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Michael White Discusses His and Other Musicians’ Situation

November 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: This is your second time back. Any easier? 

MICHAEL WHITE, musician: No … because it is still unbelievable. Even though I know what is inside I’m looking at it now and thinking that’s not true. I’m thinking I’m going to see it like I found it — like I left it. It’s really like going in for the first time all over again because I still can’t imagine what I know I’ve seen before. I still think everything is going to be upright and clean and some kind of order to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And full of music.


MICHAEL MURPHY, Jazz documentary maker: It’s similar to when you lose somebody you love — somehow you don’t believe it. You still think they are going to come back and they are going to be there…

MICHAEL WHITE: Yeah, it’s really like a death. It really is a death. A death of the last 30 years of my life. Collections of things that could never be replaced. … Collections of things I’ve gathered — music and photographs of special people.

Things that really cover the history of jazz in terms of the dates and things of some of the instruments and things I’ve saved. They gave me rare interviews they wouldn’t give other people which I was saving to write about. A lot of original music that really kind of came at important emotional times that I had written down. It’s all gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were telling me as we were driving up here that as you evacuated several times before and you thought about how this might happen one time.

MICHAEL WHITE: Well this is my third evacuation. I guess the most serious one happened last year. … I thought about that long drive. I had something like a 26-hour drive just to get to Lake Charles, Louisiana. And I thought then and I’ve been thinking since then that I might lose all of this at any time. And sometimes I would sit in the house and think what would it be like for all this to just be gone.

If I had to evacuate, what would I take. What could I take? And I just realized that I just had too much stuff of value. Rare things. Video, books, books about New Orleans, New Orleans culture. Vintage instruments from the late 1800s through the early 1930’s. I grabbed some of those things I could, but so much was left behind, so much. What you realize is that’s your whole life in there.

And you know music is a way of life in New Orleans but it was a way of life for me. It was about more than just music, it was a way of going in and developing your own soul and character and then sharing that with other people — musicians, fans. It is a great thing to have that tradition and so much of it was in that house…

MICHAEL WHITE: I just got an apartment but I have no furniture and I don’t have time to move. So I’ll have to figure that one out. And I got an apartment in the same complex as my mother, aunt and nephew, but they are special needs people. My nephew had a heart transplant a few years ago so it’s kind of rough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Same thing happened to a lot of musicians?

MICHAEL WHITE: Yeah, musicians are everywhere. They’re scattered all over the country. And every now and then I get a call from someone and they tell me where someone else is because you always think about music and the musical community as being a family. During something like this you really realize it.

There is a lot of pain and suffering and sense of loss. And just to hear a familiar voice. You know, I’m in Washington DC or I’m in Phoenix. You find out some people are in Houston like I am. And others in Louisiana — Lafayette, Baton Rouge. There is a sense that we all lost together. And there is that strong sense of community, family. And we try to find out what happened to other people we know.

We share stories — sometimes good stories, sometimes horror stories. We try when possible if we have a musical engagement that seems to be the most soothing thing of all. It brings us together. And I’ve never hugged so many men before (laughing).

JEFFREY BROWN: What was like to be a musician in New Orleans, I mean pre-Katrina?

MICHAEL WHITE: Well, you know music in New Orleans is a way of life so it is like you are part of an extended family that not only connects you to all of the musicians that are here, but all of the musicians that came before. It is like a continual, ongoing cultural festival. It is almost like a living parade if you will. Parades are big thing here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it hard to make a living? We hear about big names, of course, but it seems like every street corner has a musician.

MICHAEL WHITE: Well, you know there are so many musicians here that it’s very hard to make a living just off of music. And so many musicians are either struggling or have another career or profession. But you know you do it for more than the money, you do it for the love of the music and the joy that it brings to you and the connection it establishes with other people.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how hard [is it] now to see a time when people will come back and it comes to what it was before?

MICHAEL WHITE: The biggest question here is uncertainty. There are a lot of unanswered questions. People in the musical community are scattered all around the country. Many people are still physically, emotionally devastated from this. It is going to take a long time to recover.

A lot of people are not in a financial position to return to New Orleans. There are still quite a degree of fear about the safety of the community from future hurricanes. It is very difficult. You know everyone is just trying to deal with basic survival. You know finding money to eat, places to stay, dealing with whatever illnesses or emotional trauma that remains. It is tough. So we don’t know when, how, or if, how much of the musical fabric that really makes New Orleans is going to return.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are staying in touch with some fellow musicians — what are they telling you?

MICHAEL WHITE: Well, you know I hear different things. I’ve been talking with musicians as far away as Washington, DC and some musicians are in places like Ohio, Oregon. And other places. Many are in Houston like I am. Some are in Louisiana — Baton Rouge, Lafayette. Places like that. There’s a lot of different feelings.

I think a lot of people there’s just this tremendous sense of fear about what happened. There’s still a sense of disbelief — a great sense of loss and sadness. We don’t know how many people are on the death lists are people that we know. Maybe musicians, maybe people that came out to hear the music. So it is still pretty devastating. Some musicians say they won’t return. Others don’t know if it will be financially possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens if a lot of them don’t return?

MICHAEL WHITE: If a lot of musicians that are from New Orleans don’t return, New Orleans will never be what it was. Right now it feels like the city is dead and we are looking for recovery.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everybody sees the physical destruction, we were just in your home, but it is a lot more than that.

MICHAEL WHITE: It is a lot more. I realized in going in to the house — it’s like the life blood of the community — the history, the ancestral connections, that special spirit that connects us all through the music and the community. It is beyond explanation. But it is like all of that has been washed away with the flood.

JEFFREY BROWN: The mayor was already talking about how New Orleans in the future might be a city half its size pre-Katrina. Would the music community be able to survive if it is a smaller city?

MICHAEL WHITE: Difficult to say because a lot of the work for the musicians in New Orleans came through conventions, small festivals we have at different times of the year. It is really hard to say. It was very competitive before. Hard to really make a good living playing music. So it remains to be seen. How much convention work will return to the area. Many musicians played in clubs — how many clubs will open? Who can afford to pay just basic wages? So it is difficult. A lot of uncertainties.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are a historian of this great tradition — there must have been a lot of times when things looked bad for the city and for music. How do you put this in some perspective?

MICHAEL WHITE: Well you know before Katrina traditional New Orleans jazz was suffering what many cultural traditions suffer which is almost extinction in its birth place because partly because of commercialism and partly because of indifference and real sort of a lack of knowledge of cultural history.

A lot of things in New Orleans are taken for granted. But on all levels it is very difficult to kind of maintain the tradition of – especially a tradition that is based on improvisation and personal interpretation and absorbing other styles around it. So there were different branches of the music that continue, but as far as authentic, traditional jazz that community was really very small.

But there were some of us who were descendants of the first generation of jazz musicians that were keeping on the authentic traditionally style. And even composing new songs in that style at times. And that was a good thing because New Orleans jazz is like cult music in other parts of the world so it actually does exist everywhere. So everywhere you go even if people don’t speak English all through Scandinavia, Central Europe, even in Japan – there’s a lot of New Orleans, traditional New Orleans Jazz activity with fans, musicians, clubs, recording re-releases, writers, magazines. It is really incredible. It’s almost like a religious cult.

JEFFREY BROWN: In some sense New Orleans jazz is almost like a brand name but I’ve also seen some people worrying that in the future that’s all it might be.

MICHAEL WHITE: Well, you know the disappearance of the music as a living breathing thing of New Orleans culture in its more authentic form, it was in jeopardy before but we still those of us who play traditional music have refused to really commercialize the music to a certain extent and we still play for a lot of New Orleans functions which keeps the music alive in the community. We still play for parties and weddings where people are dancing. We still play for parades and jazz funerals — it is still a part of the life blood of the city and in that sense it continues.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is it seems a great tradition of playing happy — I want to say even when times are really sad whether it is a funeral of something bad in the community – so that goes on?

MICHAEL WHITE: You know, that is one of the things I’ve seen in New Orleans, we have sort of like a dualism in many ways, in many aspects of life and culture. And one of them is that double way of looking at death. You know, in a jazz funeral the slow sad dirges, the slow procession highlight the sadness of a person’s passing and the loss we feel. But then the funeral ends on an optimistic note with joy and up tempo music. And what they call now second line dancing.

It carries the belief that when a person passes on they are going on to a greater reward, celebration with the creator. They are free of their earthly burdens and troubles so it is a time of joy and celebration. So we should feel happy they are moving on to a greater existence.

And I think one of the lessons of the jazz funeral for all these years is that is what we have to do now. We have to be optimistic and say we have transitioned in to something else but that something else this is an opportunity for it to come back and be great. And so there should be joy in that optimistic thought and belief.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a little hard when you walk in your house.

MICHAEL WHITE: It’s tough but that’s all I have to hang on to. And you know I believe in God. I think a lot of what’s happened in terms of the music and the musical gifts and the special people we’ve seen — I think that’s a special thing. I think the gifts we were given to have Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, so many unknown musicians. Just the whole concept of what it is because it is not just music and not just dance music and fun.

It is a philosophy of life that helps you go on in the face of diversity and social turmoil. And this is the time where that musical tradition is really put to a test. It’s like — OK, now this happened but you have to go on. You have to continue. Hold your head up. Be proud. Look for the good part. Express the pain and sorrow through the music and keep going.

JEFFREY BROWN: You travel around the city and there are some places where you can see the history and you know music was very much a part of that history.

MICHAEL WHITE: Music has been such an important part of New Orleans culture from the very beginning … New Orleans is known as a party town. There’s always celebrations, good times, holidays, less worry about business and progress and punctuality. But part of that is from the very beginning it was such a harsh geographical climate here — hurricanes, floods, reptiles, insects, diseases, poverty, a high death rate. And so people learned to celebrate and enjoy life now, and it is precious.

So you should enjoy it while you have it because you never know about tomorrow. And that’s kind of what made New Orleans what it is. So know you know in 2005 we see that once again — the tragedy. So the idea is to once again rise from the ashes, if you will, and try to find a way to celebrate the life that we do have.

If you go back to the history of New Orleans you saw everything from Congo Square where there was authentic African, West African music transformed and taking on its own character. Another way of celebrating one’s condition and position here. You saw dancing and many different types of parades in the streets. There was always musical activity throughout the history of the city to keep it going and to keep people’s spirits up and to serve as both a release and as a way of coming together and celebrating life.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are a professor so you deal with a lot of young people do you see younger generation holding on to this tradition, or looking to build it in the future?

MICHAEL WHITE: I’ve been at Xavier University for a long time and you know it is very difficult to hold on to cultural traditions especially in the age of computers and video games. People have so many choices now so it is very difficult to focus on something like an older cultural tradition. It is really generally not a part of American culture as you know.

So it is difficult but I’m happy to say we have a few converts over the years of younger people that were initiated in to the music. And you see them sometimes at concerts and buying CDs and having conversations and debates sometimes.

And that’s a great thing because they realize the importance of the music not only as for its entertainment value but as an important part of their cultural history and life and a philosophy about life that speaks about essential things like freedom of expression and unity, personal development — values that can carry them in to every area of life. So that’s the prospective from which I approach the music and with young people.

Yeah, this is old music but listen to what these guys were doing. Look at what was going on around them at the time. The social turmoil but they found a way of both celebrating and protesting at the same time. Of keeping themselves from being second class citizens to rising to the level of king – like King Oliver.

Gaining respect because of their own individual voices and experiences that came out in unique ways through tonal expressions, through their rhythms, through the phrases that they played. It was a very uplifting thing that they shared with the community.