Lost Jazz Treasures Live on in Clarinetist's Music Clarinetist and music historian Michael White lost a treasury of New Orleans jazz artifacts in the Katrina flood. The 30 years of collected knowledge now resides in his memory and his music — which reflects the passion of his loss and recovery.
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Lost Jazz Treasures Live on in Clarinetist's Music

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Lost Jazz Treasures Live on in Clarinetist's Music

Lost Jazz Treasures Live on in Clarinetist's Music

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Clarinetist Michael White is regarded as one of the best traditional jazz players in New Orleans and a noted historian of the music. He has, or rather had, one of the greatest private collections of New Orleans jazz artifacts.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, Katrina changed everything.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

To walk through the (unintelligible) ruin of Michael White's yellow brick one story house in the Gentilly neighborhood is to tread on the history of jazz. It crunches underfoot. Somewhere down here is a mouthpiece that belonged to the legendary clarinetist Sidney Bechet, a busted banjo string given to White by the great Danny Barker, the original sheet music to Jellyroll Morton's Dead Man Blues and copies of White's original compositions for which there are no duplicates.

Dr. MICHAEL WHITE (Jazz Clarinetist): And most of the music just sort of crumbled up and disappeared. If you can see all the different shreds of paper molded together and whatever, that's what's is really left of a very extensive collection of music. Not only not salvageable, but unidentifiable.

BURNETT: If you detect a quiver in White's voice, that's because this visit to his gutted, warped, discolored house is difficult. In fact he agreed to come reluctantly as a courtesy for us. His record collection alone contained more than 5,000 CDs, LPs, and 78s. This ruined treasury of American music now resides at the dump next to moldy refrigerators and muck crusted clothing.

Dr. WHITE: I had been collecting for 30 years. A lot of the materials that I had were rare editions, out of print items. Things that are hard to find.

BURNETT: Dr. Michael White is tall and formal with sad eyes. Formerly a Spanish language professor, he now teaches African American music at Xavier University with a focus on New Orleans music. White knew in his 20s that he wanted to play traditional jazz. And so he befriended old masters and asked them to school him. They obligated and he began a lifetime of studying, playing and celebrating the authentic music.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

BURNETT: The backyard of his house looks directly onto a floodwall of a London Avenue canal. It's one of the canals that ruptured and turned New Orleans into water world. White lived under the same false sense of security the rest of the city did. They believed the dikes would hold, that they would be safe. When White evacuated to Houston the day before the storm, though, he had a nagging sense of impending disaster. So with his overnight bag, he brought he eight most prized clarinets and left the rest.

Dr. WHITE: I lost pretty close to 60 instruments. More than 50 of them were vintage clarinets from between the late 1890s and the early 1930s. Most of the cases had disintegrated and just popped open and I saw a lot of the instruments and it was hard to see because the wood had become discolored. It was swollen and all of the keys had rusted and were covered with mold and mildew. It was almost like looking at dead bodies in these cases.

BURNETT: You could make the argument that Michael White has less to grieve over because these were clarinets, after all, not people lost in the floodwaters. But the loss of his music collection is only part of his story. He knows people who drowned, people who died of infections from the toxic water, people who later died from stress related illness and people who committed suicide.

We enter his bedroom. Despite being under water for nearly three weeks, on the wall is an inexplicably intact picture of George Lewis, the great New Orleans clarinetist.

Dr. WHITE: That picture just kind of stayed up there, and you know, it's a very important picture because you can see that look on his face, that look of strength. And even though the picture is kind of molded and covered up, somehow it's like he survived. So in a sense that's inspirational to me.

BURNETT: White will need much inspiration and, he says, prayer to keep on. With his life's work destroyed, all he has now is what he remembers.

Dr. WHITE: The spirit of what I learned from the older musicians and what they gave me is all inside and that's the most valuable thing I have. The rest of the material, well, is just gone.

BURNETT: At 51 years old he plans to start over his research, writing and composing. He continues to organize concerts, develop young musicians and play with his own group. During this interim, which he calls a twilight zone, White is living on the campus at Xavier. At six foot one, he has to duck every time he climbs into his cluttered FEMA trailer, which presents certain problems for a musician.

Dr. WHITE: You can't really practice in a FEMA trailer.

BURNETT: The trailers are too close together, he says, and it's claustrophobic. Michael White has been living in that place familiar to so many New Orleanians, limbo. He shuttles between his hometown and Houston, where he had to put his 83-year-old mother in a nursing home. His neighborhood of Gentilly is still a wasteland. He doesn't know whether to rebuild or move somewhere else, and the city is threatening to condemn his property.

Dr. WHITE: The problem is of course there is nowhere else on earth like New Orleans.

BURNETT: But that's not just a problem. It's also a source of strength, because he can draw on the unique traditions of this city to get through this terrible time.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Dr. WHITE: A jazz funeral has slow and sad music, which is to lament the loss and the passing, and it ends with joyous up-tempo music and dancing. And that is to look with optimism and joy at the future.

(Soundbite of The Liberty Brass Band)

BURNETT: This is White's group The Liberty Brass Band playing last May at Tulane University's commencement ceremony. It has become trite to use a jazz funeral as a metaphor for the resurrection of New Orleans ever since President Bush used it - locals think disingenuously - in his Jackson Square speech last September. But White understands it, having played more than 200 jazz funerals in his long career.

Dr. WHITE: I feel like in a way I've been reborn, have another chance, because life as I knew it is over. New Orleans as it was before will never completely be the same again. In a sense, something died. But from that death there is also a rebirth.

BURNETT: You can already hear it in his playing and that of other New Orleans musicians. Though Katrina has put them all through hell, it has released feelings and passions that have always been the wellspring of great music.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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