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Sunken Treasure, Salvaged Spirit

December 1, 2007

Nick Marinello
Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano

You can’t take it with you. Nope. Not to the sweet by and by. Not even to Houston.

It’s barely 11 a.m. and the day is already weighing hot and heavy upon Michael White as he waves his hand toward a wall of gnarly bare studs and begins to list the things he could not take.

clarinet_1_1“In this room here and in that room there were wall-to-wall books. A lot of rare, out-of-print books. Books signed by authors, many who are now dead. Thousands of things that can’t be replaced. Sheet music collections, transcriptions, vintage instruments. …”

From somewhere down the street the rattle of an air compressor kicks in, followed by the hiss and spit of a nail gun.

“I’m looking at this and it’s really strange,” says White, gesturing to where a closet once was. “I wasn’t thinking that I should bring all those photographs I had.”

A clarinetist, White is among the city’s most prominent musicians. He also holds the Keller Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Xavier University, received his doctorate from Tulane and is a scholar of traditional New Orleans jazz and a collector of its material legacy. Over the years, White gathered bits and pieces of the past, often conducting oral histories with the same elder players with whom he had taken the stage. It’s a curious intersection of academic and artistic interests and one that has led him to be a bandleader, teacher, lecturer and mentor.

But right now, White moves about the gutted remains of his Gentilly home like an unsettled ghost, still caught in that long Katrina moment bounded by what was and what will be.

It is almost two years ago to the day that White loaded up his car and evacuated to Houston, reluctantly leaving most of the stuff of his life’s work behind in boxes and on shelves to face whatever Hurricane Katrina would bring.

White steps on a warped, buckled floorboard, making it creak. He keeps a wary eye on a couple of wasps that dart about the space that was his living room. In a few nights he’ll be playing another gig at Snug Harbor, the city’s premier jazz club. Last summer he took his quartet on a tour of Europe.

He’s even reconstituted his larger band, Dr. Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band, by finding players to fill the spots of those displaced by Katrina.

Yeah, life goes on, but it’s not what it was. The eight feet of Lake Pontchartrain water that rose to claim his home and so much of his work also claimed a significant portion of the city’s connection to its musical past. To that extent White’s loss has been both personal and public. And to the same extent, so is his recovery.


In New Orleans, the boundary between the personal and public has always been somewhat blurred, which is why you can learn the life story of the person next to you in a checkout line in the time it takes to ring up a basket of groceries.

Even so, Bruce Raeburn, curator of the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive in Special Collections at the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University, treads lightly when talking about losses from Hurricane Katrina.

“The lesson I hope everyone has learned from Katrina is that the archival repositories tend to survive, the personal collections in homes do not,” says Raeburn. “And this is not something you can broadcast without some sensitivity because what is lost is lost.”

What is lost is lost—it’s an understanding that is not only hard to accept, it’s also nearly impossible to project its impact. Who knows what archival gems were stored in shoeboxes, suitcases and dresser drawers around town? Instruments, diaries, notes, sheet music, date books—the odd assortment of things that survive the people to whom they once belonged.

“What’s important about all this material is that researching popular culture is difficult,” says Raeburn. “Popular culture tends to be ephemeral, based on oral traditions, and doesn’t leave the equivalent of State Department dossiers for historians to thumb through.”

Raeburn and the jazz archive are in the business of collecting and preserving the city and region’s musical heritage. Anyone trying to piece together an accurate understanding of the lives of early 20th-century jazz musicians is likely going to have to sift facts from any number of personal documents.

“You have to be ingenious in working up the material that will tell the story,” says Raeburn.

mwhite_1_1The signature theme of a song may be sketched on a napkin. A daily diary can offer information on where a band was playing, how they were paid, whether or not they were allowed to stay in a boarding house, the kinds of details that shape what Raeburn calls a “quotidian perspective on what it was like to be a musician.”

Larry Powell, Tulane professor of history, says there is no way to know how much priceless material was lost in private collections ruined by flooding that submerged 80 percent of the city after Katrina.

Artifacts of archival value were in countless homes across the city, kept by the descendants of the people who invented and developed jazz.

“It’s like the burning of a library,” says Powell.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Powell joined a handful of intrepid New Orleanians who donned masks and boots to retrieve what they could from the flooded home of the well-loved jazzman Danny Barker and his wife, Blue Lu. The couple, now deceased, had amassed a large collection of material, including the personal belongings of Barker’s uncle, Paul Barbaran, a well-known New Orleans drummer who had played with jazz icons King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

The Barker family had given the Hogan Jazz Archive permission to salvage the collection, which had remained in the house after the Barkers passed way in the 1990s.

“It was pretty grim,” recalls Powell. “It looked like somebody had taken the contents of the back room with all its music memorabilia and put it in a Cuisinart with lake water and flipped it on high. It was like working in a cave.”

“We didn’t get everything, but what we got was significant material,” says Raeburn, who estimates that the team recovered about 40 boxes of photographs, scrapbooks, clippings and recordings, about half of which was sent away to be professionally restored.

And while the recovered items in the Barker collection will one day be catalogued and made available to the public, those in White’s collection, as well as the substantial collections of New Orleans musicians Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew and Irma Thomas will not.

In an essay for the Hogan Jazz Archive newsletter, Raeburn writes, “The rescue of Danny Barker’s papers represents a bit of good news in an otherwise very dismal tale.”


The small shed behind his house has for White become something of a shrine to the memory of what he and the city have lost. He pauses briefly before entering.

“Those are like bodies in there, believe me,” he says.

Inside, the segments of several dozen clarinets lay warped and jumbled on a wide shelf, lit by the August light that pours through a window. The volunteers who gutted the house placed the “bodies” of the clarinets there nearly 18 months ago. Not counting the 10 clarinets that White took with him to Houston, these are all that remain of a collection of some 60 vintage instruments. Some were given to him.

Some he found in local shops. Surprisingly, he found 15 pre-1930 instruments on eBay.

“Ah, I haven’t seen that before,” says White as he gingerly reaches for the shelf. “That is the bell from the E-flat clarinet of Paul Barnes, who played with Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. …”

If you look through the window and out onto his backyard, you can see the London Avenue Canal levee rising just beyond his property line. White, who moved into the neighborhood nine years before Katrina, says that he would sometimes sit in his living room and wonder what it would look like if the levees ever failed. It didn’t help prepare him for what he saw when he returned home six weeks after the storm.

“I felt like I was in some surreal adventure,” says White, recalling the first time he entered the dark and still waterlogged house. “It just felt like my whole life and being were in pieces all over the place. I couldn’t see anything recognizable.”

The flooding had a way of turning homes into caves as muck and mold prevented sunlight from coming through windows. In the darkness, White heard a crunching beneath his steps and it took a moment before he realized he was walking on CD cases. His collection of 5,000 CDs were strewn across the floors of every room.

“It was like there was in a spiritual sense a death, and I did not expect to find that,” says White. “It was part of me and part of this tradition and all these people—just gone.”

White never intended to amass so much stuff. He didn’t even intend on being a traditional jazz musician. Things sometimes happen in life for reasons you don’t understand. One thing leads to the next. You start off being interested in the music and then begin playing it. You want to find out as much as you can about it, want to get to the heart of it, to understand what the pioneers of jazz understood. You want to know what they felt, what their world was like. You begin to collect parts of their world.

reaburn_1_1Over time their world becomes your world, too. You begin to not only play the music but also start writing arrangements based on the knowledge you’ve gained. You become a bandleader and need to bring others up to speed. Suddenly you’re a jazz scholar and are invited to give lectures and write articles. People begin to bring you items that might be of interest. Younger musicians want to learn from you and the older ones want you to learn from them.

White says he has had the good fortune to play with more than three dozen musicians who were born between 1890 and 1910. Many became friends and mentors, entrusting White not only with their memorabilia but also with their memories.

“I came to realize how important the music was to them and how important the tradition is. It is something that existed before them and will exist after me. And you pass it on.” White continues to make time for young musicians, including for the last year sitting down with members of the internationally sought-after Hot 8 Brass Band, who are looking to work more traditional jazz into their repertoire. But he admits he has neither the materials nor the time he had in the past.

And yet, “tragedy seems to inspire creation,” says White, who has found himself channeling the pain, anger and bewilderment into new compositions.

“I feel it,” he says. “I definitely feel it.”

One day White may make peace with Katrina and all she’s wreaked, but not just yet.

Two years out and he’s still “scattered,” living in a FEMA trailer and taking regular trips to Houston to visit his mother, who became seriously ill during the evacuation and is now living there in a nursing home. Amidst caring for his mother and his aunt, their business affairs, dealing with FEMA, keeping up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plans for the levee behind his house, booking tours and engagements, and holding together the tenuous network of musicians that comprise his bands, White has not had a lot of time for peacemaking.

“Praying and playing music I always say are the two things that saved me,” says White. “It’s very difficult to survive a stressful situation, but when the situations compound. …”

Immediately after Katrina, White began working jobs in Houston, playing regular brunches while booking engagements out of town. Returning to New Orleans was tough as many of the musicians who played for him had either moved out of town or taken up other kinds of work.

Raeburn says it’s difficult to track the numbers but he estimates that more than 50 percent of the city’s musicians have not returned.

Arriving in New Orleans in 1971 to pursue a doctorate in history at Tulane, Raeburn is also a musician—a drummer who feels the beat and bounce of the city at a gut level. It’s the personal connections he’s made over the years that have been as much a window into the local culture as his professional and research interests.

And the need for human contact is at the heart of the city’s music, says Raeburn. “It’s all about making that connection between musician and audience. It’s an emotional attitude, and I think that’s what gives New Orleans music its power and also allows the chemistry to happen.”

And, no doubt, the chemistry has been altered by the storm, says Raeburn. “Musicians here take what’s happening in their lives and they make music from that. They tell their stories on their instruments.”


It’s Saturday night on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny, and the folks from out-of- town, who comprise nearly the entire audience in the intimate setting of Snug Harbor, have been grinning ear-to-ear for the last hour as White has led his seven-piece band through a set of traditional jazz standards. With each player taking his customary turn at a solo on each piece, it’s been a dazzling display of not only virtuosity but also the eloquent interplay of structure and improvisation that is the music’s hallmark.

convocate_1_1Halfway through the set, White announces that the band is about to stray from its normal repertoire.

“We draw inspiration from many sources, but the last two years have been difficult,” says White, who holds his clarinet to his chest with both hands. He pauses and then tells the audience that New Orleans native John Scott, a nationally renowned sculptor and a colleague of White’s at Xavier, died in Houston that morning after suffering from a long illness. Scott, too, had evacuated to Houston. Prior to Katrina, Scott would sometimes show up at gigs.

“I don’t know why, but he would always request ‘The Burgundy Street Blues,’ by George Lewis,” says White. “We’re going to do this in his memory.”

It’s a slow and lovely piece. Backed by his rhythm section, White is the only soloist and he plays every note as if it were heralding the beginning or ending of time. If you close your eyes you can follow the music up and down, through light and dark, sadness and joy. To Houston and back again.

And if White isn’t making peace with what has happened in the last two years, it sure sounds like he is. Maybe that’s how peace is made—a note or a riff at a time. Like the way you build a collection, in bits and pieces. Raeburn has written a paper for an upcoming edition of the Journal of American History that discusses a major hurricane that hit south Louisiana in 1915 and flooded all the parishes south of New Orleans. One of the effects of the storm was the displacement of many rural musicians to New Orleans at just the time when jazz was coalescing. They joined the players from Treme, Central City, the Seventh Ward and French Quarter in developing the quintessential sound of the city.

“Jazz has always been about surprises,” Raeburn says. “You have to be open-minded in terms of following cultural dynamics.” Meaning good stuff can come from bad stuff.

And so you tune into the signs—the sound of construction in Gentilly, or a jazz band in Treme, or a neighborhood fair in Broadmoor or Carrollton. Or when White emerges from the dreariness of his mucked-out house into the midday light and, smiling, tells you that he has bids on eBay for four vintage clarinets. And you find yourself smiling, too.

Yep. That’s good stuff.

Nick Marinello is a senior editor in the Office of University Publications and features editor of Tulanian.

Fall 2007

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