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.

Video: New Orleans Time-Lapse

Nola Time Lapse” from Jeremiah Fry on Vimeo.

Why do I like time-lapse videos so much? Because they give me an opportunity to watch life in fast-forward, which is something I regularly wish I could do. Usually I want to fast-forward the bland, boring parts of my life: filling out paperwork at the DMV, waiting at an insufferably long traffic light and watching a band play live that I wish wasn’t playing live while I’m trying to catch up with an old friend. So it seems odd, perhaps, that I enjoy watching fast-forwarded snippets of beautiful landscapes and other shots taken in destinations I’d like to visit and savor in slow motion. But I can’t go everywhere and neither can you. What we can do is absorb the beauty of places from around the globe in the amount of time it takes to inflate a bag of microwave popcorn. With all of that said, enjoy this New Orleans time-lapse video. It is hard to believe that this is Jeremiah Fry‘s first attempt at creating a time-lapse video.

Visit the Haunted French Quarter in New Orleans

5 tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras

While New Orleans seems to celebrate Mardi Gras all year round, it is at this time of the year–the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday (in French: Mardi Gras) and the beginning of Lent–that the city earns its hard partying reputation.

It happens every year. And all kinds of people take the time to lose track of time in this city of soul and spook. Fascinated by the stories and legends of Mardi Gras and its raucous joy, I visited New Orleans in February 2009 and 2010 and I absorbed all that I could of Carnival culture.

My initial distaste for Mardi Gras had been a product of misleading media stories and drunken lore. Without much interest in forcing myself into remembering the only year of college I spent on campus, I eschewed the city’s famous annual ongoing party, genuinely disinterested in what I thought it was. But a friend I made while touring through Alabama, a true Southern Belle with a killer taste for rock ‘n’ roll, tempted me with attractive tales of Mardi Gras–an event she made sure to attend every year she could.

Through her I learned that Mardi Gras isn’t all breast-flashing belligerence and so-forced-it’s-sickening salaciousness. Through her I learned that Mardi Gras is celebrated all over the city, by different people with different backgrounds and different views on How to Party Hard. And when she decided to move to New Orleans a few months before the weeks of Mardi Gras 2009, I ignored my doubts, bought a plane ticket, and tried out Mardi Gras with a local as my guide.
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Admittedly, she was new to living in the city, but her relatives there were hardened New Orleans veterans who quickly passed on their torch of insight.

Girlfriend, first of all, you gotta stay away from Bourbon Street“, she instructed me.

She’d learned the ins and outs of Mardi Gras enjoyment during the years prior, the years she spent making the 2-3 hour commute from Mobile in order to do it up with her family and friends in the city. I was privileged enough to do it up with them.

And, as I blearily boarded my departure plane that sunny Wednesday following my first real Fat Tuesday, I wasn’t looking forward to arriving back home in it’s-still-winter New York. I wanted to stay forever in warm, colorful, indulgent New Orleans.

I went back the following February and I’m making plans to return again in a few weeks. But my returning is for the sake of the Mardi Gras I know. Here are five tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras–without all of its famous obnoxiousness.

1. Move beyond Bourbon Street.
I’m not going to advise you to ignore Bourbon Street completely. Like Times Square, this tourist destination has its place. You’ll find some good bars on Bourbon Street–hell, one of my lady friends tends bar at Molly’s on Toulouse. But by and large, you’ll experience the Mardi Gras I fell in love with outside of Bourbon Street. Spend some time in the East Quarter, for instance. Everyone there is also celebrating, costumed, and singin’ and dancin’, but you’ll find more locals in the East Quarter than on Bourbon Street. Tip: Look for a sublet or rental in this neighborhood with the help of Airbnb. If you have your own spot to call home in a good area where you can actually get some sleep when you need it, your entire experience will be better.

2. Perfect your costume.
There’s a true art to assembling the perfect Mardi Gras costume. Be creative and spend time getting your costume just right. Part of the Mardi Gras allure is the bold and beautiful color displayed emphatically by those reveling and relishing in the season. Tip: Masks and feathers are tried and true standards, but anything goes. When in doubt, wear a blonde wig and no pants for a quick-fix Lady Gaga. You might get thrown some beads with this get-up, but here’s another tip: don’t take off your clothes for beads. Firstly… because they’re just beads. Secondly because people are probably going to throw them to you no matter what.

3. Drink responsibly.
I say this not to reiterate the words of your nagging, oppressive mother, but rather because Mardi Gras is an experience worth remembering. Instead of joining in on the parade of puking drunks stinking up the streets, be mindful of how much you drink and take home some memories you’ll have for the rest of your life. By all means, drink. Drink and be merry–but leave it at that. Solicitous strangers might come to your rescue if you need to be scooped up off the street and sent home in a taxi, but don’t count on it. Tip: It’s a good idea to carry water with you at all times. It’s just not a good idea to mix cheap tequila, 600-calorie pina coladas, box wine, and all that fried food with dehydration.

4. Hang with locals.
You might not know any local New Orleans residents when you arrive, but making small talk is easy in a town as lively as this one. Chat up locals and pick their brains for recommendations of where to spend your time. Their spots will most likely trump tourist spots. (Not every time). And hey, if you’re lucky you might make some friends. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer a good ol’ fashioned Mardi Gras house party over frat boys doing body shots at a bar with a $10 cover any night. Tip: Don’t be shy. Diffidence won’t yield for you the trip of a lifetime and besides, most people can respect a traveler who wants to avoid tourist traps.

5. Eat well.
When I say ‘eat well’ during a story about New Orleans, I mean two things: 1. Eat delicious Cajun food and savor every last bit of it. 2. Counteract the rich meals with simple, wholesome foods every chance you get. Believe me, New Orleans’ citywide buffet of fried food is worth digging your paws into. But if you don’t balance all of this heavy stuff out with some healthy options here and there, you’ll be sabotaging the quality of your vacation. Tip: You’ll probably be out for large chunks of time every time you’re out, so throw an apple, granola bar, or any other simple and healthy snack in your bag to make healthy eating automatic.

Have your own tips that will help Mardi Gras attendees enjoy the festival? Share and discuss with us in the comments.

Marriott, New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and KaBoom! help rebuild NOLA neighborhoods

Five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina made her mark on the city of New Orleans but the city’s spirit continues to thrive, thanks to the rebuilding efforts of NOLA residences and businesses.

All this week hotels are banding together their staff and guests to help support local area projects. “Marriott’s Spirit to Serve New Orleans” package allows employees and guests to partake in voluntourism projects leading up to the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. More than 350 Marriott associates will work side-by-side with hotel guests on Aug 27 and 28 to build a New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity home and a KaBOOM! playground in neighborhoods still in need.

Guests who book the “Spirit To Serve New Orleans” voluntourism package can partner with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity or Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans, through the end of the year, to help rebuild homes hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and provide food to families impacted by the Gulf oil spill.

The “Spirit to Serve New Orleans” voluntourism package is priced at $99 and is available at the nine hotels in downtown New Orleans. The package includes:

  • A concierge to coordinate volunteer efforts
  • Deluxe accommodations
  • Box lunch for two
  • Transportation to and from the volunteer site
  • Two commemorative t-shirts

The participating hotels are: New Orleans Marriott; JW Marriott New Orleans; New Orleans Marriott at the Convention Center; Renaissance New Orleans Pere Marquette Hotel; Renaissance New Orleans Arts; Courtyard New Orleans Downtown near the French Quarter; Courtyard New Orleans Convention Center; SpringHill Suites New Orleans Convention Center; and Residence Inn New Orleans Convention Center.

A New Orleans New Year’s Eve

Since I mentioned yesterday that I spent last New Year’s Eve down in NOLA, I thought I’d share details about some of the things we did that day. It might give you ideas for a future trip to New Orleans, at the holidays, or any time of year. You can do most of these things all year long:

We began our day watching football at Parasol’s, a landmark Irish pub, where we feasted on roast beef po-boys and too many Zapps potato chips. (Warning: These Louisiana chips are highly addictive, especially the spicy creole tomato!) To work off our lunch, we walked along the river and eventually hopped on the free ferry to Algiers Point, where we spent a few hours strolling through this quiet residential neighborhood. It’s a peaceful place, tucked perfectly into a bend of the Mississippi. (Be sure to stop and salute the statue of Louis Armstrong at the ferry landing.)

Hungry again, we wound up back at an old favorite for dinner, a wonderful place called La Peniche, that I’ve written about before. Since it was a mild evening, we then walked (again!) from Farbourg Marigny back towards the French Quarter, where we spent the final hours of 2007 taking in the party atmosphere — without having to cram into crowded bars. We simply walked the streets, sipping Abita beer (Restoration Ales all around) and listening to live music from street performers, and then later, from the free New Year’s Eve concert near Jackson Square that the city puts on each year. It was conveniently close to another mandatory stop, Cafe du Monde, where we polished off some beignets — No better way to ring in the new year than with a mouth full of powdered sugar and fried dough!