Playing the hurricane blues
Eyes closed, Michael White plays his clarinet under a shady tree at the Hot Springs Lodge.The sound of Sidney Bechet’s “Blues in the Air” nearly transforms the pristine mountain setting into a sultry New Orleans club.”Hmmm. Smooth, but something’s not quite right yet,” White said. “I’m trying out a new mouthpiece. I have a guy who is custom-making mouthpieces for me … it’s like a lost art.” Today at 7 p.m., White and his quartet, which includes Gregg Stafford, Detroit Brooks and Roland Guerin, will perform their art.This is the first of eight Summer of Jazz shows. The free concert series at Two Rivers Park is dedicated to the music of New Orleans, White’s hometown and birthplace that continues to struggle more than nine months after Hurricane Katrina.”My whole life is New Orleans music and culture. To not be there, it’s tough,” White said. “I travel all over the world, but there’s no place like New Orleans. It’s a mixture of food, language, movement. New Orleans is such a unique place that not being there is a very strong feeling for a lot of people.”For White, music is not only an art he constantly works to improve it’s a defining factor in his life. His family tree links him to the first generation of jazz musicians in New Orleans.”My charge is to promote New Orleans culture and music,” said White, who’s an endowed chair in the arts and humanities at Xavier University. “I think New Orleans has been the most important incubator of musical styles and trends to have influenced our country. It’s the birthplace of jazz.”
Sitting in the lobby of the lodge in Glenwood Springs, White is far from his house once filled with jazz memorabilia and vintage instruments. Everything inside was destroyed by the ruthless hurricane.Irreplaceable things.”It was under nine feet of water. I lost over 4,000 books, 6,000 records and 60 instruments 50 were vintage clarinets from the 1890s to the early 1930s,” White said. “I had a lot of original sheet music, complete band transcriptions. I had different things like banjo strings, reeds and drumsticks collected from old jazz musicians over the years. A mouthpiece that belonged to Sidney Bechet, a trumpet mouthpiece of Jabo Smith’s who was Louis Armstrong’s rival.”The day before Katrina struck, White evacuated to Houston and met up with his only sister, as well as his aunt and mother who are both in their 80s and lived together in New Orleans. Two months later White surveyed the destruction.”The water stayed in the house for three weeks. I lost every inch of my office. The grass is all dead – it looks like after a war. There are no people, no life,” he said. “There are remnants of trash everywhere, toxic mildew. Refrigerators were turned upside down, beds crumbled, a lot of furniture just floating.”White was able to recover some of the vintage instruments, but they would never be the same.”I found 45 or 50 of the clarinets, but the wooden ones had molded, others rusted out.”Like a recurring bad dream, White has a hard time erasing the disturbing imagery of the place he loves. His beloved New Orleans isn’t the same.”There was this awesome, awful pungent smell in the area … a mixture of trash, mildew, bodies floating around,” he said. “I’m kind of still grieving over the loss of knowing people who drowned, like the 90-some year-old musician who died in his home, a home I dropped him off at before. I can’t get those images out of my mind – like nightmares.”
When he’s not on the road playing music, White splits his time between New Orleans and Houston where his mother now lives in a nursing home.”I don’t feel like I have a sense of home. I do have a trailer on the Xavier University campus, but it’s not very comfortable for a 6-foot person. It’s like a trailer park for faculty and staff,” he said. “All of this is still going on while my mother’s condition is worsening. Physically, she’s gotten so weak – I see her slipping away before my eyes.”Like other jazz musicians from New Orleans, White said the music helps him cope with the after-effects of the hurricane. He plays Carnegie Hall on June 19 and in a concert series titled, “Been in the Storm So Long” during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival starting June 30.Katrina put a big dent in White’s life but performing is a way of showing that the hurricane didn’t break him or other musicians.”I think it’s important to keep us in front of the public. We’re down, but we’re definitely not out,” he said. “For all the musicians, playing not only helps relieve the stress of the situation, but really tells the story of what happened.”
Even after nine months, problems continue.”We’re still dealing with the insurance companies and FEMA. It’s a web of conflicting, confusing information.”White said he has been writing and playing new songs motivated by life’s recent hardships.”It helps me release whatever emotions I’m having at the time. It provides a sense of normalcy,” he said. “For me, there’s a renewed sense of urgency in the music. The spirit of the music that the older musicians shared with me, that has stayed with me.”This isn’t the first trip to Glenwood for White. Ironically, another natural disaster confronted him in the past when he performed at the 2002 Summer of Jazz as the Coal Seam Fire was tormenting residents in Glenwood.Tonight, White plans to share the music of his mentors in tribute to the people and the culture of his beloved hometown. “This is authentic New Orleans jazz. A lot of people play commercialized jazz, like Dixieland, and don’t look at it as a living, growing force as I do,” he said. “The greatest lesson comes from the New Orleans jazz funerals. There’s slow and sad music, but it ends with joyous, uptempo music and dancing. It’s about the transition into a new life.”Contact April E. Clark: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
Every Wednesday, the Summer of Jazz concert series hosts free concerts from 7-9:30 p.m. at Two Rivers Park. This year, Summer of Jazz is in tribute to New Orleans music and its heritage. Each week the Post Independent profiles the featured musicians and acts. Name: Michael White Age: 51 Instrument played: clarinet Whats the most irreplaceable item you lost in Hurricane Katrina? When I opened the door the first time I went back to my home, it was like part of me was in there. I think I lost a large part of my soul, my being. I’m trying to recover. All the interviews, instruments, photographs from the older jazz musicians that was a large part of me that I lost.
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