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Setting the Tempo: TOM PIAZZA

SS: Jazz was born in New Orleans. Will the city’s long-standing tradition of street musicianship — particularly jazz players— survive now that it has lost half of its population, some of whom had lived there for generations?

TP: New Orleans is not like New York City, say, where people move there from all over the country and the world to be professional musicians, where they get gigs playing at bars and nightclubs and Broadway shows. In New Orleans, if you cut off the source of the music at the root level, you’re going to have problems down the line. The public school marching bands down here are how the neighborhood kids learn to play brass instruments. That’s a feeder channel for all the local bands in New Orleans — the brass bands like Rebirth and the Soul Rebels, all the jazz bands — almost all those guys learned how to play in school. The marching bands in the schools are often where young musicians get their first experience playing and learning repertoire. Some of them become professional musicians, and some of them become part-time musicians, but they all go on to feed this rich musical culture. There’s such an encrustation of legend and image around New Orleans jazz — and around Southern music in general — where I think people forget that young people go to school in New Orleans just like they do everyplace else in the country.

Louis Armstrong’s case was a little different. He grew up in extremely difficult surroundings. His mother was apparently a prostitute. She loved him very much, but it wasn’t as if he had a whole big supportive family around him. He basically grew up on the streets, and at a very young age he was arrested for firing a pistol into the air during a holiday celebration. People still do that here, especially on New Year’s Eve, even though it’s against the law. Almost every year one or two people are killed by falling bullets. Anyway, Louis did that, and a cop picked him up. He didn’t have proper adult supervision, so they put him in what they called the Colored Waif’s Home. That probably saved his life. It certainly made him a musician, because that’s where Louis learned to play the cornet. There is a picture of him as a little kid with a hat on looking arrogantly at the camera in the middle of this whole group of kids with big bass drums and trombones.

It’s important to remember that New Orleans music is fed by all the aspects of the culture: the food, the churches, the way people laugh at jokes, the Mardi Gras Indian traditions. It’s fed by the social and pleasure clubs that you have in all the little neighborhoods that need bands to play for dances and parades. I would say they perpetuate not just the musical culture but also an entire way of life, of which the music is just one manifestation. The music is not a separate thing. The music is part of an entire way of life. That’s New Orleans.


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