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  • “Nice to Meet You, Three, Four”New Orleans Musicians and the Attractions of Community
  • Michael Urban (bio)

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“I sang ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ and that was it. I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And my father being a jazz musician and my mother an opera singer and Fats Domino living next door and Al Hirt living down the street, oh my goodness . . . This is what I was supposed to do.” Charmaine Neville backstage at Snug Harbor between sets at her regular Monday night gig. All photographs courtesy of the author.

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The term “New Orleans musician” refers to a highly valorized, historically rooted identity shared by a select community in the Crescent City. However, it concerns more than a place, a celebrated past, or even the style of music performed. Above all, a New Orleans musician is someone recognized by others as such because he or she engages in specific practices and abides by certain norms of the city’s musical community. This much I have learned from the musicians themselves—and from knowledgeable others, such as music journalists and audio recording engineers—over the course of some fifty-one open-ended interviews conducted with them between October and December 2013. I never used the term in my questions, but they frequently introduced it in their responses, tossing it around as a matter of fact not much different from, say, the chairs on which we sat.

What makes a New Orleans musician? First, it is very likely that he or she was born into a musical family. About half of those in my sample reported that this was true of them. Three respondents in that group spoke of their earliest childhood experiences pointing them toward musical careers. Charmaine Neville told me of connecting with music at the age of two. “It was in church,” she recalled, “and I’ll never forget the choir director singling me out and saying, ‘Now, go sing.’ I sang ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ and that was it. I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And my father being a jazz musician and my mother an opera singer and Fats Domino living next door and Al Hirt living down the street, oh my goodness . . . This is what I was supposed to do.”

Similarly, Davell Crawford remembered playing the piano at an early age but admitted to a dispute in that regard: his memory said at age three, while that of his caretaker, Auntie Pearl, said at age two. “My first gig was at age seven,” he continued, “and I was paid $7.39. I knew at that point that I was going to be a professional musician.” For Glenn David Andrews, this same knowledge may have been prenatal. “I began playing the day I was born,” he claimed. “I was born with music. My mother was in a second line, and the tuba player put the horn up to her belly and her water broke. They had to rush her to the hospital. That’s how I came into the world.”

Andrews also emphasized the importance of a childhood spent in a neighborhood steeped in music: “I was born in Treme,” he said, “[which is] the heart of New Orleans music. Families raise musicians, and brass bands raise them too, because that’s where a lot of musicians get their start.” Moreover, those not born into musical families typically grew up in neighborhoods enveloped by the sounds of street parades and front-porch or backyard jam sessions. In either case, the primary experience of future musicians would be anchored in community, rather than in commercial aspirations. As recording engineer David Ferrell put it, “The musicians here really like what they do, and they are kind of homegrown. That is, they probably came from musical families, they learned their music in [End Page 76] the home, and they learned it not to propel themselves into careers with fame and fortune.”


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“I began playing the day I was born,” Glenn David...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 75-84
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-04
Open Access
No
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