Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music
By Thomas Jacobsen. 2011. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 244 pages. ISBN: 9780807137796 (soft cover).
Reviewed by Matthew Alley, Indiana University
[Review length: 685 words • Review posted on January 30, 2013]
Thomas W. Jacobsen's Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music is an interesting collection of interviews with practitioners of New Orleans traditional jazz. This volume consists primarily of interviews originally published in The Mississippi Rag during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Each of these interviews is prefaced by commentary from Jacobsen contextualizing these interviews by discussing events that have transpired in the musicians’ lives since the original publication, in many cases commenting on how they were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Jacobsen also takes care to note these musicians' current performing activities and whether they have recently released recording or film projects, should the reader want to become more intimately familiar with their recent work.
The musicians interviewed in this book come from a variety of locations around the United States and the world and they have varied backgrounds, but the central criterion that enables an individual's inclusion is that of their having worked in the traditional jazz scene in New Orleans during the time these interviews took place. Many are not native to New Orleans, others have since been displaced by Katrina, and still others do not perform only traditional jazz, but all of these musicians have made their mark on New Orleans traditional jazz. Most of these interviews are constructed through biographies that trace major events in a musician's professional and personal life up to the moment of the interview, with descriptions of the individual's plans and post-interview goals. Each of these chapters consists primarily of the words of the musician himself, but one of Jacobsen's notable strengths is his ability to seamlessly interweave a musician's own words within a biographical narrative that fills in the gaps, often highlighting accomplishments that a musician does not himself acknowledge in the interview. Two interviews break from this narrative style and read as interview transcriptions, but Jacobsen takes care to situate even these within the broader context of the musicians’ careers in each chapter’s preface.
The strongest elements of this volume lie in Jacobsen's ability to represent these musicians in their own words. While the chapters are biographical, they primarily consist of the musicians’ speech, with only occasional exposition from Jacobsen to indicate significant life events that cause a shift in topic. The most striking feature of Jacobsen's approach is that the reader must take another look at the chapter for it to seem as though there is narration at all—each of these narratives is woven seamlessly around each individual’s own words. Even the interview transcriptions with Irvin Mayfield and Jack Maheu are transcribed and arranged in such a way that it seems as though these musicians are telling their own stories, with little interference or prodding from Jacobsen.
A particular focus of Jacobsen's narrative is the way in which these New Orleans musicians are connected to a broader music scene, both in New Orleans and in the traditional jazz world on the national and international levels. Names familiar to even the most casual jazz fan come up often (Marsalis, Preservation Hall) and less familiar names become familiar as these individual stories progress; this leads to an accessible work for the mainstream jazz fan who is seeking a firsthand account of the traditional New Orleans scene. The centerpiece of the concern for connectivity is Jacobsen's chapter devoted to Danny's Boys, which focuses on several musicians who were members of the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band, a group started in 1970 by New Orleans banjoist and guitarist Danny Barker in order to stimulate interest among young people in traditional jazz. This chapter consists of interviews with several former members of the band and makes a number of connections between them and other key players in the New Orleans traditional jazz world. These musicians discuss the ways the band contributed to their lives in jazz, and talk about their entry into the New Orleans scene after graduating from the group. Jacobsen's highlighting of the interconnectivity among the men who make the music, and the depth of the firsthand accounts presented here make for a fascinating volume on the traditional jazz scene in New Orleans.