A Jazz Journey From Its New Orleans Birthplace We continue our jazz series with a look at the legacy of New Orleans jazz music. Farai Chideya talks with three notable Crescent City musicians: Irma Thomas, who is known as the queen of New Orleans soul; trumpeter and bandleader Irvin Mayfield; and Greg Davis, a member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
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A Jazz Journey From Its New Orleans Birthplace

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A Jazz Journey From Its New Orleans Birthplace

A Jazz Journey From Its New Orleans Birthplace

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This is New & Notes I'm, Farai Chideya.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

CHIDEYA: You cannot do a jazz series without this sound. It's music from the Dirty Dozen, one of a number of famous brass bands that help give the city of New Orleans its voice. But what is New Orleans Jazz? How is it faring since hurricane Katrina sent the cities musicians to higher ground? Well we've got three musicians who help make up the heart and soul of the city with us. Irvin Mayfield is a trumpeter, composer, band leader, and cultural ambassador of New Orleans. Irma Thomas is known as the queen of New Orleans soul, but that soul is linked to New Orleans jazz. And Greg Davis is a trumpeter and the founder of the Dirty Dozen brass band. One of the city's long time ensembles. Folks welcome.

Mr. GREG DAVIS (Trumpeter, Dirty Dozen Band): Hey how are you doing?

Mr. IRVIN MAYFIELD (Trumpeter, Composer, Band leader, Crescent City): Thank you. Glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: Hi, how are you. And doing great. So Greg let me start with you, we are hearing a very distinct sound from your band the Dirty Dozen. Explain for folks who don't know what kind of music you play.

Mr. DAVIS: Well, first of all it's music, and I thank the fact we're here in New Orleans, started out the band here in New Orleans, and grew up in New Orleans. It's New Orleans music even when we were taking bits and pieces from other forms of music. It all ends up being New Orleans music. Which for us I think the main thing that we wanted to make sure happen with music is that people could dance and move to the music.

CHIDEYA: Give me just a tiny little bit of history on how these brass bands developed?

Mr. DAVIS: Well the history of brass bands as a brass band goes way, way, back to the French Military style of having bands and doing funerals and all that way, way back. But as far as the bands as they are now, the Dirty Dozen imitated what had been done with the brass bands that existed in '40s, '50s, and '60s here in New Orleans where they played - develop the music from the church hymns and then took that on into you know secular music. For the Dirty Dozen history goes, we intended to imitate was happening with brass bands just before the Dirty Dozen but we weren't getting any work but we had gotten to the habit of rehearsing all five, six hours a night and this would have been in the mid '70s. In doing those rehearsals we found that, OK, we're not getting any work so let's experiment with some other music. The other music then happened to be so called modern jazz, R&B, I mean we would at rehearsals we would rehearse some Charlie Parker and some Marvin Gaye or some James Brown or whatever, you know. And when we would get a gig we play what we had rehearsed.

CHIDEYA: Irma you are one of those people who also has a very broad sense of what music is. You have a album coming out, it's called "Simply Grand" and let's listen to a little bit of this "Bitter Earth".

(Soundbite of song "Bitter Earth")

Ms. IRMA THOMAS: (Singing) This bitter earth. It can be so cold. Today you're young. Too soon you're old.

CHIDEYA: Now you can't help but think when you hear a song like this, a classic song like this, you can't help but think of what New Orleans has been through. And I have been blessed to have been to New Orleans many times including reporting on Katrina but also just to enjoy your culture. What happened to you as a person and as a musician during the whole Katrina event and aftermath?

Ms. THOMAS: Well I was blessed that the only gig I had in the month of August took me out of the city. I had one gig scheduled for that month. It was that day, that Saturday at the end of August and I was in Austin, Texas. And we flown to Austin to do the gig and of course we'd only packed enough belongings to last a couple of nights and unfortunately we were not able to return. We didn't get back to Louisiana till the Wednesday after. So I consider myself blessed in that if, you know, if I had been home I probably would have been actually resting in peace by now because I would have probably gone to bed and did not wake up from being drowned in the flood because normally you stay up all night and you watch the hurricane and when it's over then you go to bed and catch up on your sleep. And that's how a lot of folks lost their lives, they were actually asleep when the floods came. So I consider myself blessed and I was sitting in the hotel in Austin when I was watching the news and discovered that I was among the folk that they were concerned about the whereabouts of and (unintelligible) was the other and I couldn't wait to get back to Louisiana to call somebody and let them know but of course the 504 area code was not working so I couldn't contact anyone to let them know that I was OK and that I was safe in the Austin, Texas area.

CHIDEYA: And you ended up losing a night club that you've been running?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh yeah. 24 years the Lion's Den have been operating and it was like my second living room and everything went under. The water was actually above the roof at the club. It was up to the roof at our home but it was over the roof at the club and we lost everything. It took my husband about three or four days to go in after he was able to get in, find some of the cash registers and some of the other things that he was looking for in the club it was just that bad.

CHIDEYA: Irvin we're going to talk quite a bit about your music and all of the different hats you wear including cultural ambassador of New Orleans, but I'm wondering if you can tell us and I'm sure it's difficult about what happened to your father.

Mr. IRVIN MAYFIELD (Trumpeter, Composer and Band leader, Crescent City): Yeah, well he was very unfortunate victim of hurricane Katrina. He did drown in his sleep. He was a victim. And basically that example that Ms. Thomas gave about what happened in a hurricane is generally the case and I mean, people, you know - people were used to hurricanes. And most of all, in New Orleans they're used to flooding to the extent that once in every five or six years you get some water in your house and in two, three days it's gone and you replace your carpet and your furniture. A levee breach is something that just was completely unheard of and that whole experience is something out of, you know, out of what you would hoped to be a movie of some fantasy experience but it wasn't.

So my dad was a victim of drowning due to that and we - part of the great tragedy was we weren't able to really know about that until much later, until his body was found which had to be found with DNA samples. And the other thing was we weren't able to give the proper burials because, you know, that type of situation and bodies not being found for so long. So it was really unique and very tragic situation which is very interesting now when we look at a lot of the catastrophes that have happened in United States this year. People kind of have an understanding of what we experience and as long they don't really get that, you know, when we talk about a town with the type of populations that they're talking about you really have to multiply times a hundred to understand really what the New Orleans experience was.

CHIDEYA: Let me play a little bit of in a sentimental move, a bit of your music, originally by Duke Ellington.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: So I understand you're 30 years old. Is that correct?

Mr. MAYFIELD: That's right I'm 30 years old.

CHIDEYA: OK. So you are a professor, you work with kids, you have a band, and you're the cultural ambassador of the city of New Orleans. How do you pack that in?

Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, I think really a lot of the stories of the average New Orleansian, is that everybody is doing their part, you know. In this town people have kind of done stories all around the country about the volunteers that we have here but a lot of the work that we do, I guess we can't really be considered as volunteers because there's our whole city. It's just an example that everybody is doing their part. So whether it's being on a library board or, you know working, with kids or just getting out trying to clean up around your block. I'm not doing anything different than what the average New Orleansian is doing. This is just what's required right now to keep the city moving forward.

CHIDEYA: Well, just want to let folks know if anyone has just tuned in, in the middle of this, we're talking about New Orleans jazz. This is NPR's New & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya and we just were hearing from Irvin Mayfield, the trumpeter, composer, band leader, and cultural ambassador of New Orleans. Also got Irma Thomas, singer, and recording artist, and Greg Davis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Greg, let me go to you as a fan. In addition to being a musician I'm sure you're a fan of other artists in, and from, New Orleans. So just rattle off a few and we'll have this on our website and we'll list it. But for folks who re looking around for some good music just throw out a few people for us.

Mr. DAVIS: Well in throwing out a few, you know, I might miss some. But you know, I have had the pleasure of course of working with the Dirty Dozen since 1977. But since then, you know, I booked the jazz - a jazz has a book stuff at Harris, I teach at Loyola. So, I get to interact with all kinds of musicians. I'm sitting here next to Irma, you know, I've known her from way back even before the Dirty Dozen. I used to do R&B stuff with other bands in the early '70s. I'm 51 now but I've had the pleasure also of working with Irvin, you know, and the stuff that he does.

I don't think I could just name some without forgetting, you know others but, you know, that's Fats Domino, if he still does some stuff down in Tucson, there are a lot of the locals that I like listening to, you know, Walter Washington, I like going out to check out. I mean, there are a lot of people here, there's BJ Crosby, I mean, just a lot of people you could - I tell you what. You know, other cities have been sort of crowned as we never close, but you can truly come to New Orleans and always find some good music almost any time of the day and night.

CHIDEYA: Irma, want to go into - there's so much to talk about and as we were here in our offices, like, you know, what can we do on New Orleans jazz that doesn't require a 10-CD set? Well, we can't cover it all but there's some interesting stories and I want to go through one of them. We know Louis Armstrong belongs to New Orleans, but one of Gospel's greatest singers also comes from New Orleans. I'm talking about Mahalia Jackson. She had some interesting, not uncommon thoughts about jazz, though. What were they?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, Mahalia was a Gospel singer and she was true to her genre. She did not stray outside of her field and it comes from her upbringing such as, same as me, we were all raised in the church. And we were thought that you do not sing Gospel music at night clubs. You do not mix the two when you're doing a performance. And I'm one of those folks that don't mix the two. I'm often asked to sing "Amazing Grace" when I'm doing my R&B set. And I will politely tell them, no, I don't do that. If you want to find me singing Gospel, come to 2216 3rd Street, at First African Baptist church. I'm on the second row in the alto section. And she was true to her upbringing. She wanted to sing Gospel, she stuck to her guns, and that's all she would do. And she really didn't look down on the jazz scene. She just did not want to be a part of it, associated as being a participant for her living, and that's the way she stood her ground.

CHIDEYA: And Irvin, she did make one important exception, and that was for Duke Ellington. Let's hear a little bit of Mahalia Jackson with Duke Ellington, singing "Come Sunday."

(Soundbite of song "Come Sunday")

Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Oh Sunday, oh come Sunday, that's the day Often we feel weary, but he knows our every care

CHIDEYA: Irvin, when you listen to that collaboration, and I'm not going to ask you to put a label on what it is, but what do you hear?

Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, you can actually hear what it is, it's jazz. I think, I will clarify what Ms. Thomas is talking about. She's talking about first of all, an environment. And when you're talking about European classical music tradition, be it symphony orchestras or when you're talking about jazz, especially when you're talking about the core of it that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington have done, you're really talking about an art form of music and the environment if appropriate, I mean - actually, European classical music was born out of the church as we know from Bach. And much is the same as jazz music was born out of the church from Louis Armstrong, the brass band songs were all church songs at first. I mean, one our most famous jazz song is "Oh When The Saints Go Marching In." I think what Mahalia Jackson really was saying was that she was a Gospel singer, that's what she did, she did not want to be something else because that would not be true.

And what Ms. Thomas is talking about, the appropriate thing at the appropriate time, you know, I wouldn't want to play a symphony piece in the middle of a club either. And I don't want to truncate, you know, spiritual music down to the level of a club or symphonic piece, but to say that at the right environment, the right things have to be put. It has to be put together and New Orleans is a ceremonial place, and we know about when the appropriate time to do the appropriate thing is. And you know, Mahalia Jackson was a classic example of a classic New Orleanean.

CHIDEYA: Ceremonial place. There have been some battles over the second line and what's the role of music in the new New Orleans. Irvin - and I'm going to get each of you to comment just very quickly on this. Do you think that your traditions will continue?

Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, the first thing is, you know, I have a very intimate relationship. I'm on a police and justice foundation with the Chief of Police Warren Riley and with the mayor and we had a press conference to say that no musicians will ever be arrested for playing an instrument. I think what we do have is confusion, miscommunication about that and the city of New Orleans' number one natural resource is its culture. And at the central of that is music and it is food. So it, the city cannot continue to be the city without that.

CHIDEYA: All right, Irma. Just quickly. Are you confident that you guys can hold on and for long.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Why?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes. Yes, we can. Because we, by nature, we are survivors. And our talent is our survival, is part of our survival skills. And we do what we do best. That is, bring joy to folks who are at a time in their lives when they need something to break away from the drudgery of trying to reconstruct their lives. And so for no other reason, it will become a strong force into giving people some inspirational hope to continue their lives as we knew it here in New Orleans.


Mr. DAVIS: Yeah. Well, I think I would agree with what both have said. But I do know even before the song, to be a musician in New Orleans was somewhat of a struggle, you know, we the Dirty Dozen, we made our living out on the road away from New Orleans, but our hearts and souls were here to live in New Orleans. I've been all over the world. I wouldn't want to live any other place. So even after the storm, to continue to struggle - the struggle has always been there and I think musicians will always survive here.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank the three of you so much for joining us. Thank you.

Mr. MAYFIELD: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: You're welcome.

Mr. DAVIS: All right.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Greg Thomas, founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Its latest record is an interpretation of Marvin Gaye's songs called "What's Going On?" Irma Thomas is the Queen of New Orleans soul. Her forthcoming album is "Simply Grand," and Irvin Mayfield is a trumpeter, composer, educator, band leader. His latest record is "Love Songs, Ballads, and Standards." Coming up, we've got technology news and interview with Paris Barkley.

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