|Musician re-imagines popular tunes in the jazz tradition|
Xavier University students returning to campus in New Orleans can be forgiven if they don’t immediately recognize that beneath the self-effacing demeanor of soft-spoken professor Michael White lies the heart of a wildly revolutionary musician who composes new tunes for an old tradition and adapts familiar pop songs in the New Orleans jazz vernacular—making occasional forays along the way into both African-based and free jazz improvisation.
Similarly, devoted music fans who know Dr. Michael White and his Original Liberty Jazz Band as purveyors of some of the most impassioned New Orleans jazz on the planet can be excused for not immediately recognizing that, beneath the performances of a talented clarinetist, lies the heart of a dedicated scholar. White’s essays and autobiographical accounts shine with careful reasoning, and his pre-Katrina collection of antique instruments, classic sheet music and more than 5,000 vinyl and CD recordings equal an institutional archive.
White didn’t set out to create dual personas. As a young man, he did intentionally pursue graduate studies and a Ph.D. in Spanish as a practical career decision. His initial appointment to Xavier was as a Spanish teacher. But he also loved playing clarinet, and with a bit of classical training, occasionally played old-time New Orleans jazz. Then he ran into a classmate who invited him to play one weekend with a neighborhood brass band. Before long, he was hooked.
In time, White became recognized nationally as an advocate for the traditional genre. In the 1990s, he helped guide trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ stewardship of Jazz at Lincoln Center to include tributes to musicians like early New Orleans pianist and composer Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton. At the turn of the 21st century, White signed an extended contract with New Orleans’ Basin Street Records, releasing a pair of finely wrought tributes to New Orleans jazz, 2000’s A Song for George Lewis and 2002’s Jazz from the Soul of New Orleans.
Then, during a 2003-2004 residency at Studio in the Woods, a West Bank artists’ retreat, White had a life-changing experience. What followed were Basin Street’s 2004 and 2008 releases Dancing in the Sky and Blue Crescent—both containing primarily new tunes in the old New Orleans jazz style, a form of expression never before relied on so exclusively by a musician working within the tradition.
A National Heritage Fellowship awarded in 2008 brought yet another transformation. White’s next idea was to play popular music in the New Orleans jazz style. “When I was coming up,” White said at the time, “the older musicians used to say they could play any kind of music as New Orleans jazz, that New Orleans jazz was not so much a genre and more an approach to playing music … So I wanted to show what those older musicians, the first generation jazz musicians, were really trying to say.”
Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Part 1, released in 2011, took an international stance, including New Orleans jazz versions of Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata,” Bob Marley’s “One Love,” the Haitian Creole “Haiti, Cherie,” and White’s own composition, “West Africa Strut.” Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Part 2, released this summer, was a more American complement, with surprising and stirring covers of Hank Williams’ (and Fats Domino’s) “Jambalaya,” Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special,” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
On neither CD, though, is it the novelty songs that stick with you. The crowning achievement of Part 2 is a nine-minute dirge, “And the World Weeps,” composed by jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, who has lately been a frequent visitor to the Crescent City. Against the persistent backdrop of heavily accented bass-drum beats, White and his band enlivened the funereal atmosphere with a series of beautifully embellished solos so closely linked together they almost seem to make time stand still. The performance induces so strong an aura of heightened concentration, that it takes the six minutes of raucous carryings-on associated with the following “Tiger Rag” to completely break the spell.
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