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Musicians, Historians Work to Preserve New Orleans Music

One of the things that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has said he misses is the sound of jazz in his city. Many historians consider New Orleans the place where jazz was born in 1895.

Chris Vadala, who directs Jazz Studies at the University of Maryland, says an amalgamation of multi-national influences have left their mark on New Orleans and its music.

"When you think about the history of the territorial changes there between the French, Spanish and Americans, with the Africans and the Creoles, it's a melting pot. It's And that melting pot has given birth to variety of music says the professor of jazz studies. "There's the indigenous stuff like Zydeco. There's the Blues with the Delta melting pot, straight-ahead jazz from the great players that have ascended. There's the [jazz] roots with Louis Armstrong and prior to that, Kid Ory, King Oliver, Sydney Bechet, Scott Joplin. You've got ragtime, gospel music, church music, Western influences that the Creoles maintain."

All of those different styles of music come from New Orleans, Mr. Vadala says, making it difficult to define that the New Orleans sound is. "It's really a mixed bag of whatever the particular indigenous groups and musicians happen to be fronting at that particular time."

Aside from its amazing diversity, what makes New Orleans music so special is how it permeates so much of everyday life in the city. Matthew Barton, an audio-visual specialist at the Library of Congress, says although New Orleans music has had a long history, it's something that's still very much organic and alive. "It thrives at the neighborhood level, at the most local kind of level," he says, "in the corner bar, on the street corner, in churches and in people's homes. The music is ever-present."

Maryland professor Chris Vadala has been part of that music scene. As a member of the Chuck Mangione band, the saxophonist often toured the Mississippi Delta region. "We did play Mardi Gras down that way," he recalls. "There was the whole atmosphere of people being excited and having a good time. We did our concert and immediately after, we'd pack up and visit Bourbon Street. It was more for the music than anything else; I had to go to Preservation Hall. That music wasn't played so much around here [Washington]. A lot of it is indigenous to that environment and geography. To me it was a learning experience more than anything else. "

Library of Congress musicologist Matthew Barton says New Orleans is perhaps best known for its brass bands, which are an integral part of everything from funeral processions to the Mardi Gras celebration.

"One of the things that had kept jazz alive and kept it vital in New Orleans are the brass bands which have deep roots," says Mr. Barton. "They predate jazz and go back to the 19th century. The many neighborhoods, lodges, and social aid organizations that maintain brass bands bring young musicians into that tradition. That, in the last 20 years especially, has lead to a renaissance of the brass band form. They've incorporated modern jazz, rhythm and blues and funk into the music and revitalized it. But even taking in all the other influences, it's still New Orleans music."

Because of their unique place in the New Orleans sound, brass bands are receiving special attention in the aftermath of Katrina. For instance, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, one of the musician-brothers of the city's First Family of Jazz, will use a recording company he started three years ago to aid brass band musicians left jobless by the storm. "We're going to create a fund to have them play concerts or have them record for us," says Marsalis. "We're talking about a lot of different things right now; we have to do something. A lot of the guys I'm talking about include the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Rebirth Brass Band, the Tuxedo Brass Band. There are all these different groups. It's a matter of finding all these musicians scattered across the South."

Aside from preserving the live music of the region, Matthew Barton and his colleagues at the Library of Congress have a special interest in saving materials documenting the area's musical history -- priceless sheet music, photographs, and correspondence:

"I'm very concerned -- everyone at the Library is concerned -- about the many different archives in New Orleans: the jazz archives at Tulane [University], the historical collections," says Mr. Barton. "There are so many important collections down there. Or course, the people are number one, that's the first thing. But New Orleans is a city that really cares for its history."

As the floodwaters recede from New Orleans, musicians and scholars appear confident that the unique musical amalgam of the area will continue to flourish.