BOOK REVIEW: ‘Up from the Cradle of Jazz’

UP FROM THE CRADLE OF JAZZ: NEW ORLEANS MUSIC SINCE WORLD WAR II
By Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, $30
373 pages

”If you stay up long enough in New Orleans, magic will find you.” So says Andrei Codrescu, quoted in “The Majesty of the French Quarter,” by noted New Orleans photographer and author Kerri McCaffety. Indeed, magic - particularly where it concerns musical talent - is quite evident throughout New Orleans. In “Up From the Cradle of Jazz,” Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and the late Tad Jones collaborated to capture some of that magic, tracing the long and evolving history of rhythm and blues from the end of World War II. The first edition of the book was published in 1992, but this current and updated version adds information through the post-Katrina era.

New Orleans is blessed with an abundance of musical and artistic talent that largely shapes its cultural identity. So much of that talent exists there, in fact, that many musicians do not receive the individual recognition they might garner elsewhere. “Up From the Cradle of Jazz” sheds light on the work and careers of a number of those musicians who otherwise might have faded into obscurity.

Broad surveys of music history run the risk of reading like textbooks. However, through skillful use of personal interviews, anecdotes and a gift for storytelling, the book’s authors have provided a highly readable and entertaining account of the multifaceted history of New Orleans music. They describe how artists such as Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, Allen Toussaint and the Meters, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair, the Mardi Gras Indians and so many others were instrumental in shaping and influencing New Orleans rhythm and blues for generations.

Moreover, the authors’ account is not limited to music. New Orleanians take a great deal of pride in their city, despite its many difficulties, and “Up From the Cradle of Jazz” includes interwoven stories of various New Orleans neighborhoods, nightclubs, bars and other historic music venues such as Congo Square as well as insights into local politics, all of which combine to give the reader a very real sense of life in the Big Easy.

New Orleans music is evolving constantly, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I first encountered “Up From the Cradle of Jazz” this past Mardi Gras while visiting a good friend, Kabir Kalsi, local impresario and Lord High Engineer to the Fat Bankers’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The book was displayed prominently in the “gentlemen’s lounge,” and leafing through its pages, I noticed a small remarque and signature inside the front cover that on closer inspection revealed itself to be from none other than Allen Toussaint himself. When I asked Kabir how he had come by the autograph, he recounted how he had met the influential New Orleans musician and enjoyed a brief conversation while awaiting a flight at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Before parting company, Mr. Toussaint signed Kabir’s book, which has since become a treasured possession. Magic indeed.

Kenan Torrans is a lawyer residing in Washington, D.C.

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