Living Legends of Jazz

Donn Young
by Michael White - Louisiana - Fall 07

Come hell or high water, New Orleans plays on

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Music is a way of life that has pulsated at the center of New Orleans’ unique culture since its French origins in the eighteenth century. The city’s most significant musical contribution, jazz, which appeared just prior to 1900, was both an evolution of celebratory traditions and the voice of an oppressed African American population seeking social justice and equality.  Too hot and danceable to be contained, jazz’s driving rhythms and collective improvisation reached all incomes, races, and places — dances, picnics, sports events, boat rides, and weekend excursions along Lake Pontchartrain.  Black social and benevolent organizations spread the democracy-based music through community parades and funerals in which marching brass bands were accompanied by a large crowd of anonymous dancers of all ages called the second line.

While, throughout the twenties, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong helped launch New Orleans music from northern cities, jazz continued to thrive locally in neighborhoods and musical families. Its sound and spirit influenced later forms of music of which the Crescent City produced leading figures, such as gospel great Mahalia Jackson and R&B legend Fats Domino. The heritage of New Orleans music continues today in several different styles, with internationally successful artists such as Aaron Neville, Harry Connick, Jr., Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Dr. John, and Lil Wayne. But today’s famous musicians represent only a small fraction of New Orleans’ rich wellspring of talented performers. Dozens of lesser known individuals have spent much of their lives and careers in their city, dividing their time between family, day jobs — and performing. These musicians have had a wide range of adventures and experiences, and some have survived hardship; yet, in their later years they continue to perform and inspire younger generations through the traditional jazz roots of New Orleans’ musical heritage.

This greatest musical culture in American history was severely affected when Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans. Many musicians lost their homes and possessions, hundreds were scattered throughout the country, and scores have not returned. Among the musicians who have returned and resumed their careers are a group of veteran performers whose will and spirit are a testimony to the resilient nature of New Orleans music.

Continuing the tradition of using music as a means of survival and triumph over adversity, they perform whenever they can in clubs, at festivals, for weddings, parties, and brunches. The unique jazz funeral tradition of slow sad pieces and joyous up-tempo music with dancing has shown them how to mourn, let go, and move optimistically toward the future. Music has helped them cope with tragedy and loss, to comfort and find comfort in others, and to bring back a degree of normalcy. These elder statesmen share their musical gifts with a strength and determination that defies skeptics and assures that the music of New Orleans will live on forever.