Written by Nick Morrison
The traditions of Mardi Gras are a huge part of New Orleans’ cultural identity. They’ve been evolving since the mid-1700s, and for the past century or so, the music of the Crescent City has provided the thread that ties all these traditions together. It’s history you can dance to, and you can get a taste of it in this list of songs by a few of New Orleans’ finest musicians.
Some of these players focus on preserving the past, while others use history as a springboard to the future. What they all have in common is that the music they play could never have come from anywhere but New Orleans — and you can probably find most of them playing somewhere in the city during Mardi Gras.
The Music Of Mardi Gras: History You Can Dance To
In the beginning, there was the New Orleans brass band. Brass bands, consisting primarily of trumpets, saxophones, trombones, sousaphones and percussion, were the precursors to the traditional (or “Dixieland”) jazz outfits that would later launch the careers of musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Brass bands perform at many functions in New Orleans, but are best known for their role in the unique tradition of the New Orleans funeral. A brass band accompanies the departed and the bereaved to the cemetery, playing mournful music. On the way back from the cemetery, however, the music becomes more celebratory until what began as a funeral is transformed into a party. Here is one of New Orleans’ most famous contemporary brass combos, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, on its way back.
Michael White is a jazz clarinetist and a native of New Orleans. He’s also a jazz historian and educator, committed to preserving and performing New Orleans’ traditional jazz. In White’s composition, “Jambalaya Strut,” we hear contemporary musicians re-create a sound and a spirit very much like that of one of the early jazz bands in New Orleans, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. White’s guest instrumentalist in this performance is New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
The pageantry of Mardi Gras is perhaps best represented by the Mardi Gras Indians. This mixture of black and Native American cultures has been a part of Mardi Gras since the mid-19th century. What began as sometimes mortal combat between rival “tribes” has since become more of a fashion contest, with each Indian making his own colorful suit out of beads, feathers and fabric. The earlier physical battles have become ritualized dances with accompanying music. Here, Bo Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolia tribe, sings one of the songs that calls other tribes out to fight — or just to show off this year’s magnificent costumes.
Stanton Moore is the drummer for the New Orleans funk/jam band Galactic, as well as a bandleader in his own right. His album, Groove Alchemy, is part of a larger multimedia project on funk drumming that also includes a book and a DVD. To illustrate a variety of funk styles, Moore (along with organist Robert Walter and guitarist Will Bernstein) cooked up a batch of new songs, and “Pie-Eyed Manc” is one of them. It’s a tribute to the bygone New Orleans instrumental funk band The Meters, and particularly to that band’s groundbreaking drummer, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. If somebody wants to hear a distillation of New Orleans funk and you don’t have a Meters record to play them, this will do nicely.
Astral Project has been on the New Orleans jazz scene since 1978. The group consists of saxophonist Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski and New Orleans’ hardest-working rhythm section: bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. In this track, the band teams up with New Orleans pianist Dave Torkanowsky for a nice blend of funk and straight-ahead jazz.