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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At the core of New Orleans, music is the beat. The drum is the source from which it all flows - the jazz, the funk, the R&B, the jazz funerals. And there pounding away at the heart of the New Orleans sound, you can find Shannon Powell. He's one of the greatest drummers this musical city has ever produced. But, like most drummers, he's not as well-known as trumpeters or clarinetists. NPR's John Burnett has the story of Shannon Powell.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Inside his shotgun house, Shannon Powell is playing a rhythmic definition of the city.

SHANNON POWELL: New Orleans drummers accent on the four: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. You see what I'm saying?

BURNETT: It is said of Shannon Powell that he's part of this city's musical DNA, that he knows things that only New Orleans drummers know.

POWELL: African rhythms, Brazilian rhythms, calypso. It's all related. This beat here (drumming) that is the heartbeat to all the different rhythms that I just called out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

POWELL: You hear that?

BURNETT: The 49-year-old Powell is the A-list drummer in town. He's played with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with Dr. John, Harry Connick, Nicholas Payton, and R&B guitarist Earl King.

POWELL: That's Brazilian, that's a Brazilian beat, like a samba.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

POWELL: OK, but it's the same thing as...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

BURNETT: He got his start as a teenager with the legendary banjo player and guitarist, Danny Barker.

POWELL: You hear the bass drum?

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING AND SCATTING)

BURNETT: Powell has also toured with jazz vocalist Diana Krall and jazz musicians John Scofield and Marcus Roberts.

POWELL: See what I'm saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING AND SCATTING, "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA")

POWELL: See, all that music is related.

BURNETT: Perhaps that's the genius of Shannon Powell: it's all related. Currently, he fronts a contemporary jazz band called Powell's Place, with Jason Marsalis, of the Marsalis dynasty, playing vibes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: They say drumming is an essential part of the language of New Orleans. Kids walk home from school with drumsticks beating on the sides of buildings, or pounding on cardboard boxes during parades. Powell does that too. Like the New Orleans early drummers, he spends a lot of time off the skins with rimshots, woodblocks and cowbells.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWELL: She say Harry look like a pimp. But he was clean and he liked it.

BURNETT: Powell is on his front porch laughing with his uncles, while a riverboat announces its departure down on the Mississippi. He lives in the heart of one of the most famous musical precincts in America: the Treme - now the name of a hit HBO series. His house faces Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, where two centuries ago African slaves gathered every Sunday to drum and dance. Around the corner was the Caldonia Bar, where the great Professor Longhair lived in an apartment upstairs.

POWELL: I used to pass by there on my way going to school. I could hear Professor Longhair upstairs on the piano playing. And then right in this block here before you get to the corner, there was a building, it was a house where Allan Toussaint had a studio and the Meters was in there recording.

BURNETT: Gospel music wafted out the door of the sanctified church next to Powell's house. Jazz funeral processions passed by on the street on their way from the burial ground to the barroom.

POWELL: See, I was surrounded by all this music. Like my uncle say, I'm part of the source. You know, I...

CHARLIE GABRIEL: He are the source. That's what he is.

BURNETT: That's his uncle Charlie Gabriel, a well-known clarinet and saxophone player. In terms of style, Shannon Powell would place himself staunchly among the traditionalists - in food as well as music.

POWELL: I think I'm going to have the red beans today, with the white meat chicken, and a little unsweetened tea.

BURNETT: He's having lunch at Willie Mae's Scotch House in the Treme, whose succulent, cayenne-battered fried chicken is considered some of the best on earth. He seems to know everyone in the dining room.

POWELL: How you been, man?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I been good, Shannon baby. I can't complain.

POWELL: It's been awhile, huh?

BURNETT: The drummer is known as something of a curmudgeon when it comes to new New Orleans music. He complains about everybody from Trombone Shorty to the Rebirth Brass Band.

POWELL: They playing one style of music and calling it something else. Don't say we playing traditional New Orleans music if you playing rock n roll. That's what I'm saying.

NICK SPITZER: He's not the only person in the history of New Orleans jazz that has said there needs to be the continuity of the tradition. I mean, continuity is a wonderful thing, but to keep a tradition alive you have to create new sounds and new songs and new styles.

BURNETT: Nick Spitzer is a folklorist, New Orleans resident, and host of public radio's American Routes.

SPITZER: I would say Shannon is right there, at the center of the rear guard, kicking the bass, playing the snare and pushing everybody forward. That's a good role for Shannon to play. He's good at it. He does it with a smile on his face.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The house is packed at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, the cathedral of traditional jazz in New Orleans. Tourists have filled every square inch on the creaky old wooden floor. Powell sits at his drum kit, a great beneficent presence in a black beret, with a gap-tooth grin. He leads the band here every Tuesday night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right, ladies and gentleman. Without further ado, it is my privilege and honor to introduce Mr. Shannon Powell and the Preservation Hallstars.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BURNETT: Though Powell plays every style of New Orleans music, this is where he feels most at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: He's an old-fashioned showman on the drums, like Louie Bellson or Buddy Rich. Powell calls the tunes, cracks the jokes, picks the soloists and mesmerizes the crowd, especially when he picks up a tambourine and testifies on it the way he learned from the sanctified church ladies.

POWELL: I feel the spirit coming on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

BURNETT: Dave Torkanowsky, a renowned local jazz pianist, has played with Powell for 25 years.

DAVE TORKANOWSKY: Shannon Powell, what can I say, man? He is the embodiment of every great drummer that I love. He is the living history. He's the last of his kind. I mean, this town is the beachhead of African culture in America and he is a direct uncut descendant from that. I mean, the humidity is in his playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMBOURINE PLAYING)

BURNETT: Shannon Powell will be playing at this year's Jazzfest in late April, and his band, Powell's Place, has a new CD coming out soon. If you listen carefully, you can hear the humidity. John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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