On The Road With NPR Music: Gwen Thompkins At WWNO, New Orleans, Louisiana

We love music here at Gadling, and this month is Public Radio Music Month, which is why we’re teaming up with NPR to bring you exclusive interviews from NPR music specialists around the country. We’ll be learning about local music culture and up and coming new regional artists, so be sure to follow along all month.

Today we’re headed to the birthplace of jazz: New Orleans. But New Orleans offers a whole lot more than jazz, and the local scene is one that’s well known outside of Louisiana. Thanks to local music host Gwen Thompkins we get the insider scoop on the music of this exciting city, from singer-songwriters to high school brass bands.

Name: Gwen Thompkins

Member station: WWNO, New Orleans

Regular Show/Contribution Beat: Host, Music Inside Out with Gwen Thompkins. NPR contributor.

When people think of music in New Orleans, what do they think of?

When people think of New Orleans, they think of music and vice versa. The city and its music are synonymous – traditional jazz, modern jazz, bounce, blues, R&B, brass bands, gospel, boogie woogie, swamp pop, hip hop, funk, cabaret. If your tastes run to opera, New Orleans has that too. In fact, the first opera house in North America was built right here in the French Quarter, which back then wasn’t just a neighborhood. It was New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton talked about what he heard and saw at the opera house all the time. But what most people forget is that the legendary Boswell Sisters also grew up in New Orleans. In the 1920s and 1930s, their vocal jazz harmonies dominated the national charts and sold tens of millions of records. Ella Fitzgerald credited Connee Boswell as the only singer she ever tried to emulate.

New Orleans later topped the national charts with early rhythm and blues. Nearly everything Fats Domino touched turned to gold. But there’s no use skipping over Shirley and Lee of “Let the Good Times Roll,” or Ruth “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” Brown or Lee “Working in a Coal Mine” Dorsey. And the whole nation heard about Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law.”

These homegrown songs and many, many others are still part of our daily lives in New Orleans. We hear them every day on radio and at a growing number of music festivals around town.

More often than not, today’s visitors to New Orleans want to fit into the groove right along with us. So they’re looking to absorb the whole musical experience – from trumpeter Buddy Bolden to the Meters, from Mahalia Jackson to Mystikal and from Louis Prima to Trombone Shorty to L’il Wayne. They also want to know about the great producers – Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew, Wardell Quezergue and Cosimo Matassa – who helped shape, shift and funkify modern American music. And they want to hear from some of our piano royalty – Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr. John, Huey Smith, Ellis Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., David Torkanowsky, Jon Cleary.

And then there’s Louis Armstrong. He’s the immortal one, the reason we all want to be from New Orleans.

How do you help curate that musical scene?

I look to my left and I look to my right and chances are – wherever I am in New Orleans – there’s someone or something great nearby. Just a few doors down from my house lives Lionel Ferbos who, at 101, is the oldest performing jazz musician in town. I see soul queen Irma Thomas at the dry cleaners and Dr. John at the grocery store. Talent is ubiquitous down here, which makes us a little spoiled. So I’m creating an archive of hour-long discussions with some of the most seminal artists of our time. We talk about the experiences and influences that helped create their sound and, by extension, music that is treasured around the world. We broadcast the interviews each week on radio and allow folks to stream them on the web.

How has the New Orleans scene evolved over the past few decades?

We’ve said goodbye to way too many wonderful artists in recent decades. Some, like James “Sugar Boy” Crawford or “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, died. Others, like the great pianist Henry Butler, moved away because they had to start over again after Hurricane Katrina. But those who can come back eventually do.

Since the 1950s, New Orleans has had its share of traditional jazz revivals and currently traditional jazz is in full bloom, with a crowd of established and up and coming artists. Try visiting Preservation Hall or the Palm Court Cafe or walking Frenchman Street in the Marigny (neighborhood). There’s nothing like seeing kids with dreadlocks and tattoos slow dancing to an old classic like, “Careless Love.”

That said, bounce has grabbed a lot of music lovers by the ears. Big Freedia and Katie Red are the divas to beat and when they team up with funksters like Galactic, they’re unstoppable.

Brass bands have gotten funkier too, which has set off an aesthetic debate down here about the meaning of tradition. What a trumpeter like Shamarr Allen teaches young brass band players is a world apart from what a drummer like Shannon Powell learned from the celebrated jazz greats of Treme.

What would you say is the most unique thing about the New Orleans music scene?

New Orleans has open arms. There’s room in the city for homegrown talent and for musicians who were born far, far away. It’s rare to find a place in the world where so many different people can play so many disparate styles and still feel at home artistically.

What are three new up and coming bands on the local scene right now and what makes them distinct?

The first lesson a music lover learns here is, “Ain’t nothing new.”

But if you’re coming to New Orleans don’t miss:

Alex McMurray: one of the finest songwriters working today in New Orleans or anyplace else. McMurray was born in New Jersey, came down here for college, took in a Neville Brothers/Marva Wright show at Tipitina’s and decided he was home. His songs are fully realized narratives about protagonists who drift through blues melodies, ditties, lounge music or flat out rock ‘n roll. McMurray writes about old boxers and sea faring lads, barflies, soldiers, at least one courtesan and a nutty guy named, “Otis.” Through a strange set of circumstances involving Disney and Japan, McMurray also knows an unusual number of sea shanties by heart. Filthy? Yes. But they’re awfully fun. He plays solo and with a band called the Tin Men. Check out: “The Get Go” “Me and My Bad Luck,” “It’s Not the Years, It’s the Miles,” “As Long as You Let Me.”

Hurray for the Riff Raff: Great singer-songwriters, not afraid of a guitar and a violin and a yodel or two. Alynda Lee Segarra, originally of the Bronx, New York, writes most of the songs. The melodies are mostly folk rock, but take on a Cajun quality at times. Hurray for the Riff Raff has been reported to admire The Band, which makes them A-OK by me. Check out: “Look Out Mama,” “Junebug Waltz,” “Little Black Star.”

KIPP McDonough 15 Middle School Brass Band. Director: Kelvin Harrison, Sr.: One of the many young brass bands coming out of the schools of New Orleans. Others include: O. Perry Walker High School Brass Band and Joseph S. Clark Prep Brass Band. Each school won a top prize at the 2013 Class Got Brass competition held by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. This is how the city’s second line tradition is reaching the stars of tomorrow.

Each year, the foundation uses some of the money earned at the city’s annual jazz and heritage festival to help continue local music traditions. The bands win prize money to buy and maintain their instruments. If you wanna know who’s gonna be the next Trombone Shorty, Shamarr Allen or Dr. Michael White, start seeking out these and other young brass bands.

For a Gadling playlist, what are your favorite tracks?

“We Made it Through That Water” – Free Agents Brass Band

“Heart of Steel” – Galactic featuring Irma Thomas

“Blessed Quietness” – Zion Harmonizers & Olympia Brass Band

“Petite Fleur” – Dr. Michael White

“Tou’ Les Jours C’est Pas La Meme – Carol Fran

“Careless Love -Don Vappie

“Atrapado” – Tom McDermott

“How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around)” – Dr. John

“Cry to Me” – Professor Longhair

“Tipitina and Me” – Allen Toussaint

Listen to the complete playlist on Spotify.