April 23, 2008. Posted by Joshua Jackson.
Meet Paul Barbarin, one of the most important people in the history of New Orleans music, and the "how" we call jazz.
The Barbarin family constitutes one of the original lines of Creole musicians who were present at the creation of a new music. Paul's father, Isidore, played the alto horn in The Onward Brass Band, one of the early traditional brass bands in the city.
Before I moved to New York, I used to work at WWOZ in New Orleans. I started as a volunteer, operating the board for a woman named Betty Rankin. Every Saturday morning, while most people my age had hangovers from Friday night, I was in a tiny peach-colored building in Louis Armstrong Park, playing LPs, cassettes, and the occasional CD for a lady who wanted no business with those details. She spent her ninety minutes as "Big Mama," the host of "The Moldy Fig Jam." I was 22, and this was the most amazing radio I had ever heard in my life. She told stories about every jazz musician in the city who had ever picked up an instrument with the purpose of playing traditional New Orleans jazz.
As it happened, Big Mama was an associate curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive. She handled the extensive oral history of New Orleans' music, and she knew both the collection as well as the musicians' whose lives she had helped to document. On any given Saturday, she talked about Paul Barbarin as if he were in the studio with us. It was the beginning of my post-college, real world education. On one such occasion, it was the first time I had ever heard his song, "Bourbon Street Parade." She told her audience about the street parades, how Barbarin kept that tradition alive. In the 1960s, he revived the Onward Brass Band, the name of the group that his father played a part. In fact, Paul Barbarin died in a parade, leading the band. [While I'm no fan of death, that's a great way to shuffle off this mortal coil.]
Years later, on the cusp of 2002, I was the field producer for NPR's Toast of the Nation. We're at the Village Vanguard, with Michael White and The Original Liberty Jazz Band. Hear them play "Bourbon Street Parade" from that evening.
When I hear this song, I remember how I got this far into jazz. Because I live with music.
PS Watch the video of Paul Barbarin's funeral. The musicians are playing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
Watching that is knowing why New Orleans matters. Onward.
© 2008 WBGO