In New Orleans, There's A Piece Of Music History Around Every Corner

23 hours ago
Originally published on July 15, 2017 9:50 am

It's well known that New Orleans has a rich and extraordinary music history, but it's more difficult to know where to start. To help with that is the new website "A Closer Walk," an interactive map that provides information about dozens of spots that are part of New Orleans' music history, including bars, clubs, recording studios and the homes of famous musicians.

"A Closer Walk" is a partnership between a number of different organizations and individuals, one of whom is writer and philanthropist Randy Fertel. He joined NPR's Scott Simon to introduce three historical locations marked on the virtual map.

Congo Square

"There are several places that are considered the birthplace for jazz," Fertel says. "But the real roots are at Congo Square, where the enslaved peoples under the French code were allowed to gather on Sundays. They had Sundays off, and they were allowed to have a market there and sell their wares. They were allowed to use their native instruments. So there were these drum-and-dance things that happened under the oaks in Congo Square. And so the foundational elements of jazz were in that native music — the call-and-response rhythms, the vocalizations, the syncopations, the habanera rhythm that Jelly Roll Morton said, 'If you don't have that, it ain't jazz.' The great New Orleans composer [Louis Moreau] Gottschalk wrote a piece called 'Bamboula' that drew on those rhythms."

The home of Charles "Buddy" Bolden

"Buddy Bolden is considered by many the father of jazz," Fertel says, "but we have no recordings and only one photograph. There's a rumor, a legend of a cylinder that was recorded of him in the mid-1890s. It's considered the holy grail for jazz fans. If someone could just find that cylinder, we'd know what he sounded like. But he was famous for how loud he played the cornet. He was said to have played loud enough you could hear him across the river. He was also known for his sweet playing. His sister-in-law Dora Bass once said that he broke his heart when he played. And apparently, he did, because he didn't fare too well. By 1907, he was suffering from schizophrenia and had a breakdown during a parade."

J&M Recording Studio

"Now it's just a laundromat, but in 1945 a man named Cosimo Matassa — he and his father had started a record store at that address, and he saw the need for a studio," Fertel says. "So he slapped together some odds and ends and started recording local music. He recorded 'The Fat Man' by Fats Domino in 1949, one of the songs that is considered the first rock 'n' roll song."

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(SOUNDBITE OF JELLY ROLL MORTON'S "BLACK BOTTOM STOMP")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New Orleans has a rich and extraordinary music history. But where do you begin? There's a new website called A Closer Walk. It's essentially a map you can call up on your phone to discover information about dozens of spots, bars, clubs, recording studios, the homes of famous musicians, places that have been part of the story of New Orleans music. The website is a partnership between a number of different organizations and people. And one of them is Randy Fertel. He joins us now from the studios of WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.

RANDY FERTEL: I'm very happy to be. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let's turn to some of the people and places that you highlight on the website - Congo Square.

FERTEL: Well, Congo Square is - you know, there are several places that are considered the birthplace of jazz. But the real roots are at Congo Square, where the enslaved peoples under the French code were allowed to gather on Sundays. They had Sundays off, and they were allowed to have a market there and sell their wares. And they were allowed to use their native instruments. So there were these drum and dance things that happened under the oaks in Congo Square.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONGO SQUARE")

NEVILLE BROTHERS: (Singing) You can hear them in the distance. And the old folks up the bayou say a prayer. That's when them voodoo people gather, and they play their drums at night in Congo Square.

FERTEL: And the foundational elements of jazz were in that native music, the call-and-response rhythms, the vocalizations, the syncopation, that habanera rhythm - that Jelly Roll Morton said, if you don't have that, it ain't jazz.

SIMON: A lot of familiar names are highlighted on the tour that's available on your website. You mentioned Jelly Roll Morton - Louis Armstrong, of course. But let me ask you about Charles Buddy Bolden. His home is on the tour, isn't it?

FERTEL: Yes, he's on at 2309 First Street near LaSalle in Central City. Buddy Bolden is considered by many the father of jazz. But we have no recordings and only one photograph. There's a legend of a cylinder that was recorded of him in the mid-90s.

SIMON: 1890s, you mean.

FERTEL: 1890s - sorry. And it's considered the holy grail for jazz fans. If someone could just find that cylinder, we'd know what he sounded like. But he was famous for how loud he played the cornet. He was said to have played loud enough, you could hear him across the river. And he was also known for his sweet playing. His sister-in-law Dora Bass once said that he broke his heart when he played. And, apparently, he did because he didn't fare too well. By 1907, he was suffering from schizophrenia and had a breakdown during a parade.

SIMON: Let me ask you about something that gets a little closer to us in history. Well, no better way to introduce the idea than this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom. Tutti frutti. Oh, rutti. Tutti frutti. Oh, rutti. Tutti frutti. Oh, rutti. Tutti frutti. Oh, rutti.

SIMON: That's "Tutti Frutti," of course. Little Richard...

FERTEL: "Tutti Frutti."

SIMON: ...1955. What's this doing on that website?

FERTEL: One place you'll find it is in the - on the page about J&M recording studio. Now it's just a laundromat. But in 1945, a man named Cosimo Matassa - he and his father had started a record store at that address. And he saw the need for a studio. So he slapped together some odds and ends and started recording the local music. He recorded "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino in 1949, one of the songs that is considered the first rock n' roll song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FAT MAN")

FATS DOMINO: (Singing) They call - they call me the fat man 'cause I weigh 200 pounds. All the girls - they love me 'cause I know my way around.

SIMON: You have a favorite piece of music from New Orleans that's - you talk about on this tour?

FERTEL: Well, you know, one of Louis Armstrong's many masterpieces is "West End Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "WEST END BLUES")

FERTEL: That opening arpeggio is an absolute masterpiece. It's been said that when he played that, there was no need to look to classical European music - that Jazz had found a place in culture.

SIMON: Randy Fertel - his project is A Closer Walk. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

FERTEL: You're very welcome. I'm very pleased to have been here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "WEST END BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.