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Teaching Traditional Jazz: The Roots Must Remain

Updated: Apr 4, 2019

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A band featuring such New Orleans greats as trumpeter Bunk Johnson, trombonist Jim Robinson and clarinetist George Lewis gigs in New York City, c. June 1946 (photo by William P. Gottlieb courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In New Orleans, traditional jazz is taken up by new generations despite cultural and political setbacks

When Aron Lambert was 9 or 10, his afternoons often consisted of the same ritual: After school, he’d wander a few blocks through the French Quarter to where his parents worked with his aunt and uncle Jaffe at Preservation Hall. If Speedy the maintenance man was still sweeping up from the previous night’s show, Lambert would help him pick up the discarded cups. When the space was clean, Speedy would sit at the piano and begin to play, while Lambert got behind the drums and tapped out his best semblance of what he’d seen Josiah “Cie” Frazier and other drummers do with the same familiar songs.

Once, Frazier passed through the carriageway while Lambert and Speedy were playing. Frazier didn’t say much; he just moved the cymbals away from the apparently overzealous young drummer and gestured for him to continue. Lambert chalked it up to a lesson in focusing on the drums rather than over-decorating the music. Other times, the lessons Lambert took home from the hall were less tangible. “The Humphrey Brothers, Kid Thomas, Louis Nelson, all the greats who I was blessed to grow up listening to, they were the ones that I spent time with,” Lambert, now 47 and a drummer with the Treme Brass Band and others, recently recalled.

Talking to older musicians about both the music and their lives outside of jazz, he explained, gave him a more complex understanding of what traditional jazz meant in New Orleans. “I got to know them all as men, as individuals,” he said. “The music wasn’t taught to kids as a way to get to fame; it was taught as a way of life, as a language.”

That kind of mentorship in traditional New Orleans jazz was not uncommon in the ’70s, when Lambert was growing up, or for many decades prior. The tradition’s more recent history is often traced to Danny Barker, who famously returned to New Orleans from New York in the ’60s and discovered a drastic reduction in the number of traditional-jazz bands since he’d last lived in the city. Those that remained were composed of increasingly older musicians—a bad sign for the music’s future.

In 1970, Barker organized a group of mostly teenagers under the auspices of a local church. The young Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band performed repertoire drawn largely from spiritual music, played in tempos and with rhythms made for dancing—or marching, depending on the occasion—and learned how to dress in the traditional-jazz-band style: black pants, crisp white shirts and caps displaying the name of their group. Locally, they were a hit that spawned other young traditional-jazz outfits and helped prepare members to become successful leaders in the jazz and brass-band worlds.

The Effect of the Changing Landscape of Venues & Institutions on Teaching Traditional Jazz

The landscape for traditional New Orleans jazz continued to ebb through the decades. Today, the dance halls and church parades that once helped sustain the music are long gone. The annual Sunday parades held by social aid and pleasure clubs tend not to hire traditional-jazz groups as they once did, having developed a preference for bands that play in the modern brass-band styles popularized by the Dirty Dozen, another Fairview band offshoot of the 1970s, and Rebirth Brass Band in the ’80s. In more recent decades, neighborhood demographics and the socioeconomic realities of life in New Orleans changed, too, particularly after Hurricane Katrina.

Despite these challenges, new efforts are being made to perpetuate the music. In some cases this is happening on bandstands, in the city streets and in family homes. In others, professional musicians are taking up the mantle of mentorship in schools and within nonprofit organizations like the Preservation Hall Foundation and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

Clarinetist Dr. Michael White is quick to point out that there are limits to what can be absorbed by a young musician in 2017. “The problem is this is a very special and unique tradition,” White said in a recent phone call. From his perspective, the cumulative effect of being immersed in the culture when it was still vibrant at dances, parades and community events was essential to his grasp of its depth and meaning and sound. “If you don’t have that now, the only way to get to it is to talk to the few people around that know and ask them as much as possible”—and to study the history, he added, to listen to the recordings until, as he put it, “they become part of you.”

Dr. Michael White (photo by Braden Piper c/o Basin Street Records)

The clarinetist’s own experience as a traditional-jazz musician began in 1975, when he was hired to play a church parade with trumpeter Doc Paulin. He remained in the band for about four years, during which time he was encouraged and watched over by the older musicians. “They’d tell you if you were doing something wrong, what you might need to work on, specifically things like your tone or the structure of certain songs or the chord changes,” White said. “Some of them would tell you about learning the style of music—and in traditional music, that’s a big thing.”

As a teacher and mentor today, White keeps in mind what he learned from playing with Paulin and other bands in the ’70s and early ’80s, especially given that the faster-paced, modern brass-band styles have veered away from the traditional approach, creating some confusion about the differences between the two.

White’s colleagues in Paulin’s band included guys who’d played with Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds, George Lewis and Bunk Johnson, giving him a connection to a lineage that’s increasingly harder to find today. “They understood style and values,” White said. “And they very easily sort of led you into figuring out what the guidelines for the music were—but also how you could find your own sound and character and personality.”

One of those key guidelines is related to the fact that traditional New Orleans jazz was made for dancing. “It’s not about how fast you can play,” White said. “This is a leisurely type of music. It’s not like Dixieland. … You’re generating a spirit and a feeling. Rhythm should be a very important, driving force.”

Perhaps the most universal emphasis he heard from older players coming up was on the importance of tone, something he tries to pass along. Historically, the goal was “to develop a sound and expression that was as unique to you as your voice or your facial features or your handwriting,” White explained.

Similarly, when he teaches melody, White tells students to think of how they might give a speech, adding their own inflections and interpretations to the words on the page. Those ideas—that a musician’s tone and melodies should sound like them—may seem basic, but as White explained, they’re essential to traditional jazz because of the context in which the music was born. “When jazz started it wasn’t about fame or money. It was partly a response to the social conditions going on in New Orleans,” White said. “It was a time of great social upheaval [and] racial turbulence. And while there was this traditional need to party and enjoy life, there was also this need to respond to what was happening.”

It was “not an accident,” he added, that the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that upheld racial segregation came out of an incident in New Orleans at the same time jazz was developing in the city. “[Black] people were considered … invisible,” White said. “You didn’t matter, your life didn’t matter, your thoughts didn’t matter, your spirit didn’t matter. … And in a way, the values of early jazz served as a metaphor for democracy, but they were also a way of combating this invisibility by allowing for extreme visibility. People were recognized, praised … able to be distinguished because of their individual tone and sound.”

A Post-Katrina New Orleans

More than a century later, the lasting demographic effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans echo many of those issues of equality, visibility and voice. They’ve affected the way young people in the city can and are learning about their traditional-jazz heritage, too.

After New Orleans rebuilt from a flood that hit predominantly black and working-class neighborhoods harder than it hit more affluent and predominantly white sections of the city, historically black neighborhoods like Treme gentrified and returned whiter. The amount of music in the streets of those neighborhoods dwindled. School districts changed, as did the role of music in their curriculums.

When Preservation Hall launched its foundation in 2011, these issues weren’t far from mind. “Post-Katrina, there was a large contingency of jazz and brass-band programs that were part of the normal school-day program that were lost,” said the foundation’s Programs Director, trombonist and educator Ashley Shabankareh. “Because of the disjointed nature of the [charter] school system in New Orleans today, you have kids that aren’t connecting to the culture and the tradition that’s in their neighborhood because they can’t attend a school that’s by their house anymore.”

The effect, she explained, is that children who come through the organization’s education programs largely seem familiar with the concept of jazz and brass bands but often have never seen either style performed live, nor do they know much about the roles jazz and brass bands have played in their city for more than a century. “You’re seeing a generational loss of the culture being passed down because the education system is impeding on that opportunity,” she said.

That’s where teachers like trumpeter Kevin Louis come in. A New Orleans native who attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and studied jazz at Oberlin, Louis returned to New Orleans from New York after Katrina with a specific interest in protecting and preserving traditional jazz. As a teacher with the hall’s education programs, he has an opportunity to, as he puts it, “work with my elders and the younger generation, like I’m bridging the gap.” When he introduces older players affiliated with the hall to students, he tells them, “This is our stuff; it’s the closest thing to the ancestors. This music is our link.”

Preservation Hall educator Kevin Louis (photo by Melissa Cacciola)

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