New Orleans – the birthplace of jazz, the city where jazz is not just a musical style but a lifestyle, where brass bands play on street corners, where the Marsalis family reigns – every jazz musician’s fantasy. We have a romantic image of the city of jazz but how does reality look like?Last weekend I attended the Cutting Edge Music Conference in New Orleans and we performed at several venues with The Time Flies. Musicians and professionals in the industry came together for three days at the Intercontinental Hotel to discuss career paths, current trends, legal issues, and network. In addition, hundreds of musicians showcased their talents nightly at six different venues. We had a wonderful time and make new friends but there were a few observations and discussions that made me wonder about the fate of the birthplace of jazz. Most of these issues came up during presentations and were usually voiced by the New Orleans citizens in attendance – would love to get some feedback –
- The early jazz greats were closely affiliated with the brothels of the famed Storyville district. We happened to catch a new exhibit on the Madams & Music of Storyville. The saying was that once a maiden entered Storyville she would never leave again – the prostitutes had everything they needed at the brothels and had no reason to move out of the district. On the other hand, the mostly male musicians made a great living entertaining as nightly visitors. But when Storyville closed in 1917, there were no more outlets for this new music called jazz and most musicians packed their bags and moved north to Chicago. For example, King Oliver with his second trumpeter Louis Armstrong worked the Chicago clubs and recorded at Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana. Young Bix Beiderbecke learned from the migrants and continued to develop the style together with other youngsters from the Midwest to New York. That means, New Orleans lost many of its innovators and the claim on the musical style already in 1917. Many will most likely argue against this, but did New Orleans jazz became a historical artifact at that time?
- With its location at the Mississippi Delta surrounded by swamp, the New Orleans scene is similar to an Island. Most musicians are stationary with little travel outside of the city. As a result, there is some isolation from new musical developments, little collaboration, and a scarceness of resources. For example, there is no music retail and repair shop in the city, only a few Mom & Pop stores with limited supplies and overpriced repair services. Most musicians perform live extensively – in a tourist town every little corner bar presents live music. But the jobs are long hours and underpaid and require a tourist-friendly repertoire. As a result, there is little time and opportunity to develop original music and create recordings. Thus there is no additional income source from recording and a need to perform even more – a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.
- Many musicians come to New Orleans to learn the traditional music styles from the masters. But the scene is transient and after a few years they leave to other places with a more sustainable arts economy and more resources.
But – the magic is alive and well and incredible music and musicians can be heard and seen at any moment. There is a lot of pride in the craft, in the dedication to performing and entertaining. The language of music brings people together and overrides any hardships – especially in a musically rich city like this one. Hopefully some needed resources will arrive with new enterprises and keep the magic thriving.