspired last month to facilitate a special “Rock ‘n’ NOLA Tour," is this Friday. Allow me to share Dr. Chamberlain's collaboration with the new "Little Gem Saloon."

For those of you who haven’t heard, “Little Gem Saloon” is a multimillion dollar restoration of an historic property on South Rampart Street. In Chamberlain’s words, “...the Little Gem Saloon is so exciting because it is a great model for integrating an historic jazz site with live performance.  The 400 block of South Rampart is an incredible place for telling the history of jazz and Louis Armstrong.  The combination of a tour and music package at the Little Gem has great potential for providing guests with a complete music experience: acquiring historical knowledge through on-sites visits and then hearing a concert that illustrates the continual thread of musical tradition that makes New Orleans so special.”

So, want a taste of people collaborating to do “heritage tourism” correctly and creatively? The Friday tour will be a “Roots of Jazz Tour,” ending at Little Gem Saloon with a three-course meal and concert presentation, “The Sounds of Storyville.” Hope you can make it. If not, have a great French Quarter Festival weekend and support live music shows.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the  cultural workforce. He writes “Who’s Steppin’ It Up?” for NolaVie. His old column, “Riffing On the Tradition” is archived here

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]