New Orleans: Death and Rebirth?

By Gina Hotta

The music of New Orleans has a lot to do with dying. It employs musicians; it brings families together, brings tourism in and brings a little up-lift to life in the Deep South. Brass bands march to the cemetery, slow and solemn on their way to; high-stepping, up-beat on their way from – the crowd backing them up, umbrellas bouncing up and down to the rhythm. Some say that the spirited music is to scare away the spirits – so that the dead won’t try to leave their grave for the living. Just like some traditions in West Africa have the same rite – traditions that lasted longer in New Orleans than the rest of North America.

It’s the music that I miss most when I hear what’s happened to the city in the wake of neglect, a sacrifice to the wars that greed, fear and the Very un-hip are waging with not a 16th beat-thought to America’s best-known musical heritage: jazz.

New Orleans jazz has been misunderstood; been cast-off as a kind of minstrely, Dixie Landish old-timey kind of bumpity-bump, chunk, chunk sort of sound. But the real thing in New Orleans – is not that it’s so much jazz or it’s this or that – the real thing is swing.

It’s a kind of beat that lives best when there’s a push and pull to it. As an African music teacher once said, when playing the drums he had to hang on hard to his beat as others clashed and crashed against it.

But that, underneath it all, creates swing. It acknowledges differences to make something that moves together and, in the end, moves people. It trains one to listen, to hang on, concentrate, gives a nod to the key role you and everyone else plays to make the divergent come together, to make you want to jump and shout. It brings out the spirit out for some and makes them stay behind for others.

These days in music, I don’t think I hear many things that have that swing. It’s lurking in the background – behind the heavy down beats, but still…if it’s not really There; then what about the things that make swing? What about the tug and the push that you have to understand before finding the One, before you move people?

If you can, listen to the Audio Clip on New Orleans (downloads a 1.7MB mp3 file). It’s only a little door – a small part of a larger piece – that can open the ears to what New Orleans has given to us. Know the past; the first; the innovators; and you can go wherever the spirit takes you.

Before this ends: a toast to the Crescent City; and the same for all the people who you hear on the audio clip New Orleans: Death and Rebirth…

Pianist Henry Butler; The Meters; The Dirty Dozen and Re-Birth and Zenith Brass Bands; Narvin Kimball and the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band; percussionist Anthony Brown; Olu of the Egun-gun society and Christina V. Lagajit.

– Article and audio clip by Gina Hotta, has degrees in Music and Political Science as well as won several national awards for radio work.

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