Sunday, November 06, 2005

Mike Zwerin gets grumpy on New Orleans jazz

“...the fact remains that the prehistoric jazz music New Orleans is noted for had already been under water for nigh on to half a century.”
-Mike Zwerin

Ok, I know it's over a month ago that Mike Zwerin wrote this controversial opinion piece for Bloomberg about the state of New Orleans jazz in the wake of Katrina. Cahl's Juke Joint has also commented on it with great expertise. I've been thinking about this very issue for some time now, and to some extent even before Katrina, and while Zwerin has some valid points, for the most part, he's off base.

Zwerin says that pre-Katrina, New Orleans' jazz "image" was more of a myth than reality. He talks about the "moldy jazz being played [at Preservation Hall]," and the artistic stagnation of the music tourists usually hear in the French Quarter. He characterizes the city as simply another "provincial" town where the good talent leaves town, and those who stay behind are somehow to be looked down upon and aren't "putting music first." And that's just a quick summary of Zwerin's bitter rant.

First, Zwerin has some points. Pre-Katrina New Orleans was not the jazz capital of the world. But such a statement is self evident. I haven't heard anyone, even Wynton Marsalis, say that New Orleans today is the biggest center of jazz music in the world. A city known for jazz music, yes. A city central to the understanding of the historical development of the music, yes. But Zwerin is simply stuffing his straw man with extra hay, only to knock it down.

Second, yes, plenty of musicians have left the city to go on to fame and fortune. But those left behind are hardly less than world class. Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard spend a lot of time on the road, but to my knowledge, both maintained homes in the Cresent City, pre-Katrina. And Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield are (were) certainly New Orleans residents and two of the biggest musical ambassadors of the city. Both show a respect for the New Orleans tradition, but take the music in a new direction, hardly the Presevation Hall crowd (though there is a place for that too.) Perhaps Ruffin is too much of an entertainer for Zwerin. But what about a group like Astral Project, as long a running modern jazz ensemble as any "provinvcial" city can boast.

I get the feeling Zwerin is bitter because he sees New Orleans getting credit for something he (apparently) feels it did not deserve. It's more of the same old bitter jazz attitude that does nothing to bring anyone new into the music. If anything, instead of viewing jazz as a musical wax museum, like Zwerin asserts, Zwerin misses the point - jazz in New Orleans had so permeated the culture it morphed into other styles and genres, that may not be "jazz" per say, but are certainly jazz informed. Zwerin would be far better off to examine the entire New Orleans music scene, rather than just the Preservation Hall/French Quarter stuff that populated the pre-Hurricane tv tourisim commercials. New Orleans may not have been the jazz capital of the world, but it was certainly one of the great "music cities" of the US, right up there with Austin, Memphis and Nashville. Jazz, both traditional and modern were a large part of that, but due to the same cultural forces that created jazz itself, it wasn't the only game in town, just perhaps the most famous and easily marketed.

Cahl's Juke Joint on this same article...

Mike Zwerin's original piece...


Blogger Laylah Queen of the Night said...

Zwerin needs to take a chill pill...

2:58 PM  

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