READ BEANS ON MONDAY: A NEW NEW ORLEANS TRADITION
Since thinking up this blog I’ve wanted to do weekly reviews of New Orleans books and/or authors; though commissions on books are miniscule, it’s a way to at least start earning a penny for my thoughts as well as to start branching into the literary community and make connections. The goal of doing weekly reviews is a lofty one, though. My professor friend Jen Wesely once complained her real year-long sabbatical flew by and my retired parents never have free time, and so I find My Year of Mardi Gras mysteriously flying by. Still, though I may fall short some weeks, making this a weekly ritual led naturally to the ‘Read Beans on Monday’ pun. It’s not perfect, but months of contemplation conjured nothing better (Read Bins On Monday was 2nd choice and that’s horrendous!)
Last week I blogged about stumbling into McKeown’s Books on Tchoupitoulas and the warm greeting I received. As planned, I returned Thursday for the monthly book club where everyone simply shares the latest non-fiction they’ve finished. Everyone again was welcoming and extremely helpful, tossing out names of potential contacts when I revealed I was a writer looking to connect. After taking my turn sharing a critique of the book below, I felt it was time to finally get off my tush and start reviewing. So it begins . . . .
IF KEN BURNS WOULD HAVE TACKLED THE BIG EASY:
Up From the Cradle Of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II
Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, & Tad Jones
Up From the Cradle of Jazz is a thorough and intensive overview of New Orleans music, focusing most of its energy on the years stretching from the post-war rise of R&B through the unfulfilled promise of Dr. John and The Neville Brothers in the 70’s. The heart of the book is in the insights and vignettes regarding local artists and talents. It’s best story actually opens the book, telling of how local news personality Bill Elders showed up at the home of famously reclusive Fats Domino in the Lower 9th Ward in order to finally corner him for an interview. Fats, though, coolly played this slick, determined newsman like a barrelhouse piano, letting all of his delighted neighbors in on the joke, and if the entire book were this charming I’d dub it must read.
Instead, Up From the Cradle of Jazz is geared more towards people who understand New Orleans music but want to dig deeper. One of the three authors is a documentary film maker and it shows, for the book feels somewhat like a companion piece to one of those double-digit episode Ken Burns documentaries. When I would bog down in lengthy descriptions of business dealings or transcribed blues and R&B lyrics, a voice in the back of my mind would almost whisper: “Just wait until PBS tonight and you’ll understand.” Future editions would greatly benefit from a companion CD for all those forgotten blues & R&B hits that lose their growl on the page. Such lyrics tend to be simple, yet the innuendo is in the inflection; the sin in the singing; and the attitude in the articulation.
Such descriptions and minutia worked better when dealing with artists I was familiar with, and I felt slighted of such rich detail for many prominent local talents such as Ellis Marsalis and his brood, Irma Thomas, and Johnny Adams. The brass band revival of the 70’s lead by Dirty Dozen Brass Band and later Rebirth Brass Band are skipped altogether. In fact, the last two decades are crammed into the last two chapters that are written with a notable change of tone. Perhaps because consolidating so much in so little face, this coda read more easily and focused a good deal of energy on post-Katrina recovery as expected. Yet to read the concluding twenty pages you’d think Dr. Michael White is the most prominent New Orleans musician playing today. He’s surely a respected traditionalist, but his honey-toned, old-fashioned clarinet is more a niche inside a city whose music is already considered a niche. Maybe the future will prove them right, but skipping brass bands and barely mentioning Kermit Ruffins or any of the rock and funk revival certainly skews the present.
This book can also be as frustrating as it is illuminating because it does an excellent job of describing this city’s staggering talent and yet inability to sustain a large national recording presence (most starkly yet lovingly told through the heartbreaking story of Professor Longhair whose ‘influence vs. recording’ ratio has to be the most inversely disproportional in New Orleans music history!) The world wants to visit New Orleans but New Orleans has always had a difficult time exporting itself to the world. Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew and later Allen Toussaint briefly opened the door to national airplay that other lesser artists rushed through, but a combination of poor business organization, little support by local government, and the unstoppable wave of the British Invasion quickly washed away this brief splash on the national scene in the ’50s. In the ’70s The Meters, The Neville Brothers and Dr. John seemed poised to reclaim the airwaves but despite critical raves and local legend status, they never achieved the sustained national sales everyone expected. The authors’ excellent job, however, tracing the roots of the first two back to Mardi Gras Indian culture is one of the highlights of the book, though it’s again sobering when they tell of how the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, and Harry Connick, Jr. found success the old-fashioned way: They moved to New York.
Despite bogging down in places, Up From the Cradle of Jazz is worth the effort for a true devotee of New Orleans music, providing layers of insight, fascinating insider tales, and a bittersweet portrait of a city whose talent has always far outweighed its commercial success.