I’ve always dreamed of singing jazz songs in a smoky voice while lying on a piano in a long slinky silver silk gown. I would captivate my audience with my hypnotic voice and I would wear a gardenia in my black curls. Reality check: I have no piano, no silver gown, my hair is blond, and quite frankly, I can’t sing very well, unless I’ve had two or more glasses of wine, and then I sing very well(at least to my own ears). I wish I could send chills up your spine, or make you cry over the heartbreaking beauty of my voice ala Billie Holiday. But alas, my talents lie elsewhere. I’m lucky to live in New Orleans, however, where spine-tingling jazz singers are everywhere. As I walked down the street last week holding my toddler’s hand, we both stopped as we heard what sounded like the voice of an angel coming out of a dusty gutted home. “Who’s singing?” my daughter asked, as we turned around. We watched a large man covered in grime come out of the house carrying a metal ladder over his shoulder, a smile on his face. His voice filled the air with quiet beauty and my eyes filled with tears. This is New Orleans, steeped in the magic of music.
“I think music is central to all societies—to the betterment of those who populate those societies. But it is the essence of New Orleans,” says John Snyder, the Conrad N. Hilton Eminent Scholar of Music Industry Studies at Loyola University and multiple Grammy award winner. “Very few places can be called the birthplace of movements, of art forms, that affect so many people in so many places in so many ways. Very few places can claim music and art as profoundly as New Orleans and Louisiana. From this cradle came most if not all what we call “American” music…these citizens of New Orleans created a music that has inspired and influenced artists and others who’ve never been here, who may not even be aware of the source of the inspiration that informs their existence and their lives.” I think most artists and even non-artists would agree. The earth, the trees, the air, all radiate artistic inspiration, at least for me. Nowhere else in the world am I so inspired to wrap a pink boa around my neck and sing Iko Iko while writing. I know countless people who are moved to create once they step foot on Louisiana earth.
Professor Snyder has found his creativity stimulated here as well. Long before he moved to Louisiana, he recorded here. He has made nearly one hundred recordings at Dockside Studios in Maurice, LA over the last thirteen years and he says every one but one turned out “positive and successful” because of the place. “Three hundred year old oak trees, sugar cane fields stretching to the horizon, I fell in love with the insouciant beauty and languid indifference of the place. It felt old and mysterious to me.” He has produced recordings of some of the greatest names in music (eg. Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck) and often takes his students to Dockside to record. His students are getting the best education in music business possible. He has eight student-run companies running at Loyola and recently added a college radio station and record label to the roster. He tries to create a more holistic approach to music education by having several different colleges come together—eg. the Business, Music, and Ethics. He was instrumental in getting the world-renowned Thelonius Monk Institute to relocate to New Orleans and he is working with Herb Alpert to create Artists House, a one-stop resource for those wanting to be involved in music.
Even with his vast rich musical experience, Professor Snyder believes nothing compares with New Orleans. “Never in my travels have I come across a place where the depth of musical talent was so great. It seems that talent is the greatest natural resource of the place.” I think most would agree that talent permeates New Orleans. It’s on the street corners, in the nightclubs, in the universities, even in the churches. “Music is sacrament,” says Professor Snyder. Amen. To many New Orleanians, myself included, music is a religious experience. When I go to Jazz Fest or Preservation Hall, I feel my soul being enriched in ways impossible to articulate. New Orleans, the originator of jazz, oozes music from its every pore. Even the devastated areas sing their sad lament, and the intact areas, well, the deep and sacred joy of New Orleans music is indomitable. Professor Snyder says, “Jazz is the music of self expression and of respect. The language of jazz is the sum total of all who express it, who use it to communicate the pain and passion of how we feel as individuals. It is the music of the Americas, our gift to the world…”
And what a gift. Late last night I was pacing the floors of my house with my eight-month-old son in my arms, trying to get him to sleep. Everything was dark and quiet except for an extraordinary voice singing a gospel tune. I walked back to the nursery and looked out the window. In the tall glowing windows of what used to be the stable doors of the carriage house behind ours, I saw a body, her feet wrapped in a blanket, sheet music on her lap, a mug in one hand, the other hand floating and waving in time to the music she was singing. I stood there, my baby’s heart beating next to mine, his head on my shoulder, and let the music wash over me. Another magical moment in New Orleans.
Marci Johnson, Ed.M. is a free-lance writer with delusions of being a chanteuse. She holds degrees from UCLA and Harvard and lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children.