NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Say a Prayer for New Orleans and Its Music

A Culture's Unique Music Heritage Faces Dangerous Uncertainty

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Beyond the human suffering and loss, Hurricane Katrina may well have submerged, badly damaged or otherwise destroyed an enormous chapter of American popular culture. I’m referring, of course, to the music of New Orleans.

Until we know what has survived in the way of musical landmarks and archival material, especially tape masters and original documents, we can only hope this is not a total cultural disaster, in addition to being an almost unparalleled human tragedy.

The history of music in the Crescent City is incredibly rich and remains unmatched in any other American city. Dixieland jazz, rhythm & blues, funk, the backbeat, the second line bands, zydeco, Cajun, jazz, dance and brass band music, and all the rest — the music is a wild and heady gumbo of widely diverse styles. A worldly mix of Old World and New World, of Africa and Europe and the Old South, it’s an earthy and organic music that has known no boundaries.

Just listing some of the great artists from the New Orleans area, or who made it their musical home, is like reading poetry: Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Kid Ory, Professor Longhair, Aaron Neville, the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Neville Brothers, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns, Frankie Ford, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jimmy Clanton, Bobby Charles, Ernie K-Doe, Larry Williams, Shirley & Lee, Guitar Slim, the Spiders, Earl King, “Snooks” Eaglin, Chris Kenner, Joe Jones, Barbara George, Jessie Hill, Johnny Adams, Eddie Bo, Bobby Marchan, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Roy Brown, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, Champion Jack Dupree, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Pete Fountain, Wynton Marsalis, Rockin’ Dopsie, Rockin’ Sidney, the Olympia Brass Band, Johnny Adams, Jimmy C. Newman, Doug Kershaw, the Dixie Cups and many, many more.

There is no doubt that, today, New Orleans music is more “then” than it is “now.” But the “then” is so significant and so memorable that you tend not to quibble about what is going on currently. Or rather what was going on before Hurricane Katrina struck.

My own musical memories of New Orleans are even sweeter now that I know I can never go back to the city the way it was. I’ll never forget days spent staying in the Royal Orleans Hotel with the Rolling Stones as they prepared for their 1975 Tour of the Americas. I was able to spend time listening to them talk at length about their enthusiasm for New Orleans music and its roots and funk and the city’s food and amazing mix of restaurants.

I can’t imagine never returning to Tipitina’s, where I spent many nights in that incredible, rockin’ home of funk and groove on Napoleon Avenue, where the very air was sweet with music and the scent of river and fragrant flowers. That world may be gone now, along with the world of Bourbon Street, the Brass Rail Club, Dave Bartholomew, Cosimo Matassa, Allen Toussaint, Ace Records, Storyville, the Louis Armstrong Society at the Bienville House Hotel, the Funky Butt Hall, Marshall Sehorn, the early Little Richard recording sessions, Preservation Hall and Sea-Saint Recording Studio. A world like we’ll probably never know again.

What will become of the incomparable annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival? It’s obviously too soon to know. That Festival has been one of the most rewarding musical events on the planet. I hope it can find a way to continue, but it’s hard to see how right now. Speaking of that, what happens to Mardi Gras itself? Will it disappear? What?

I was disheartened to read this bulletin on the Internet from WWOZ, “New Orleans Roots Radio”: Due to HURRICANE KATRINA, we signed off on August 27th at midnight. WWOZ will not be broadcasting until further notice. I can only hope the station can return. And I can only hope that all of New Orleans’ musical institutions can find a means of getting by and trying to flourish.

And what will become of New Orleans’ rank-and-file musicians? Their venues are closed, their gigs may be gone forever. A city of music has been silenced.

There’s a very disturbing news report at press time that several musicians, including Irma Thomas, may be missing in New Orleans.

Shed a tear and say a prayer for the survival of the great musical heritage of New Orleans.