A profile in today’s Times Picayune weekly Lagniappe arts & entertainment section identifies the erudite clarinetist Dr. Michael White as Renaissance Man. That’s a dead-on descriptor and comes on the heels of a very revealing interview sit-down I had with the man just yesterday. The setting was the spacious trad jazz club The Palm Court on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, and the occasion was another in a series of New Orleans artist interviews I’m conducting that are being video taped for Dillard University’s infant Institute of Jazz Studies.
In the Lagniappe White is pictured head skyward in full-throated laughter, lovingly grasping his clarinet. On the National Endowment for the Arts web site (www.arts.endow.gov) announcing his selection as a 2008 National Heritage Fellow, big smile in place, again he’s cradling that clarinet as if to pronounce ‘this is really what its all about…’
So it was no surprise that before sitting down for our interview, fresh from a gym session but neatly clad in a handsome brown business suit and crisp striped sport shirt, he carefully assembled his instrument and grasped it throughout our session. The impulse was irrisistable: would he be so kind as to provide our interview with a musical invocation? So Dr. White proceeded to blow not just any few bars, but a clarinet adaptation of Louis Armstrong’s monumental cadenza intro to "West End Blues"!
At 53 years old Dr. Michael White is a bit of an anomaly — at least outside the singular confines of the Crescent City he is — a middle-aged African American who is fully-committed to performing traditional New Orleans jazz. Although he is not single-minded in his scholarly pursuits of all forms of jazz and various musics of the world — including confessed listens to the work of NOLA rapper ‘Lil Wayne – it seems that all music that comes into his consciousness is at some point filtered into his various original composition-based meditations on the traditional New Orleans jazz form.
As I queried how it is that an African American musician of his age group was so immersed in traditional New Orleans jazz and not hotly pursuing the next evolution of modern jazz or settled down into some modern jazz comfort zone, I could see a big smile playing across Dr. White’s expressive face; he’d been asked this many times before. Traditional New Orleans jazz — most definitely separate from that homogenized, lilly-white form known as "dixieland" — has for Michael White "a function that defies limitations and embodies the black New Orleans experience." Quite simply at bottom it is the social aspects of the music that most appeal to him. He detailed how people in New Orleans have a unique cultural upbringing, immersed in African ways of celebrating and protesting… all of which is embodied in traditional New Orleans jazz, which for Michael epitomizes democratic traditions and freedom of expression.
Although he achieved his PhD in Spanish language studies and taught Spanish for years at Xavier University (he currently occupies an endowed chair in African American Music at Xavier), music is Dr. White’s DNA. He came up through New Orleans customary music ranks. As a high schooler he was a member of the notable St. Augustine School Marching Band. He prepped in NOLA’s rich brass band tradition, including coming under the wings of two of the city’s music patriarchs, the late trumpeter-bandleader Doc Paulin (see our earlier NOLA Diary entry on his traditional New Orleans funeral), and guitarist-banjoist Danny Barker’s noted Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band for youth.
Today New Orleans is blessed with a wealth of modern-day brass bands, more brass bands than ever before which White applauds. However he did say that most of today’s younger brass band musicians, who are as likley to be as conversant in George Clinton and Mary J Blige as they are in "Just a Closer Walk With Thee", don’t play marches or play collectively in the traditional manner he was taught. Not a bad thing, just a reality of life in 2008.
As he mused on bits of traditional New Orleans jazz history — relating such anecdotes as the fact that the unassuming black man one might have encountered and patently overlooked cutting hedges on Prytania Street at the turn of the 20th century was Louis Armstrong’s mentor Joe "King" Oliver, a house-wrecking trumpeter of few peers — one couldn’t help but consider the terrible loss that Katrina and the resulting failure of the federal levees wrought on this erudite, gracious and unassuming man. A resident of the flood-ravaged middle class black neighborhood known as Gentilly, White lost priceless instruments and artifacts in his one-story house, including one of Sidney Bechet’s mouthpieces, irreplaceable historic sheet music, and thousands of video and audio recordings. He’s in recovery, is building back his collection in a new abode after evacuating first to Houston then sheltering for months in a FEMA trailer, and sharing a wealth of new compositions in the tradition he loves on his brilliant new disc Blue Crescent on Basin Street Records (www.basinstreetrecords.com).
Carefully balancing tradition and innovation is the watchword for Dr. Michael White. He filters a vast musicological knowledge that ranges out to John Coltrane and Albery Ayler through a prism that is squarely in a very spiritualized context of New Orleans traditional jazz, exclaiming quite simply that "the music I play comes from the black experience" of New Orleans. "There’s nowhere like New Orleans — a spirit center, a place where the flame and spirit of Africa has existed and transformed itself in many ways and that has contributed to the uniqueness of New Orleans."
With his clarinet was so conveniently perched, we were treated to an interview benediction — a completely improvised impression of how his day had gone so far: full of telephone calls, a trip to the gym, high heat and humidity outside, and a hurried arrival at our interview — sweat beading on his forehead. The resulting improvisation did indeed encompass it all. Catch up to Dr. Michael White’s bio on the Basin Street site or at www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/fellows. As with our earlier Harold Battiste interview for the Dillard archives (see a previous installment of our NOLA Diary), I’m hopeful of including installments of the full text of our interview with Dr. White on The Independent Ear.
In addition to his own growing discography, for those wishing to delve more deeply into New Orleans traditional jazz Dr. Michael White recommends the following listening investigations:
– (trumpeter) King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band recordings
– (bandleader) Clarence Williams Blue Five recordings
– (clarinetist) Johnny Dodds recordings
(particularly his Black Bottom Stompers)
– (clarinetist) Jimmy Noone recordings
– the revivalist 1940s and 1950s recordings of
(trumpeter) Bunk Johnsonand one of Dr. White’s primary
idols (clarinetist) George Lewis
– And for a strong dose of traditional New Orleans brass band
music he recommends anything by the Eureka Brass Band