New Orleans Jazz Orchestra: Putting “Jazz” back in Music

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New Orleans Jazz Orchestra: Putting “Jazz” back in Music
Adonis Rose. Photo credit: Atael Weissman

The obsession with trying to define or assign a meaning to the word “jazz” is almost as old as the first soli played by the legendary Jelly Roll Morton, who – if you believe him – claims to have “invented” it. Everyone from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus have been quizzed about it. There have been as many answers (or non-answers) as there have been musicians questioned… And so in the end, when asked, no one quite gets the answer they are looking for… because there is no answer.

the music sang and notes literally leapt off the page, and danced in the air of the room

Allen Toussaint Freret Street Festival 2009
Allen Toussaint – Freret Street Festival 2009

The Black American musician, who experienced it, wrote it. They called it music… and this and that. For instance: Buddy Bolden called it “Funky Butt”, Charlie Parker called it “Ornithology” and “klactoveedsedstene”, Dizzy Gillespie called it “ooh bop sh’bam”, Thelonious Monk called it the “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” … and Charles Mingus called it “Pithecanthropus Erectus”, “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” and “Ecclusiastics”… Duke Ellington simply called it “The Feeling of Jazz”… but they all played “it”… Moreover if you don’t get it from “the spirit of the real music”, then you’re not likely to “get it” at all.

Moreover, every once and a while there comes a band that not only communicates “the spirit of the real music”, but embodies it in everything it does because each and every thing – every note played, every phrase “sung”, every melodic and harmonic invention and in the very heartbeat of every rhythmic phrase that every musician plays alone and together… and that band is the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. There are many other great bands in New Orleans, of course, but few who so embody the history of the city – its despairs and its hopes, and the music that it gave the world more completely than the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, here in Canada to celebrate – among all things Jazz – the music of Allen Toussaint.

Mr Toussaint is to the piano in New Orleans what Zigaboo Modeliste is to the drums. People in New Orleans – and the artistic cognoscenti of the world at large – have long known him to be a person of sartorial elegance and a composer non pareil. His music is joyful, eloquent and breathtakingly beautiful to listen to and play. Like the great composers – and unlike even more of them – in Jazz he had something of the Aesop in him; he was capable of condensing an epic into just over three minutes such as he did, for instance, in “Southern Nights”. He had an eye for detail and it showed when he was describing human endeavor  in “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Java” (immortalized by the trumpeter Al Hirt). But he was also in touch with his inner self and could thus describe the greatest human emotion – love – bringing to life as if with hot breath on a cheek, the most spine-tingling moments of romance just like in “Ruler of My Heart” and best of all in “With You in Mind”.

Jazz quite literally hung in the air all night long. Even the characteristically polite Canadian audience in Markham, Ontario, quiet in their applause, was whistling and yelling their appreciation by the end of the night at the Flato Markham Theatre when the band closed its Canadian tour on the last day of February in this leap year, 2020. Jazz also shone on the faces of the musicians. But most of all, “Jazz” came to life, especially through ensemble passages of spectacular arrangements such as what pianist Victor Atkins created for “It’s Raining”, as the music sang and notes literally leapt off the page, and danced in the air of the room. And the fun refused to set until long after the rousing Second Line procession led by Musical Director Adonis Rose up, then down the aisles through the small theatre, twirling the ornately decorated black parasol was a perfect end to a memorable concert.

New Orleans Jazz Orchestra full band minus Victor Atkins
New Orleans Jazz Orchestra full band minus Victor Atkins (pianist). Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Of course there was much more to the unforgettable evening and it all began with the opening song of the first set – “Get the Bucket”, one of the best-known compositions by the Godfather of Jazz, Mr Ferdinand Joseph LaMenthe, “Jelly Roll Morton” (1890–1941). It may not have been one of Mr Morton’s more famous songs (such as “King Porter Stomp” or “Wolverine Blues” or “Black Bottom Stomp”). But the song was, almost certainly, the next best thing to turning up the heat of the furnace of the Flato Markham Theatre.

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