(September, 2006 cover story)
Sometimes, musical talent runs in the family. In New Orleans, as 19-year-old piano player Jonathan Batiste put it, “music spreads like a disease.” Musicians are heroes and traditions are fiercely protected, making the music family a revered institution that dates back to the 19th century and the beginning of jazz itself. In many ways, the history of these families—with names such as Dejean, Alcorn, Neville, Celestin, Brunious, Barbarin, Batiste, Lastie, Marsalis, Jordan and Andrews—is the history of New Orleans. By the same token, the future of these families is the future of the city’s culture.
A year after Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of those family members have not been able to return home. Their neighborhoods have not been repaired. Their communities have not been restored. Their children have enrolled in other schools in other cities, where there are no second lines and the only music they’ll hear will be on MTV or commercial radio.
“New Orleans was unique in that the music industry didn’t just evolve around adult musicians and the French Quarter,” said singer Irma Thomas, eerily speaking about her hometown in the past tense. “The community evolved around music in general, whether it was r&b, jazz or gospel. You had young people, middle-aged people and old people involved. You don’t hear about that kind of a cultural thing going on anywhere else. Other cities don’t have that kind of breeding ground for music.”
In fact, the neighborhoods where New Orleans’ live music culture developed have been fighting for years to hang on to the vestiges of that tradition. After the neighborhood began to gentrify a decade ago, transplanted residents started complaining about the live music in the clubs and streets of the Treme. These were the kinds of clubs and community centers where the Barbarins and other Treme music families used to gather to talk and play. Little by little, they’ve been disappearing from the city. Now, with so many neighborhoods empty, it’s not just the venues that have disappeared, it’s the people themselves.
Away From Home
On a sticky-hot afternoon during the week between Jazz Fest weekends, Rachel, Stephanie and Marlon Jordan convened at a Marigny coffee shop to share some of their memories of growing up with their father being tenor saxophone luminary and music educator Kidd Jordan, and to discuss what it means to bear the last name Jordan in New Orleans.
Unlike so many other jazz families, whose children and grandchildren emulated their relatives who play in the classic New Orleans style, the Jordan children play more traditional jazz than their father. But Kidd Jordan says he’s glad that they play what they feel. “If you follow your family directly, everybody ends up playing the same thing,” he said. “I gave them all an education and let them choose what to play for themselves.”
Despite their disparate musical tastes, the Jordans sound like a family when they play together, something they have discovered since the storm. “There’s a pleasant tension between us that became obvious when
we performed at Lincoln Center last fall,” said vocalist Stephanie, referring to a benefit concert they played at Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of their first public family performances. “We’re obviously all playing different instruments and different roles but there’s an intensity we all share.”
Her sister Rachel, a classically trained violinist and a member of the Louisiana Philharmonic, added that her family shares a common concept about intonation that’s so strong that it can be hard to distinguish between the players, “especially,” she said “when Kent and Marlon play together. Their intonation is almost dead on. When you find people who you can blend well with, that’s who you want to play music with.”
Part of that ability to blend comes from years of having played together informally. Stephanie says that her earliest memory of playing music with her family is being summoned to the piano to sing gospel music by her aunt Jocelyn, while her sister remembers practicing with her brothers and father. “Kent used to terrorize me with practicing,” she said. “Once when I was practicing for a competition when I was about 13, he was like, ‘That doesn’t sound good.’ So he made me play these two measures for about two hours. I won the competition, but it was tough. That was a lesson in my life.”
Trumpeter Marlon learned a similar lesson when he was about 10 years old, and his father used to take him to his gigs. “One night he just said, ‘Get on the bandstand and play,'” Marlon said. “So I just got up and started playing. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just started playing jazz. It was a bunch of cats: Clyde Kerr, Alvin Thomas, a lot of cats from the old school. I was scared, but I played. That’s all you could do.”
His older brother, flautist Kent, pointed out that, “In each community there was always a musician saying to the younger musicians, ‘This is what’s going on.’ Just like Harold Batiste is responsible for teaching Ellis Marsalis and my uncle Alvin Batiste about Charlie Parker.”
Although the Jordans never played together much in public when they were growing up, they’re finding an audience for their group efforts these days. Marlon’s last album, You Don’t Know What Love Is, was his sister Stephanie’s debut recording, and features Rachel, Kent, Kidd, his uncles Alvin Batiste and Maynard Chatters, and his cousin Mark Chatters.
As they share memories, Marlon, Stephanie and Rachel each repeat one thing a number of times: “We are coming back.” Kent lives across the river in Algiers, La., and his home was not badly damaged, but the rest of his family wasn’t so lucky. Marlon spends only half of his time in town. Stephanie gets back every month or so, but is raising her son in Maryland now. Rachel moved to Jackson, Miss., where she has a teaching job. Their father, Kidd is living in Baton Rouge, La., and skeptical as to whether it makes sense for him to return. The unanswered question on everyone’s minds is what exactly will they be coming back to?
Another New Orleans clan whose mark on the city’s musical landscape runs deep, the Batistes seem to have played a role in every major musical outfit in the 20th century, from Professor Longhair’s early band to Dejean’s Olympia Brass Band to the Meters. Today, their family is also displaced and without solid plans to return. Despite living in cities across Texas and New York, the Batiste family band, the Batiste Brothers, has had a string of family dates recently, and rising star, Jonathan Batiste is carving out a niche for himself in New York City’s jazz scene.
With his fluid technique and seamless transitions from Professor Longhair-inspired funky blues to bebop to classical concepts, Jonathan is one of the youngest and most promising players coming out of New Orleans today. Like Kidd Jordan’s children, Jonathan grew up in a music-saturated environment, with the understanding that his last name represents something bigger than his own music career.
Jonathan, now in his junior year at Juilliard, learned about playing music from watching his family. And At his trio’s set at Jazz Fest this year, his cousins’ influence was audible: the percussive way he moves his hands, and his proclivity for trading the piano for a tambourine during drum solos, is reminiscent of the way his relative, the trumpeter and educator, Milton Batiste, used to lead the Olympia Brass Band after Dean died—with one fist around his trumpet and the other on a tambourine. Like Marlon Jordan, Jonathan remembers his father putting him up on the bandstand when he was just a little boy and telling him to play. “Yeah, I was scared!” he said with a laugh. “But I did it.”
Although he’s living in Dallas, drummer Russell Batiste says that his family and their connection to New Orleans still means everything to him, just as when he was a toddler when he used to fall asleep every night under the keyboards while his father, David, rehearsed with the Batiste Brothers. To this day, he says he can’t fall asleep without music. “I’m 40 years old,” he said a few hours before closing out the Dallas CityArts Festival this past June with his family, “and I’ve been playing with my family for 35 of those years. I was three when my daddy walked into the front room and I was sittin’ on this lady’s lap, keeping a beat up behind the kit.”
First ‘First Families’
The tradition of music dynasties in New Orleans goes back much further than the Jordans and the Batistes, though. Isidore Barbarin is widely recognized as one of the first patriarchs of the New Orleans music community.
A cornetist and alto horn player and brass band impresario from the Treme, Barbarin started playing around 1886. By the 1930s, he had become a figure of local royalty in New Orleans. A member of the Onward (now the Tuxedo), Excelsior and Eureka brass bands, younger musicians idolized Barbarin—especially his four music-playing sons and his grandson, guitarist Danny Barker.
“In New Orleans,” Barker wrote in his autobiography, A Life In Jazz, “it was never a problem to get a band together to provide music for a party … because many of the musicians were related to each other.”
He went on to explain the complicated connections between musicians who used to gather at his grandfather’s home: Isidore Barbarin married the sister of one of his bandmates, and four of their sons were musicians.
Of those sons, Paul and Louis both married women whose brothers were musicians. Paul, Louis and their brother Lucien also had sons who became professional musicians. Barker, the son of Paul and Louis’ sister, Rose, married Louisa Dupont, the blues singer also known as Blu Lu Barker. Lucien’s son Charles had a son, also named Lucien. That Lucien is a trombone player who plays in both the Preservation Hall Band and Harry Connick Jr.’s quintet. His upcoming album, which he was working on when this article went to press, is dedicated to his cousin, Danny Barker. His son, who lives in Slidell, La., is a young drummer. And so on.
Barker also discusses how he emulated his grandfather and uncles, practicing with them and picking up how to play simply by surrounding himself with music. Lucien, 50, tells a similar story. “I wanted to be just like [drummer] Paul,” he said. “Imagine a kid looking up at your great uncle playing the drums and thinking, ‘Wow, I want to do that.'”
After Lucien’s great uncle and first mentor passed away, he began spending more time with Barker, who had become an important fixture on the brass band scene. In 1970, he put together a band with Lucien, trumpeter Leroy Jones and drummer Herlin Riley. Barker showed them church songs like “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and “Bye And Bye,” and they played at Baptist Churches around town under the name the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band.
They were so popular that the band kept growing, recruiting talent like Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and Gregg Stafford. Eventually, the band’s size outgrew the needs of a parade route, giving way to an important shift in brass band culture when it moved from the street to the bandstand. “Danny said,’It sounds like a hurricane comin’ down the street,'” Barbarin said, “so we called it the Hurricane Brass Band.” Today’s popular brass bandstand brass bands the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth are ancestors of the Hurricane Brass Band, just as Isidore Barbarin is an ancestor of Lucien.
Although Lucien has lived in Slidell for the past 14 years, he remains committed to continuing his family’s contributions to New Orleans music. “I teach a jazz program to keep the tradition alive,” he said. After sharing stories with his students about how his great uncle Paul worked with Louis Armstrong and his second cousin was in Cab Calloway’s band, he tries to pass on some of what he learned from the experience of being a Barbarin. “I explain to them how I came up playing this music, and to have fun with it. But I also explain that if we’re doing ‘St. James Infirmary,’ this is about death. It should make you wanna cry. I tell them to put this emotion into that horn and then this is what I’m looking for: I tell them to make it cry.”
Shortly after Isidore’s son Paul Barbarin left his post with Armstrong, he contacted John “Picket” Brunious, the patriarch of another large music family in town, about forming a band. The music masterminds gathered about eight of their friends, recalls Brunious’ son, John Brunious, and took over the dining room table, where they shared ideas about music. John also remembers hearing the musicians on his mother’s side play piano, and how his father “would often have half of Count Basie’s band in his house to rehearse.” John, a trumpet player who plays with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band today, credits all of those people and experiences with his own choice to become a musician, saying, “If you don’t hear it, you can’t play it.”
Of course, some of the lessons passed down within music families are less about music than they are about the world in general. In the 1960s, New Orleans clubs were still segregated by law. John had to enter clubs through the back door instead of the front, eat French fry sandwiches while the white audience was having steak and play from the balcony instead of the stage when the rest of the band was made up of white people. His father, who had experienced such treatment for many years, taught him to stand up for himself, but also to tolerate what he could in the hopes that things would change. Eventually, they did. One of the first venues that allowed black and white musicians to play together in public was Preservation Hall, which Allan and Sandra Jaffe took over in 1961 after they moved to New Orleans from Philadelphia.
“My parents were criticized for putting these musicians together,” said their son Ben Jaffe, 35, who has operated Preservation Hall for 13 years. “Black and white musicians weren’t allowed to play together. There were times when they would get arrested. To my parents, racism was something that you just read about. Overt racism like you had here, with colored and white entrances was just beyond their comprehension.”
The Hall also became an incubator for music families in its own right. John and his brother Wendell Brunious, Harold “Duke” Dejean and his Olympia Brass Band, banjoist Narvin Kimball—whose father Henry Kimball played bass at the turn of the century—and Lucien Barbarin have all been regular fixtures there. Allan and Sandy also started their own music family in New Orleans, raising their two sons, Russell and Ben, around musicians and encouraging them to take up music themselves. In a way, the Jaffes became the city’s most important transplanted music family.
“The Jaffes coming to New Orleans is one of the best things that ever happened to music,” Brunious said. “They gave the musicians a central place to play every night. It enabled everyone from all over the world to come to Preservation Hall to hear the music. I often say that Preservation Hall is the goose that laid the golden egg.”
For many years, the Hall was open seven days a week, providing more than 2,000 paying gigs to local musicians every year until it closed for nearly eight months following Katrina. Through the summer, the Hall was open on weekends, and Jaffe and his wife Sarah’s efforts to bring musicians back home through the New Orleans’ Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund are beginning a new and more intense phase. Ben has retired from touring in order to oversee affairs in New Orleans more closely, and is developing a six-point strategy to help rebuild the local music community.
Do You Know What It Means …
“With the Batiste family,” Russell Batiste said, “we are all dependent on one another to survive—musically, mentally, in life. I learned everything from my dad’s six brothers. As a kid out in the streets, I was playing under them, trying to soak up their lifestyles, their music. It’s the same with John. If you can’t depend on your family, you’re just a lost soul on this earth.”
The Jordans express a similar sentiment, describing how the relationships they have with their relatives go beyond music and get at the very heart of New Orleans culture. “Your family is your life,” said Stephanie, whose disposition becomes fiery when she’s asked about the future of her city and how it will affect the Jordans. “Families are going to rebuild this city. They’re going to come together and do what they do: they’re gonna cook together, they’re gonna play music together, they’re gonna visit with each other, go to church together. And we’re gonna vote together, too. It’s those cultural ties that make the music. If you can kill a family, then you can kill the music. And that’s not gonna happen.”
Aaron Neville, whose first singing engagement was with his older brother Art’s doo-wop group, is less hopeful about the future of the city. At press time, he still had not returned to the city, and despite being the consummate Southern gentleman, you can hear the contained rage in his voice when he said, “From the sounds of it, things are exactly as they were before the storm.” Of his four brothers, only Art has returned to New Orleans.
Still, Neville’s concern is preserving the singularly musical mentality that only exists in his hometown. “It’s a musical city,” he said. “You’re born with it, you die with it. It’s the only place that has second line funerals and when you hear that music with that color, that drop beat, that bass drum. People in New Orleans, they walk like that. It’s automatic.”
As a child, Neville used to watch his uncle Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas and his friends who were Indians. “On Mardi Gras Day, when they put those suits on and came out, it was like magic,” he said. “It was a ritual. It wasn’t just masking for Mardi Gras. It was something they’d put their sweat and blood and souls in the whole year and a lot of that was, a lot of music came from Indian beats too so it was a gumbo.”
“When I came back and saw soldiers with machine guns riding on the back of trucks down Canal Street, it was like you were in Somalia,” said Russell Batiste, his voice getting quiet. “That’s why I’m glad we’re a musical family. We have something to fall back on when things are really hard—to play music.”
Jonathan Batiste points out that with New Orleans musicians spread around the country, the culture and the music are spreading to new places, earning new listeners. The Jordans have found a new band in their own family since the storm.
You could fill a library with stories about New Orleans music families, and still never even skim the surface of why they have developed the way they have. These hundreds of families have roots that go much deeper than any levee walls. The families of New Orleans musicians have all grown up surrounded by the culture their ancestors helped create, and they have, in turn, created an even more vibrant culture with each generation. Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, jazz bands, Dixieland bands, gospel, r&b and funk—all of this music grew out of the roots of these families.
“Don’t ask why the tradition of these families exists,” Ben Jaffe said. “The real question is: How are we going to bring them back home?”