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Fall 2018

Chroniclers of a Death (Incorrectly) Foretold

In 1968, two writers tussled over the fate of New Orleans jazz—and its festival

Chroniclers of a Death (Incorrectly) Foretold

Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum

Grand marshal Fats Houston on stage at the New Orleans International Jazz Festival, May 1968.

“I was wrong.” Charles Suhor, native Orleanian, longtime writer on jazz, and a drummer himself, made that startling admission as soon as I told him my name and the reason for my call: to interview him for this article.

Fifty years ago, Suhor and I had gone typewriter-to-typewriter over the vital question of whether or not jazz was dead. Suhor felt that it was.

The dueling essays—his much longer than mine—appeared in the January 1968 issue of New Orleans magazine, itself only two years old at the time.

Suhor was the jazz critic/columnist for the magazine. He was also local correspondent for the national jazz magazine DownBeat, a working musician, and an employee of the Orleans Parish School Board as an English teacher and an overseer of the English program systemwide.

The title of Suhor’s article was “A Festival for the Funeral?” Since 1968 was the 250th anniversary of the city, one celebratory event was to be the first “New Orleans International Jazz Festival.” Suhor thought the upcoming festival would be “the largest and longest jazz funeral in history.”

I disagreed.

I had been a reporter at The Times-Picayune and had already written for New Orleans. By 1968, I was in my new job as director/curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, when the magazine called and asked me to write a brief rebuttal to Suhor.

Suhor thought the upcoming festival would be “the largest and longest jazz funeral in history.”

I was glad of the assignment, because I sincerely believed that jazz—the folk music of this city, the background to countless street parades, funerals, dances, and parties—was not dying, but getting ready to thrive.

An “Editor’s Note” that appeared with my piece admitted I had been asked for “a counter commentary to this keenly discussed question. We believe readers will find both viewpoints well taken.”

Suhor began his piece by recounting that in the 1940s there had been a revival of interest in early jazz, and through performances by living musicians from the early years of the form, the music was heard again and young musicians began playing. The 1960s was “a decade that looks backward . . . the Jazz Museum, the Jazz Archive at Tulane, Preservation Hall, the revivalist bands.” He noted that “a living art is not preserved, it is practiced.”

In my rebuttal, I pointed out “how many young musicians there are playing today” and added, “I think jazz is really still a part of the lives of many people here. On any given Mardi Gras Day we might second-line a walking club and find any number of young musicians in marching bands.” I noted that the New Orleans Jazz Club had sponsored fifty-four summer concerts for school children, while showing them how to make and play rhythm instruments themselves.

“What we are all working for—the museum, the archives, the kitty halls—is to get more people to listen to jazz and more people to play it.” I suggested that the upcoming jazz festival might be “a cornerstone laying for a new foundation for jazz: it could just be the start of the biggest and best period of jazz interest we’ve ever seen.”

In retrospect, I wish I had mentioned the New Orleans Public Schools’ solid music program and dedicated teachers—in both white and black schools, even in the days before integration. Still, I am glad I did mention schools, because it would be the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts—NOCCA—that did much to foster the blossoming of local musical talent.

The jazz festival that was held in 1968 was launched under a committee headed by Durel Black. A local businessman, Black would become president of the New Orleans Jazz Club, a group begun in the 1940s revival of interest in traditional jazz. Working with the Chamber of Commerce and City Hall, Black put a committee together and incorporated. The board members were all white, and the focus was on finding a new tourist attraction for the city based on music.

The May 1968 New Orleans International Jazz Festival featured five nights of concerts at the Municipal Auditorium with Louis Armstrong and a line-up of musicians including Duke Ellington, Gary Burton, Carmen McCrae, Woody Herman and his band, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, the Barrelhouse Jazzband from Frankfurt, Germany, the local brass bands (The Onward, The Olympia, The Young Tuxedo), and numerous other groups.

The festival began with a second-line parade through the French Quarter. There was a jazz mass at the St. Louis Cathedral with a band concert in Jackson Square following, and a Battle of the Bands on board the President. The festival was held again the following year, in 1969, with headliners Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan.

In 1970, the festival came under the direction of George Wein, who broadened the scope of the event to include more of local folk culture and foodways. Durel Black stayed involved for a short while, but he bowed out as the festival grew into what it is now. Although to my mind 2018 is the fiftieth anniversary year, Wein’s first year is counted as the beginning of the current New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

A lasting contribution to the city’s musical future is the festival’s Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s “Class Got Brass” Contest, requiring school brass bands to perform traditional music while marching. The top prize is ten thousand dollars for their school’s musical instruments. The program began in 2012 to help fund school music programs and encourage bands to include traditional New Orleans music in their repertoire. (The 2018 top-prize winner? Algiers’s Landry-Walker High School.)

Even the Jazz Museum, now part of the Louisiana State Museum and located at the Old US Mint on Esplanade, is doing well. The Jazz Museum’s direct connection to the revitalization of the brass band tradition was Danny Barker, the museum’s Artist in Residence. In his spare time, Barker organized a band for the Fairview Baptist Church in his neighborhood. Encouraging the neighborhood kids to experience jazz, Barker would mentor the leaders of the new brass band music heard on the streets today.

If jazz is still thriving, so is Charles Suhor, who predicted its demise.

Suhor learned music in the city’s public schools and followed his musician brother Don, who played sax and clarinet, to Loyola University. He left New Orleans to join the staff of the National Council of Teachers of English and had a long career in Urbana, Illinois. He is the author of Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970 (Scarecrow Press, 2001).

Now retired and a resident of Montgomery, Alabama, since 1997, Suhor still writes about music, with an article about his brother Don in Tulane University’s William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive’s journal. He and local musician Lars Edegran put together a two-CD set of his brother’s music on the Jazzology label.

Suhor kept up with his own music, playing in a local community band, explaining, “We used big-band arrangements, mostly swing.” As he described it, after about ten years, the audience “died out.”

Suhor’s time as a band musician ended, but he admitted, “I still keep a [drum] trap set up in my writing room.”

For myself, besides watching “Class Got Brass” 2018, I second-lined last Mardi Gras morning behind the brass bands with the Jefferson City Buzzards and the Lyons Carnival Club.

(I’m so glad I was right!)

 

Carolyn Kolb, PhD, is a native Orleanian, graduate of Newcomb College, and earned a doctorate in urban history at the University of New Orleans. New Orleans Memories: One Writer’s City (University Press of Mississippi, 2013) is a collection of her continuing New Orleans Magazine “Chronicles” columns. In early 2019 she will teach a six-week course on the history of Jefferson Parish for the Jefferson Parish Library.