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.

Why Chicago Beats New York

Years ago, when I told a group of colleagues in New York that I was moving to Chicago, the reaction ranged from bemusement to outrage.

“Chicago?” one began, tentatively, as if they’d heard of the place but couldn’t quite place it. “Why would you want to live there?”

Another co-worker was more blunt.

“Chicago’s a dump,” he said. “You’ll be back in New York in a year.”

Like many New Yorkers who consider their city the capital of the world, he’d never actually been to Chicago, or anywhere else in “Fly Over Country.” My career ended up taking me away from Chicago after two stints totaling five years, but I never went back to New York, except for brief visits, and I never regretting moving to The Second City. How could I? I met the woman I would marry on my very first day in town.New Yorkers are always crowing that they live in the greatest city in the world. It is undoubtedly a singular place; perhaps the only can’t miss city in America for tourists alongside San Francisco. But I find all of the “We’re #1” bravado tiresome. There are a few things I like better in New York than Chicago – weather, weekend travel opportunities, pizza and bagels – but I’d much rather live in Chicago than New York for all of the following reasons.


Less Attitude

Chicago attracts young people from all over the Midwest, so although it’s a big city, there’s a friendly, middle-of-America vibe. New Yorkers tend to be friendly towards tourists but rather hard on each other. When I lived in New York, I found that native New Yorkers were often friendlier than transplants.

I have a couple friends who are Staten Island natives, and I’ll never forget how newly minted Manhattan residents from other parts of the country would mock them as “Bridge and Tunnel” people. For me, the locals with the accents who live in the Outer Boroughs are the real New Yorkers, not all the transplants who live in Manhattan and look down upon everyone else as soon as they get a 212 area code.

More Affordable

According to Bankrate.com’s cost of living comparison, New York Metro’s cost of living is about 95% higher than Chicago’s. In the Windy City, you can buy a fairly nice three-bedroom home in a nice, close-in suburb with good public schools for about $450,000; whereas that same amount of money barely buys a small condo in a sketchy neighborhood in New York.

In New York, I lived in a neighborhood called Bay Ridge, a long subway ride from Manhattan near the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn, because I couldn’t afford to live closer to my office in Manhattan. But when I moved to Chicago, I felt like there were only a couple of neighborhoods that were completely off limits due to price.

Chicago is also cheaper to visit. I was in town last week for a visit and got a room at the Hyatt at Michigan Avenue and Wacker for $55 on Priceline. No chance you’ll get a nice room in NYC for that price.

Lake Michigan

There are more bike paths in New York now than when I lived there but there’s still nothing quite like Chicago’s killer lakefront, which has an 18-mile-long bike path and several very nice sandy beaches, including one just steps away from downtown.

Better Smells

Thanks to the Bloomer Chocolate Company, the sweet smell of chocolate permeates the West Loop neighborhood but New York has more foul smells than good ones. If you Google “New York smells” or “What does New York smell like” the most common results involve urine.

You Can’t Get Lost in Chicago

If you give me the east/west coordinates of any address in the city of Chicago, I’ll immediately know where it is, thanks to the city’s street coordinates system. Midtown and Uptown Manhattan are straightforward but the rest of the city’s a mess and God help you if you need to find something in Queens.

Billy Crystal and Yoko Ono Have no Apparent Connections to Chicago

Chicago has a few obnoxious celebs, but New York has scores of them. Donald Trump. Rush Limbaugh. The Jersey Shore kids. (some of whom are from NY rather than NJ) The list goes on and on.

Vintage Street Signs

Chicago has more vintage street signs than any city in the country and these old beauties are emblematic of the way the city preserves its past, rather than bulldozing it.

The Green Mill and B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted

New York also has its share of small, atmospheric jazz and blues music venues, but there’s nowhere I’d rather hear live jazz and have a stiff cocktail than the century old Green Mill in Uptown, and if I could hear blues in just one place in the world, it would be B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, which features authentic live bluesmen and women 365 nights per year.


It’s silly to claim that one city is definitively better or worse than any other city. One man’s paradise is another man’s prison. But for me, Chicago’s the most livable big city in the country. It’s a place where it’s easy to meet people, easy to fit in, no matter who you are, and hard to leave.

There are harsh, long winters that stretch into hot, humid summers, legendary traffic tie-ups, and miles of boredom outside the city limits in every direction. But there’s something about Chicago – the neighborhoods, the architecture, the people, the vibe – that has hooked me in a way New York never did. It’s a huge city that still manages to be a well-kept secret.

[Photos by Dave Seminara, TheeErin, Spiterman, Cliff 1066, Nimatardji Photography, mdanys and Michael Clesle on Flickr]

Photo of the Day (1-28-09)

Macbeth’s woods where the witches toil? No, flicts captured a shot of these woods in Portugal. The hues and shadows are wonderfully alluring–ink black and almost neon blue. What is out there? What is out there? Shhhhhh. Listen.

If you have an alluring shot to show off, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr photo pool. It may show up as a Photo of the Day.

Uncovering the history of African pop music

We love music here at Gadling, and we’re always on the lookout for great new sounds to accompany our travels. Earlier this summer, Aaron posted an interesting feature on Asian music, a frequently overlooked source for some hidden pop gems. But for anyone who’s hungry for some fresh sounds, there’s no greater treasure trove of amazing pop music than the continent of Africa.

When one thinks of Africa, it’s unfortunate that the first associations that come to mind are often famine, civil strife and abject poverty. However, the many regions of Africa are home to rich musical traditions. In addition to their homegrown musical styles, 20th Century African musicians played a pivotal role in the development of Western pop, creating a rich cross-pollination with musical styles ranging from the Blues to Psychedelic Rock to Funk. From the Proto-Blues Gnawa music of Northern Africa, to Funk and Disco-laden rock of 1970’s Nigeria, to the jazzy Mbalax of Senegal, African pop offers us an unmatched depth and breadth of choices for even the most casual listener.

Over the last few years, I’ve stumbled upon some hidden gems that have ignited an obsessive search into the annals of African pop. I’ve unearthed a few of my favorites here – it’s by no means a comprehensive listing, but any music fan will surely want to give these albums a listen. Click below for Gadling’s top African pop music picks and make sure to leave us some of your own favorites in the comments.
Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of Funky Lagos
The 1970’s were a heady time in Nigeria. Having officially gained its independence from the United Kingdom just 10 years earlier, the citizens of Nigeria were in an optimistic mood, stoked by the country’s booming new oil economy. Naturally, this outpouring of optimism found its way into the country’s music scene, particularly in the capital of Lagos. Building off the wild success of Nigerian music superstars such as Fela Kuti, a range of Nigerian bands began to experiment, combining European and American musical sounds with their own homegrown musical influences.

Nigeria 70 is a three-disc compilation of this definitive period in Nigerian musical history. The funky tracks on this outstanding compilation run the gamut from Jazz to Afrobeat to Proto-Disco. The set also comes packaged with a five hour documentary chronicling the period’s many personalities and groups. If you like music, this is about as essential as it gets.

Chrissy Zebby Tembo – My Ancestors
The 1974 album “My Ancestors” by Zambian guitarist Chrissy Zebby Tembo and his band Ngozi Family is full of catchy hooks and fuzzed out psychedelic guitar solos. What Tembo lacks in proper singing style he more than makes up in personality and the deft musicianship of his guitar and backing band, Ngozi Family. It’s a funky, warm and delightfully carefree record for an artist caught in the midst of considerable violence and political unrest in his 1970’s homeland.

Ali Farka Toure – Self Titled
Perhaps there is no more iconic symbol of the rich history of blues than West African guitarist Ali Farka Toure. Toure, who passed away in 2006, is known as the father of the blues. This unpretentious rice farmer from the West African nation of Mali, frequently cited as the African John Lee Hooker, was strongly influenced by the rich Arabic musical traditions of North Africa. His virtuoso guitar playing is starkly beautiful, mournful and infectiously catchy. Though Ali Farka Toure released a number of albums, including a collaboration with guitar impresario Ry Cooder, his best work is probably his self titled debut. The track “Amandrai,” is from this first album:

Amadou & Mariam – Dimanche a Bamako
This 2005 album, produced by Malian husband and wife Amadou & Mariam, and produced by world music star Manu Chao, catapulted the pair to international superstardom. Despite their recent fame, Amadou & Mariam represent a collaboration that dates back more than 30 years. Perhaps most remarkable is that both musicians are blind – they met at the Bamako Institute for the Young Blind in Mali’s capital, kicking off what would become a lifelong partnership. Encapsulating many of the same Malian blues influences as Ali Farka Toure, Amadou & Mariam’s album Dimance a Bamako manages to be delightfully catchy, exuberant and full of life.