When I am looking for new information about jazz, often I have much more fun and learn more from the musicians themselves — as opposed to reading analyses of the music from well-intentioned people who don’t play instruments, so I can recommend a new book to you. It’s called TRADITIONAL NEW ORLEANS JAZZ: CONVERSATIONS WITH THE MEN WHO MAKE THE MUSIC (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 244 pages, 2011), by Thomas W. Jacobsen, it is accurately titled, and it fills a gap.
Although jazz often revels in its status as a subversive art form, the literature of jazz is as star-struck as any glossy magazine. When it comes to New Orleans jazz, there are multiple books on Louis, Bechet, Jelly Roll, Bunk, and George Lewis – all deserving the attention. But Jacobsen’s book collects interviews with musicians who play New Orleans jazz or who have strong ties to the city. And only a few of the players depicted here are dead or inactive, which lends this collection a more lively aura.
Jacobsen’s portraits are rewarding: he introduces his subject, provides scaffolding, but much of the text is first-hand. We read of Duke Heitger’s early inspiration, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso; of Trevor Richards’ involvement with Zutty Singleton; of Brian Oglivie’s musical family; of Tom Fischer and John Royen’s early gigs; of Evan Christopher’s investigations of the Creole roots of New Orleans jazz. Jacobsen also offers a group portrait of the young New Orleanians who came up under Danny Barker’s affectionate supervision – among them Herlin Riley, Gregg Stafford, and Dr. Michael White. The oral histories touch on race relations and the business of playing Jazz in the city that was supposedly devoted to it.
Jacobsen originally created these interviews for The Mississippi Rag, and most of them were published there in slightly altered form. But now that the Rag has ended its long run, this book is a valuable collection. Some of the interviews done between 1995 and 2006 leave us wanting to know more about the current lives of their subjects. To that end, he has written brief introductions to say something about life after Hurricane Katrina). The book is an original work, full of lively stories that only Rag readers with long memories or piles of newsprint would have access to. I found it entertaining, heartfelt, and worth its price in compact discs. You can find out more about it here: http://lsupress.org/authors/detail/thomas-w-jacobsen/