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Mo' blues than jazz

By Terry Joseph
September 03, 2005

It always is eerie, how easily music from an era well past, even in contrary context, so snugly fits contemporary conditions-whether gory or glorious-as happened again this week with the devastation of New Orleans; Don McLean's 1972 blockbuster American Pie making the point on this singularly sad occasion.

Famous for its French Quarter, New Orleans jazz is rooted in the sound of the city and equally, the number of famous musicians it produced, including trumpeters Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, Terence Blanchard, Al Hirt, Wynton Marsalis and his saxophonist brother Branford, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, pianist/composer "Jelly Roll" Morton and the extraordinarily talented Neville family.

As the first indigenous American music to pervade the world, jazz cites New Orleans as its crucible for a combination of ragtime syncopation and driving brass, with wailing gospel choirs, all lounging in the deep lament of the blues, an amalgam difficult to recreate elsewhere.

In a swoop powered by winds of up to 160 mph, Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans singing the blues and in its yet-to-subside-wake, horror stories making the Great Depression that entrenched jazz look like a big easy, frustration and hopelessness driving fellow sufferers to rob, rape and even kill each other as they scramble to reassemble shards of shattered lives into a workable mosaic.

From locations untouched by Katrina music buffs of peripheral persuasion, while generally sympathetic to all victims, were particularly anxious about the fate of two of New Orleans' most famous entertainers, rock 'n' roll legend Fats Domino and gifted composer Allen Toussaint. Fats, in whose recognition the Beatles wrote "Lady Madonna" and tried to copy his unique vocal style in recording the song; refused to budge from his three-storey home.

First reports indicated he was among thousands unaccounted for in the flooded city but Domino, 77, loved by generations for his boogie-woogie piano and hits like "Ain't That a Shame," "Walking to New Orleans" and "Blueberry Hill," was eventually rescued from his mansion by a US Coast Guard helicopter.

Toussaint, 67, was said to be among the hungry but marauding hordes, rotting corpses and filth at the New Orleans Superdome but that too remains hearsay. While he may not be as familiar as that of Domino, the singer/songwriter, arranger and producer is one of America's acknowledged musical treasures, having written hits like "Working in the Coal Mine", "Fortune Teller" for the Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights" and entire albums for the Neville Brothers, Al Hirt and Herb Alpert, whose recording of "Whipped Cream" became the theme for The Dating Game.

In addition, Toussaint was the recording guru on Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," supplied horn arrangements for Paul Simon's "Kodachrome" and produced albums for The Meters, Etta James and Ramsey Lewis. His work has been covered by a number of acts, including the Pointer Sisters, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Palmer, Otis Redding, The O'Jays, Boz Scaggs, Ringo Starr, Chet Atkins, Lenny Kravitz and Elvis Costello. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Along with the heroes of Bourbon and Basin streets, Fats and Toussaint helped make New Orleans famous but then suddenly, the music died or, in the case of two of its icons, was temporarily missing, hence the reference to American Pie. Albeit penned some 33 years ago and in memory of Buddy Holly, McLean's lyrics still described the pathos of that telling blow Katrina divined on black culture, as his last verse and chorus aptly illustrates:

"I met a girl who sang the blues I asked her for some happy news/But she just smiled and turned away/I went down to the sacred store/Where I'd heard the music years before/But the man there said the music wouldn't play/In the streets the children screamed, /The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed/But not a word was spoken,/The church bells all were broken/And the three men I admire most/The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost/They caught the last train from the coast/The day, the music, died.

"And they were singing /Bye, bye Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee/But the levee was dry (useless)/Them good ol' boys drinkin' whiskey and rye /Singin' this will be the day that I die./This would be the day that I die."

Music, of course, doesn't ever really perish but the brass and woodwinds that supplied New Orleans jazz will undoubtedly be conscripted to now provide funeral taps and for some considerable time to come play nothin' but the blues.

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