The Historical Record

Jim Washburn DJs New Orleans back to life

The story in New Orleans is that a funeral is just another excuse for a party: this gives our own Jim Washburn a reason to set up a 1958 walnut-boxed phonograph and play a carefully curated pile of 33s/45s/78s during a special all-Louisiana-music DJ set. It's a benefit for Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild the city—into something recognizable as New Orleans, hopefully. Because sitting on the Washburn rug and watching this or that old-timey record flap around under the stylus, you'd think about shipwreck survivors: while the city itself may be lurching back toward life, the music of New Orleans is going to be different. Evacuation forced and otherwise—what someone called a diaspora—replanted New Orleans musicians across the South from Houston to Atlanta, and hometown radio station WWOZ's general manager David Freedman wonders how many will come back. And what they'll come back to: as mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, the bulldozers are starting to rev up at the edge of the bowl. Will new New Orleans be Disneyland? asks a poll on WWOZ. Or, since you can see the buckets of stucco waiting on the trucks: Will the new New Orleans be Orange County?

"A big moist town," remembers Washburn affectionately. Not a city like New York but a city like Genoa or Marseilles, part of a "Hellenistic world that never touched the North Atlantic," wrote A.J. Liebling, famously quoted in Confederacy of Dunces. "The last largest bastion of incipient, instinctive resistance," says Freedman, who had to pass National Guard checkpoints to an inspection of the WWOZ tower, 25 stories above a city that still won't dry out for days. What would you see up there now? Washburn's favorite bar—Benny's?—which was a house with the walls cut out and a band put in without any hassle from the neighbors? ("They must have considered it an asset," he says.) Or Rock 'n' Roll Collectibles (website frozen with a notice dated 8/27: "Call about our hurricane sale (before it's all gone)"? Or the Rock 'n' Bowl, where worried survivors were texting for help in August? New Orleans had its music because there was no other place in America like it, but if they don't bulldoze half the city and put up cheap Spanish/Mediterranean tract homes, will they let it sit abandoned? Either the Orange County of the South or the Detroit of the South: as a music fan, it's a sentimental choice and a sad one.

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Anyway, that's the funeral. Washburn's party is for the city that could come back, mapped off vintage wax and vinyl. Labels like Minit, Jewel, Paula, Josie (if they weren't from N.O., they were at least releasing the Meters!) and hometown-proud NOLA; artists back to Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet and creeping maybe up into the pre-No Limit Records '80s to a graceful finale with a Branford Marsalis track. And the soul/funk/jazz/R&B of the '50s/'60s/'70s that set up the foundation for the New Orleans music myths: requests here for Irma Thomas, Eddie Bo, Guitar Slim (will be fulfilled), Ironing Board Sam (may be fulfilled), Bobby Patterson, Robert Parker—not too many white people, Jim? "Who needs white people?" he sighs.

Nick Tosches called it primal, swampy, primitive—that's a circle around a still unnamed real thing, a unique continuity in Louisiana music that lets early Little Richard (recorded with session drummer extraordinaire Earl Palmer in New Orleans in the '50s) fit snugly along later Meters (when they got on Warners and started singing), a real sense of sound that cities like Detroit and Memphis had and lost and sometimes came upon again: "I didn't talk much about the gushy stuff," writes Jim now, "about how the music of that town, starting with Armstrong and Bechet, was so much more present, immediate and human than all the Euro-based stuff before it—that it woke the whole human race up a bit. More good records may have come out of Memphis, but I don't know how many good records would have come out of anywhere if New Orleans hadn't opened the floodgate. We'd all be shuffling around in our lederhosen. If I don't get people crying and dancing with this stuff, I don't know what."

JIM WASHBURN SPINS AN ALL-LOUISIANA DJ SET AT THE GYPSY DEN SANTA ANA, 125 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 835-8840. TUES., 7:30-10 P.M. DONATIONS REQUESTED FOR HABITAT FOR HUMANITY. ALL AGES.

 
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