When traditional-jazz clarinetist Willie Humphrey died last month in New Orleans at the age of 93, he took a little of his art with him.
Yet Humphrey, credited before his death as being the oldest regular performing New Orleans musician, was only 6 when the man often credited with inventing jazz--cornetist Buddy Bolden--was committed to a Louisiana state mental hospital, effectively ending his career.
At best, Humphrey, who was born a year after Louis Armstrong, would be considered among the second generation of New Orleans jazz musicians.
His death leaves a gnawing question: Will future generations of players keep traditional New Orleans jazz alive?
The answer is yes, according to 39-year-old clarinetist Michael White, who regularly performed with Humphrey as a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In a phone call last week from New Orleans, White, who appears with the Preservation Hall band Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, says keeping the music alive is a struggle, but a new generation is responding to it as never before.
"When I discovered New Orleans music at, I guess, a relatively late age, I discovered something that was really very beautiful and very spiritually powerful. I can understand why it has fans all over the world, often in countries where English isn't even spoken, where you'd never think you'd find New Orleans jazz. It's like a religious cult."
White, who's been associated with Preservation Hall for about 12 years, began playing in brass marching bands in 1975.
"We played the traditional parades--funeral parades, club and church parades. The brass band tradition is New Orleans music, but it has a different instrumentation and a smaller repertoire than small-band jazz. It was mainly ensemble music and did not allow for a lot of solo playing. So I spent my first years as a jazz musician without ever having played a solo."
Sometime around 1978, White purchased a recording of clarinetist George Lewis, who was born in 1900. It pointed him down a new path. "That particular recording was very influential because it showed me a different direction toward smaller-band orchestral playing and the authentic traditional style outside of the brass bands.
"These ensembles were one of the most important aspects of New Orleans jazz," he said. "The smaller-band playing is more intricate and my role on clarinet became more important because I had to play more harmonies with the trumpet and because I played solos and improvisation. Also the repertoire is larger."
As is common in any art form, White learned from his elders.
"I got to know people like Kid Thomas Valentine, born in 1896, and Sweet Emma and Percy Humphrey (Willie's surviving brother) very well. They got to be very close personal friends and I gained a lot from them. The elements of teamwork, sharing and constraint, those are very difficult to find these days. But that's what this music is all about and that's what they taught."
White has done as much as anyone of his generation to further the cause. Along with his work with Preservation Hall, he leads his own Original Liberty Jazz Band, a group that has recorded two albums for the Antilles label. Both included appearances by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The band makes annual New Year's Eve appearances at New York's fabled Village Vanguard club.
White also has directed the New Orleans music program for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for the last five years and has assembled concerts on the music of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. He is currently compiling a concert of music from "cornet kings" prior to the Louis Armstrong period.
"I think if New Orleans jazz is to continue it's up to the people of my generation to make it happen. While I'm not optimistic about it, I haven't given up by any means.
"A lot of people think that the music no longer pertains to the living culture. But you could say that about all forms of jazz--swing, be-bop--you could even say that about free jazz and Ornette Coleman. He started that in 1959, some 35 years ago. Is the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie relevant? Is the music that John Coltrane played still valid? Of course they are."
Keeping traditional music alive means more than just preserving it. "Even when we do theme concerts from the '20s--and nobody in New Orleans does these things, by the way--we're not trying to copy exactly what Johnny Doods or Jimmie Noone played," White said.
The status of the music in New Orleans itself is a matter of consternation for White.
"When I'm in New Orleans playing for a bunch of tourists," says the well-traveled White, "I could play the greatest Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver music that there is and somebody would still say, 'Play 'The Saints Go Marching In' or 'Closer Walk With Thee.' The tendency in New Orleans is to simplify things and give 'em what they want. So people tend to play no more than eight or 10 tunes. I would give up if I had to play 'Bourbon Street Parade' every night."
But White, who teaches jazz history at Xavier University, sees hope for the music in his students.
"You have to remember I'm dealing with the hip-hop generation. But I've been amazed by my students. And they get great satisfaction when they see people pictured in the textbooks, residents of New Orleans, sitting right there in class with them, telling them about the music. That's when you can see there's a future for it."
The Preservation Hall Band is a big part of that future. The ensemble that plays the Irvine Barclay this week (there are three touring Preservation bands) includes its share of veterans, but, in addition to White, contains thirtysomething pianist John Royen and is led by 39-year-old trumpeter Wendell Brunious. Brunious co-led the band with veteran New Orleans trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine, until he died in 1991. This is how the torch is passed.
* The Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. 8 p.m. $20 to $24. (714) 854-4646.