Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II (new edition)
By Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press. 374 pp. (paperback) $30
Of the many tears in the social fabric of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the rending of the musical community was one of the most painful. Fortunately, local musicians are also some of the most resilient of New Orleanians, all too accustomed to scuffling their way through bad times and reveling in the good. A revised edition of Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World II, first published in 1986, has a new epilogue by co-author (and Gambit contributor) Jason Berry, with 80 pages covering much of New Orleans' musical history since the book's initial publication. The focus, not surprisingly, is the aftermath of the federal floods.
A new prologue begins with a hilarious story about the late newsman Bill Elder's quest for many a local reporter's grail: an in-depth interview with Fats Domino. Elder called, cajoled and finally just showed up at Domino's Caffin Avenue home, but the veteran investigative reporter's skills failed; Fats outfoxed him. It's this sort of personal detail that enlivens the book throughout, with its mixture of scholarship, interviews, tales of club nights and anecdotes that would no doubt have passed into history, unrecorded.
Before Katrina, there were two big blows to New Orleans music in the latter half of the 20th century: District Attorney Jim Garrison's crackdown on nightclubs in the early 1960s, followed by an external destructive force, the British invasion. Despite the Beatles' and the Rolling Stones' adoration and occasional attempt to promote the American R&B sound (Clarence "Frogman" Henry was an opening act on the Beatles' first tour of America), changing tastes led to a decline of the local R&B scene. And while fans probably know Irma Thomas moved west after work dried up at home, it's still shocking — and sad — to read that Thomas ended up living in Oakland, Calif., working at a Montgomery Ward. It's hard not to read her eventual triumph as the Soul Queen of New Orleans as the story of Crescent City music writ small, but she as much as anyone was knocked down by Katrina, losing both her Mid-City club, the Lion's Den, and her Ninth Ward home. But the Soul Queen triumphed.
Even the familiar stories in this leisurely account have details to delight local music fans; a 1957 photo of a pre-Dr. John Mac Rebennack, oozing rockabilly teen cool with a Brylcreem spitcurl on his forehead, is juxtaposed with an image of Baby Mac as a pouty-looking toddler, looking like a midget Rex, at a World War II children's Mardi Gras ball.
The revised book concludes at the end of 2008, just missing the deaths of several New Orleans giants found elsewhere between its covers (Snooks Eaglin, Eddie Bo, Antoinette K-Doe) and giving only the briefest of mentions to the New Orleans rap scene — a few paragraphs about Master P and Lil Wayne is as far as the authors go. (And where is the account of Ernie K-Doe's glorious 2001 funeral that sealed his legend?) But Up From the Cradle of Jazz is a perennial for anyone with a passion for music or simple pride in their hometown, and 23 years would be too long to wait for a third edition of this seminal New Orleans music history.