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When swing was again the thing

A jazz enthusiast recalls the time when New Orleans came to New York.

Todd Seavey

Topics Culture

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Cities across America have taken in refugees from the flooding of New Orleans. In recent years, though, the period when my home, New York City, showed the greatest receptivity to old-fashioned New Orleans culture may have been the mid-1990s swing revival. That brief but intense retro craze carried with it a fair amount of Dixieland jazz, zydeco, and blues in addition to the fedoras and trenchcoats it briefly brought back to a hypermodern metropolis, a reminder that modernity really does make room for countless traditional niches.

I traveled to New Orleans at that time and met several jazz musicians and jazz historians. It was also around that time that I met the young jazz band called the Flying Neutrinos, transplants from New Orleans to New York City who, like many traditional jazz musicians, had been raised as performers by their performer parents.

Transplanting jazz

The first time I saw the Flying Neutrinos, I stood, wearing a red cape, my chest emblazoned with a distinctive Superman ‘S,’ as a parade of freaks and ghouls passed before me, the Neutrinos among them. It was the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York City, and the Neutrinos were playing on the back of a truck in the procession, a burst of trombone-led energy in the otherwise plodding procession of zombies. As they rolled away into the night, I made a mental note to see them again under more normal circumstances. It turned out they were performing every Sunday night at the Rodeo Bar across the street from the apartment I lived in at the time. At last I understood why I had seen the occasional conga-like ‘second line’ emerge from the bar, happily singing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’.

After one of their performances at the Rodeo Bar, I talked to the two cousins at the core of the group, vocalist Ingrid Lucia and trombone player/second vocalist/tapdancer Todd Londagin, who were born in the early 1970s and grew up in a band of traveling musicians. Londagin said Lucia’s father ‘had a lot of people around him that he traveled with in a very gypsy-form lifestyle, but he didn’t think of himself as a hippie. He had more discipline than that. My father and my mother joined the group before I was born. Ingrid was born into it. We travelled around this way from the early 70s.… We spent a lot of time just on survival’.

Londagin said they initially spent most of their time in Mexico. ‘They gave me a trombone and I blatted out, just fooled around. So we were this ramshackle little family jazz band’, with a membership ranging from eight to 20 at different times, travelling across North America and Europe. He said that they’ll always think of New Orleans as the place where the band learned to play and, in some sense, as home. In 1991, though, Londagin and Lucia moved to New York City, and Lucia asked her father for permission to carry on the name Flying Neutrinos. Lucia said: ‘We knew a lot of people who died along the way, and I felt their music should be carried on and wasn’t being carried on, but a couple years ago, I realised you can’t just imitate somebody [Lucia sounds a lot like Billie Holiday], you have to show what you have to offer, so we’ve started writing our own songs.’ Lucia was determined that the band would have deeper roots and a longer future than a short-lived retro craze.

One of the musicians I saw perform at the Palm Court during a visit to New Orleans itself around that time was banjo player Les Muscutt, who told me that you learn not to put too much stock in revivals. ‘There was a ragtime revival one time, swing music revival another time. I doubt any of them will last as long as the traditional bands.’ Muscutt wasn’t troubled by the thought of jazz remaining in its modest-sized niche, though: ‘Jazz has never been really popular. It’s always been a minority music.… Simpler tunes stay with people. The more complicated stuff is a harder sell.’ Ferbos predicted that in the long run the most popular jazz would probably tend to be the most melodic, and that’s okay. ‘You’ve got to have melody.… Some of this new, experimental stuff I don’t understand.’ That may mean that while there’s an unlimited potential for occasional jazz revivals, most revivals are likely to be driven by familiar numbers like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, which some of the New Orleans musicians confess they’re tired of hearing.

Preserving Cajun

New Orleans has sent New York musical ambassadors from other styles as well, though, such as John Du Bois, who told me how he had travelled to New York City and elsewhere performing the music of his Cajun ancestors. His CDs, such as Bayou Ballads: The Forgotten Songs, Creole-French Plantation Songs of Louisiana, Circa 1840-1880, include ‘traditional Cajun folk songs I learned from my grandparents’. Some of the tunes are ones he first heard from Cajun schoolteachers.

‘I learned four of them in the elementary school book, and then when I brought the tunes home, my grandmother Broussard said she knew [others], and she’d give me part of the songs, part of the melody, I’d take ’em to school, and two thousand years later I have an album.’ According to Du Bois, the Cajun musicians say ‘a culture is maintained one generation at a time’, and songs forgotten for one generation and never recorded could be lost forever.

Recreating Creole blues

A preservation effort better known to New Yorkers, this one on behalf of jazz and blues, was that undertaken by Creole dancer and singer Vernel Bagneris. Around the time I spoke to him, in the late 1990s, the waning days of the swing revival, Bagneris played Lacy in the hit Broadway musical The Life, but back in 1979 he wrote, directed, and starred in the musical One Mo’ Time and its sequel Further Mo’, both consciously aimed at keeping New Orleans musical traditions alive. In the 1970s, living in New Orleans, he heard about the death of an old, local blues singer and realized ‘there were just a lot of instrumental things going on, but nobody was very interested in that old double-entendre, all that vaudeville tradition, and I really missed it and I thought somebody should bring that back. I was an English major, and I just thought the lyrics were brilliant, so I started putting together One Mo’ Time with friends. The idea was to showcase 1920s black music from theatre because I had noticed in all my studies that any sort of black musical theatre history just wasn’t there.

‘I had asked my grandmother if anyone else in my family had been in theatre. Well, they weren’t, but once I got into doing a vaudeville piece, she was telling me about my uncle, who was actually a vaudeville performer.… I found a review that said he opened with a number called “Honky Tonk Town”, with two girl singers, and years before I did the research, I had for some reason liked the song “Honky Tonk Town” as my opening number and I would do it with two girls.… There was this whole tradition in New Orleans of black musical theatre that had just been forgotten. The music had been played at birthday parties, funerals, but the theatre side of it was gone. It all began to bubble up. You’re sort of unconsciously connected to your own history.’

And New York, for all its high-tech wonders and noisy techno-pumping dance clubs, is connected to that history as well.

Todd Seavey is a Phillips Foundation Fellow and edits HealthFactsAndFears.com. He is working on a book called Conservatism for Punks.

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