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Library of Congress: Saving New Orleans Music

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Library of Congress: Saving New Orleans Music

Library of Congress: Saving New Orleans Music

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In Orleans, one tiny community radio station has had a very big impact on the city's culture, and especially its music.

For 15 years, WWOZ has been recording performances at clubs, festivals, and on the New Orleans streets. Its collection of live shows dates back even farther, including some 7,000 hours of material. It barely survived Hurricane Katrina. But now, it's making its way to a new home at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: WWOZ's first digs positioned the upstart station perfectly to broadcast some of New Orleans' greatest musicians. The studio was in the beer storage shed above the performance stage at the city's premier nightclub, Tipitinas. Local lore has it that someone punched a hole in the floor, and when a notable act showed up, the DJ would just lower a microphone down the opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BLOCK: Would you like to play a Ray Charles tune first?

BLOCK: At a drop of a hat.

BLOCK: I love it.

KAHN: In 1982, WWOZ founding manager Jerry Brock interviewed pianist James Booker just one year before the local jazz legend died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "COME BACK BABY")

BLOCK: (Singing) Come back - as if you didn't know - baby. Mama please don't go.

KAHN: This is one of the oldest recordings made by WWOZ, it was rescued by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. O-Z, as it's affectionately called, soon moved from the beer closet to a three-room shack in Armstrong Park. Times were always tight for the all-volunteer operation, but it kept broadcasting and recording. Its collection grew, and despite efforts at preservation, thousands of hours of classic New Orleans music were stashed in an ordinary storage shed when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Luckily, says David Freedman, OZ's current general manager, the flood waters stopped right at the facility's loading dock.

BLOCK: In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. First of all, we didn't lose our tapes to the water. And secondly, we were forced into dealing with this wonderful problem that we created, which was we had this incredible priceless collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BEAU'S MARDI GRAS")

KAHN: OZ made many of its recordings like this one of Beau Jocque and the Zydeco High Rollers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BEAU'S MARDI GRAS")

BEAU JOCQUE: (Singing) Go wear the Mardi Gras. (Unintelligible). Oh, wear the Mardi Gras. (Unintelligible).

KAHN: OZ general manager David Freedman says these recordings may have survived the flood, but the mold and cold were just as threatening. Freedman turned to the Grammy Foundation and later to the Library of Congress, which three years earlier had named the collection to its national recording registry. The Library agreed to store the recordings, and Freedman starting shipping off crates.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: One of my favorite is a recroding that we did at Beacon John(ph) who is a local icon. And he did this incredible blues piece. So it's like it can tore into you. It's just scintillating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: It could take more than 10 years to catalog and digitize OZ's vast collection. But Gene DeAnna, head of the recorded-sound section at the Library of Congress, says he's thrilled to get it.

BLOCK: The collection is remarkable. It is full of treasures. It's absolutely an all-star lineup of New Orleans jazz and blues performers. Right now, we are looking at about 3,000 hours, and I understand that there is more to come.

KAHN: But more than the sheer volume, the labor-intensive process is complicated by the multiple types of formats the station used to record live performances. Everything from a standard cassette to multi-track video equipment. And this station is still at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: Just last month, WWOZ caught up with the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians practicing in a packed social hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: WWOZ is currently broadcasting from temporary set-up in the French Quarter. Its shack in Armstrong Park didn't survive Katrina, and informality still reigns at the station. Nothing stops a visitor from walking straight into the broadcast studio - which no longer has a hole in the floor.

JOCQUE: And you're singing and swinging with WWOZ 90.7 FM, New Orleans.

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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