Dee Dee Bridgewater and the birthplace of jazz

Dee Dee Bridgewater and the birthplace of jazz

Music commentator Gerry Koster reflects on the music of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, in the lead up to Melbourne International Jazz Festival Closing Night concert featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater & Irvin Mayfield with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

The Birth Place of Jazz is just one of many nicknames for New Orleans – which is perhaps what the rest of the world knows it for, and particularly Melbourne at this time of the year!

Other traditional nicknames that also quickly spring to mind are The Crescent City, The Big Easy, Mardi Gras City and N’Awlins, plus the more recent NOLA – New Orleans, LouisianA – which became popular during the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina resurgence (perfect also for this ‘Age of the Acronym’ in which we now seem to live).

The Big Easy was a dance hall in New Orleans in the early 1900s, but the city’s most popular moniker became famous in the 1970s after a Louisiana journalist coined it to describe the city’s laid-back, easy-going approach to life compared to New York City’s hustle. The hit 1987 crime movie of the same name cemented the phrase in everyone’s mind.

The Mardi Gras City is an obvious – New Orleanais have celebrated ‘Fat Tuesday’ (before Ash Wednesday at start of Lent) since the mid 1700s, and the Crescent City dates from the nineteenth century when the city began grow out beyond the famous French Quarter, following a great crescent-shaped bend in the Mississippi River.

The Quarter is home to Preservation Hall, and Bourbon, Canal and Rampart Streets – all immortalized in traditional jazz. And Rampart Street borders the Tremé neighbourhood, famous for its part in the history of African American music with its ‘Congo Square’, regarded as the birthplace of jazz. Under less harsh French colonial rule, slaves were given respite from their labours on Sundays and it was here that they created a weekly market and gathered to dance, drum and make music.

Storyville, New Orleans’ red light district before the start of the First World War, also bordered the French Quarter and it was traditional in some of the better establishments to hire a pianist or a band. Some famous jazz musicians got their start in Storyville, among them Jelly Roll Morton, Pops Foster and Buddy Bolden. A couple of other familiar names...Basin Street housed an elegant row of mansions for well-heeled customers with Mahogany Hall being the most lavish.

New Orleans’ story is a fascinating one – as is the history of its music. The city’s extraordinarily rich diversity of culture and tradition is result of its unique European-African-Creole-Native and Latin American heritage.

I was drawn recently to academic Lawrence N. Powell’s 2012 book ‘The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans’, which gives an insightful and detailed account of the city’s colonial history. And the history of its music, in particular jazz (my bent), I continue to read about...you’re never too old to learn as the saying goes and musicologists continue to discover more as time goes on. 

During a memorable ‘In Conversation’ session at the 2013 MIJF, Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes pointed out that New Orleans was also once regarded as the northernmost city of the Caribbean with its tropical climate, Creole heritage and variegated population. Afro-Cubans moved to New Orleans after the abolishment of slavery and many Hispanic musicians were working there at the dawn of the 20th century and all played their part in shaping the music.  

Celebrating New Orleans’ spirit and musical heritage at the 2015 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, will be 2012 festival favourite, vocalist and actor Dee Dee Bridgewater who’ll returning this year with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his 15-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for their visit to Australia.

Dee Dee Bridgewater and the birthplace of jazz

Mayfield established his Grammy award-winning big band in 2002 and it has since performed at the major arts centres and clubs across the United States and NOJO was chosen to symbolically reopen New Orleans on November 17, 2005 with a commission marking first major cultural event inside the city since Hurricane Katrina. You can read more about Irvin Mayfield and NOJO here.

They’ll be performing at Hamer Hall to close the 2015 MIJF and plan to transport their audience to The Big Easy with some of the city’s classic tunes and with a collection of new pieces inspired by some of the city’s famous neighbourhoods where the music was born.

I interviewed Dee Dee when she was here in 2012 for an episode of My Favourite Things for ABC Jazz. It was the morning of her concert and time was tight, but she let it run overtime. She was having fun and it was a delight! She was warm, generous and utterly charming. And, a little cheeky – no – SASSY, I think, would be the word to describe her! And on stage, she was all that and more! Her selection of tracks for the program highlighted some of the singers that have had an impact on her – each as strikingly individual as she herself is – one from an album she recorded in Mali called Red Earth, exploring and celebrating her African and Malian roots, and one from her jazz hero Miles – and not from one his acoustic albums which are popular with many of the guests who’ve appeared on My Favourite Things. Dee Dee’s choice was Bitches Brew – hinting at her funky side...

I’ve had the privilege of having a preview of Dee Dee’s soon-to-be-released album with Irvin Mayfield and NOJO, and on strength of that and her rousing wrap-up of the festival on her first visit to Melbourne; I daresay that this concert too will be a big crowd favourite. I’m certainly looking forward to it!

Dee Dee Bridgewater & Irvin Mayfield with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra 
Sunday 7 June at 7:30pm
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
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