The musical history of New Orleans has become a myth. Like so many of the South's cultural achievements, America's gayest and most eclectically inspired music capital is largely a memory, long since overtaken by the cultural malls of the North. "The cradle of jazz" cliche obscures the diversity of the place, which once boasted an appetite and passion for music that rivaled the gloried days of Vienna and Paris. It was in New Orleans that opera first took hold in the United States. A local legend tells of the night in 1857, when the partisans of the two sopranos attended a performance of "Il Trovatore" armed with bouquets and garlands. As the beloved divas embarked on their arias, flowers were hurled to the stage in such quantity that the rest of the cast was reduced to carting them off the stage. When the audience ran out of missiles, it fled the opera house, raided every flower stand in the city, and returned to continue what one observer described as "a fusillade, a battery, a bombardment."
Only blocks away another group of New Orleanians celebrated an equally impassioned and more profoundly participatory love of music. In Congo Square, slaves competed in dance contests that combined creativity and endurance. New world rhythms came into being, and self-taught musicians showed what they could do with cast off or homemade string and percussion instruments. Jazz, which took form after the turn of the century, was a product of Afro-American genius, but it incorporated elements of French, Spanish, Italian and German music as well.
Although the first great jazz musicians had to leave New Orleans to win international recognition, the city's musical spirit did not dissipate. The central proposition of "Up From the Cradle of Jazz" is that long after the jazz spirit took root in Chicago and New York, New Orleans continued to brew heady variations on its local rhythms. Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones, three fans armed with a plenary stock of bouquets, show how subsequent generations of New Orleans musicians helped spark the postwar phenomena of rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, and even avant-garde jazz. Their extended compendium of history and anecdote, printed double column like a text book and nicely illustrated (though a map of the relevant districts is sorely missing), is a useful and convincing survey. It recharges one's admiration for a community in which music, its performance and appreciation, is handed down from one generation to the next like a precious heirloom. Indeed, the authors emphasize the large number of musical families that have dominated the city's musical life since the late 19th Century.
There are problems, however. The title is a bit more encompassing than the book. The Prologue explains that the writers decided to omit traditional jazz, Dixieland and gospel, which is unfortunate. The controversial revival of New Orleans jazz that began in the late '30s and flourished into the '60s, producing such local celebrities as clarinetist George Lewis and banjoist Emanuel Sayles (who, I might add, introduced me to jazz), deserve a place in this accounting. More to the point, the close-ups tend to detail the feast years of musicians and become curiously coy in periods of relative famine, as though their music automatically lost interest when the fickle mass audience turned its head--what did happen to Fats Domino between 1962 and 1982? More annoying is the unequalness of the three writers. The individual chapters are not signed, but it's obvious that the same hand responsible for an assortment of solecisms in "Musical Families: The Founding Fathers" did not write the crisp profile of Dr. John. Notwithstanding the absence of editorial help, "Up From the Cradle of Jazz" makes a worthy contribution in demystifying the still vibrant music of New Orleans.