[Dixielandjazz] From <nola.com>via another Jazz Chat List
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Sun Oct 23 08:14:39 PDT 2005
Dr. Michael White returns to New Orleans
Saturday, October 22, 2005 By Keith Spera Music writer
Jazz clarinetist Michael White returned to his Gentilly home on Friday
for first time since Hurricane Katrina and confronted a desolate
tableau: beige bricks stained and striped by 6 feet of water; a front
door branded with the bright orange and red marks of search teams;
dead grass and demolished trees.
"It reminds me of one of those 'Twilight Zone' episodes," White said
as he approached the door. "Where I'll go in and find my own body."
Instead, he found his body of work, his valuable jazz artifacts and
his personal treasures -- now decimated by water and mold.
For White, jazz is life; his instruments, family. He leads the
traditional Original Liberty Jazz Band and is a respected scholar of
New Orleans music and culture. He occupied an endowed chair at Xavier
University, published meticulously researched articles and
biographies, and lectured on topics ranging from Congo Square to the
early history of New Orleans brass bands.
He lived alone in the 5200 block of Pratt Street, surrounded by jazz
music, books and artifacts. The night before Katrina struck, he fled
to Houston with several vintage instruments, among them the model for
the giant clarinet mural outside the downtown Holiday Inn.
But he left behind 40 others, including a clarinet owned by King
Oliver sideman Paul Barnes.
"When you don't have a lot of time to evacuate, you don't have time to
think of everything," he said. "And like a lot of other people, I
thought that we'd have a little water and then clean up and everything
would be fine."
It wasn't. His back yard abuts the western retaining wall of the
London Avenue Canal -- midway between the canal's two breaches. One
break was a block away at Mirabeau Avenue.
Picking through debris in the ruins of his house, he found little to
salvage. Outfitted with a mask and green rubber gloves, he stepped
gingerly over a pile of jazz magazines just inside the door, now
reduced to pulp. He spotted the remains of a new two-volume
encyclopedia documenting the Harlem jazz renaissance, to which he
contributed five biographies.
To the right hung a framed smudge, what was once a rare 1960s Bob Coke
photograph of jazz bassist "Papa" John Joseph, a distant relative of
White's. Joseph died of a heart attack onstage at Preservation Hall in
1965, reportedly after performing "When the Saints Go Marching In."
"No matter what had happened during the day, I'd look at that picture,
and it gave me strength," White said. "It was the most beautiful
picture I'd seen of Papa John. Wherever you went in the room, those
eyes followed you. There was wisdom, but also truth."
Inside a waterlogged closet lay White's collection of vintage wooden
instruments. He couldn't open the warped door.
"I don't know if I want to," he said. "That would be like (finding)
His casualties included more than 4,000 CDs and LPs. And there were as
many books and a vast trove of research material, including primary
source documents, voluminous notes and taped interviews with
musicians. He had original sheet music from Jelly Roll Morton, King
Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong.
Also gone are a set of banjo strings played by legendary jazz
raconteur Danny Barker; a medal appointing White to the Chevalier rank
in the French Order of Arts and Letters; snapshots with the late jazz
legend Kid Thomas Valentine and President Clinton; and a 1993 New
Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster autographed by artist John
Accompanying him Friday were a cameraman and writer Jason Berry, who
is directing a documentary about jazz funerals that features White.
Berry marveled at the scale of the loss, both to White personally and
to jazz scholarship in general.
"Not that many people carry the history and culture like Michael
does," Berry said. "It's the way Louis Armstrong did, the way Danny
Barker did, the way Wynton Marsalis does. They are those rare players
who rise to another plateau and become more than musicians. That's why
it's so heartbreaking to see his loss."
Berry carted soggy artifacts to the porch: a painting of legendary
clarinetist George Lewis, one of White's heroes. A sketch from Africa.
Framed album artwork from Bunk Johnson's "Brass and Dance Band" and
the Young Tuxedo Brass Band's "Jazz Begins."
"Michael, I think some of this can be salvaged."
"At this point," White said, "I'm trying to figure out if I can be
"I tried very hard to picture what this would be like, but you can't
begin to imagine. The hard part is that there's a lot of history here
that can't be replaced. It's all gone. I'm overwhelmed. I wouldn't
know where to start."
Since evacuating, White has lived in a Houston hotel, exiled with his
aunt, sister, nephew and elderly mother. Early on, he wondered if he
could find work in Houston. He eventually landed a Sunday jazz brunch
gig at a restaurant called Tommy's Seafood Steakhouse.
He is hunting for an apartment in Houston. But if Xavier University
reopens in January, he wants to return. For now, he's written two
"positive, upbeat" songs about a restored New Orleans.
And he takes comfort in the message of the jazz funeral, in which the
spirit of the deceased is cut loose to enjoy a better life. Death,
followed by rebirth.
"I have to keep remembering that," he said. "That's what gives us the
courage to carry on.
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