Written by Ravenna Koenig from NPR
It’s well known that New Orleans has a rich and extraordinary music history, but it’s more difficult to know where to start. To help with that is the new website “A Closer Walk,” an interactive map that provides information about dozens of spots that are part of New Orleans’ music history, including bars, clubs, recording studios and the homes of famous musicians.
“A Closer Walk” is a partnership between a number of different organizations and individuals, one of whom is writer and philanthropist Randy Fertel. He joined NPR’s Scott Simon to introduce three historical locations marked on the virtual map.
“There are several places that are considered the birthplace for jazz,” Fertel says. “But the real roots are at Congo Square, where the enslaved peoples under the French code were allowed to gather on Sundays. They had Sundays off, and they were allowed to have a market there and sell their wares. They were allowed to use their native instruments. So there were these drum-and-dance things that happened under the oaks in Congo Square. And so the foundational elements of jazz were in that native music — the call-and-response rhythms, the vocalizations, the syncopations, the habanera rhythm that Jelly Roll Morton said, ‘If you don’t have that, it ain’t jazz.’ The great New Orleans composer [Louis Moreau] Gottschalk wrote a piece called ‘Bamboula’ that drew on those rhythms.”
“Buddy Bolden is considered by many the father of jazz,” Fertel says, “but we have no recordings and only one photograph. There’s a rumor, a legend of a cylinder that was recorded of him in the mid-1890s. It’s considered the holy grail for jazz fans. If someone could just find that cylinder, we’d know what he sounded like. But he was famous for how loud he played the cornet. He was said to have played loud enough you could hear him across the river. He was also known for his sweet playing. His sister-in-law Dora Bass once said that he broke his heart when he played. And apparently, he did, because he didn’t fare too well. By 1907, he was suffering from schizophrenia and had a breakdown during a parade.”
“Now it’s just a laundromat, but in 1945 a man named Cosimo Matassa — he and his father had started a record store at that address, and he saw the need for a studio,” Fertel says. “So he slapped together some odds and ends and started recording local music. He recorded ‘The Fat Man’ by Fats Domino in 1949, one of the songs that is considered the first rock ‘n’ roll song.”