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Music lovers mourn 'whole universe' of jazz history destroyed in Katrina

Howard Reich
Clarinetist George Lewis' photo is on the wall of collector Dr. Michael White's house as he visits the destroyed home in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 6, 2006. (Zbigniew Bzdak/ Chicago Tribune/MCT)

As New Orleans struggles to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, one of the great casualties of the storm is starting to emerge: the loss of the documents and ephemera that chronicled New Orleans' distinctive musical life.

This story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

NEW ORLEANS -- For more than a century, musicians and fans in this proudly musical city have hoarded mementos of their culture.

Self-styled collectors packed tiny attics with precious scores, filled ramshackle apartments with antique musical instruments and stored irreplaceable photos of long-gone artists in cramped back rooms.

But as New Orleans struggles to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, one of the great casualties of the storm is starting to emerge: the loss of the documents and ephemera that chronicled New Orleans' distinctive musical life.

Unlike most major American cities, where cultural riches tend to be officially designated and then stored in grand museums, everyday New Orleans citizens always have done much of this work themselves, out of sheer love for the music.

These deeply personal troves disintegrated in the flooding that followed Katrina. From the rare historic instruments that clarinet star Dr. Michael White stashed in his bedroom closet to the career memorabilia that Fats Domino stored throughout his home, the material floated away, forever beyond the reach of scholars and historians.

"There's a whole universe of material from people's collections that were lost," said Greg Lambousy, director of collections at the Louisiana State Museum.

Collector Dr. Michael White walks through a studio of his destroyed house in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 6, 2006. (Zbigniew Bzdak/ Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The scope and toll of this cultural loss cannot be measured, though, because no one knows exactly what was stuffed into the attics and back rooms of homes in the Lower 9th Ward, Bywater, New Orleans East and other devastated neighborhoods. There was no master list of who owned collections, let alone inventories of particular items.

Collections at the Louisiana State Museum and Tulane University's Hogan Jazz Archive survived unscathed. But officials there still mourn the loss of material that would have added significantly to the world's understanding of jazz and New Orleans culture.

"The losses," said Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan archive, "are staggering."

Clarinetist Dr. Michael White plays with his band during brunch at Inter Continental Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 8, 2006. (Zbigniew Bzdak/ Chicago Tribune/MCT)

White, a revered New Orleans jazz clarinetist and one of the world's leading experts on the city's music, will never forget the day he walked into his home in the Gentilly neighborhood after Katrina, in October 2005.

Though he did not expect to find all of his 50-plus rare clarinets, hundreds of priceless 78 r.p.m. records and thousands of photos dating to the Civil War era, he wasn't prepared for what he saw.

"When I first came into the house, it felt like I had been cut to pieces and my body was just scattered all over the house," said White, who recalled hearing records crunch under his feet as he stepped inside a home that had been engulfed for weeks.

White instantly realized he had lost it all -- everything but a few 19th Century clarinets he had tossed into his car before escaping the city with Katrina approaching.

As White assessed the damage, he opened instrument cases that were caked in mold and mildew and sludge. "It felt like there were bodies in there," he said.

On a recent day, as White walked gingerly through his ruined home, he surveyed what remained: jagged pieces of broken clarinets, shards of old records, corners of musical scores ground into the floor, reduced nearly to pulp.

Destroyed clarinets are seen from the collection of Dr. Michael White at his New Orleans\' home in Louisiana. (Zbigniew Bzdak/ Chicago Tribune/MCT)

His four-bedroom, three-bath house in the Mirabeau Gardens area of Gentilly had overflowed with rare treasures of America's first Jazz Age: handwritten notes from his interviews with jazz musicians born at the start of the 20th Century; a gleaming white mouthpiece that New Orleans clarinet icon Sidney Bechet once owned; scores for old Baptist songs; delicately lettered hatbands from extinct New Orleans brass ensembles.

Like many of New Orleans' intrepid cultural collectors, White never really intended to amass such a library; he always considered himself a musician first, a collector second.

His obsession began nonchalantly, in the late 1970s, when White realized that the early jazzmen were starting to die off. Determined to preserve what they knew of the music's roots, White started interviewing them, scribbling their stories on scraps of paper.

The jazzmen generously shared their secrets.

New Orleans bassist Charles Zardis, who was born in 1900, told White what Louis Armstrong was like as a child still trying to play cornet, in the Colored Waifs Home. Trombonist Preston Jackson, who was born in New Orleans in 1903, told White how Bechet really sounded on the clarinet -- live, not on record.

"I became sort of almost like an addict," recalled White, who scoured pawnshops in New Orleans and junk stores around the world for tokens of early jazz, his collection growing inexorably.

"A year before Katrina, the value of it was just starting to set in. It was overwhelming," said White, who had long planned to inventory the material but never found the time.

He realized that because New Orleans' London Avenue Canal bordered his back yard, his collection someday might be in danger. But moving it to a distant location or placing it in storage seemed to defeat the purpose of owning and perpetually referring to the material for his recordings, performances, lectures and writings.

Because White had been forced to evacuate New Orleans just twice in his lifetime before Katrina, he did not imagine the worst.

If there was a private collection as valuable as White's, it belonged to Danny Barker, who was born in 1909 and would have been known merely as a fine, early-period guitar and banjo player, were it not for his compulsion to document the first chapters of jazz history.

Musician Dr. Michael White finds his hand transcript of "New Orleans Bump" by Jelly Roll Morton embedded in the floor mud during a visit at his destroyed house in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 6, 2006. (Zbigniew Bzdak/ Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Early in life, Barker had befriended the first jazz composer, New Orleanian Jelly Roll Morton, when Morton was attempting to revive his career in New York, from 1938 to 1940. It was Barker who shot the best-known photographs of Morton in Harlem, and thereafter Barker collected every shred of paper, image and recording of early jazz that he could find.

Until his death in 1994, at age 85, Barker continually augmented the collection he jammed into a 17-by-20-foot room at the back of his New Orleans house, on Sere Street. Anyone who ever stepped into the single-story home had to be startled by the sheer volume of material packed into it, floor to ceiling.

"When he would come home at night, he would sit at the kitchen table and he would work on things, write a song lyric or work on a chapter for a book," recalled his daughter, Sylvia Barker.

"And when the housekeeper came in the morning, he'd say, `Just take all my stuff and throw it all in a bag.'"

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of these little plastic bags filled the back room. They included unique material: questionnaires Barker distributed to New Orleans musicians as far back as the 1940s; unpublished manuscripts for first-person articles he was writing about early jazz; original, black-and-white negatives documenting the musicians he had known for more than 50 years; and handwritten notes, artifacts and music from uncounted sources.

Though representatives of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane were able to rescue Baker's collection of commercial recordings from the front of the house, most of his treasures in back were floating in waterlogged plastic bags.

Even material that the Barker family had put in safe-deposit boxes in a nearby bank, such as his literary manuscripts, succumbed.

All but 20 boxes of material was lost -- more than 80 percent of Barker's collection, according to Raeburn, the Hogan archive's curator.

"Everything was gook," said Sylvia Barker.

Lost and damaged music of collector Dr. Michael White in his destroyed house in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 6, 2006. (Zbigniew Bzdak/ Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The same outcome awaited Sybil Kein, who had spent 26 years traveling the world to find and reconstruct long-lost Louisiana Creole folk songs, a precursor of New Orleans jazz.

Louisiana Creoles -- known as "free people of color" who had mixed European and African bloodlines -- thrived in New Orleans in the 19th Century, developing a middle-class society with its own cross-continental cuisine, distinctly French- and Spanish-tinged patois and deeply autobiographical music. Blending elements of European harmony, African rhythms and Caribbean-inspired melody, the earliest Creole folk songs survived in the 20th Century largely in the memories of those old enough to have heard them from their parents and grandparents.

Kein had traveled Louisiana, Europe and the Caribbean to track Creole descendants and listen to them sing these tunes to her. She transcribed the melodies and lyrics onto score paper, piecing together more than 150 of these songs and recording a fraction of them on CD.

"I'm told I had the largest collection in the world by some of the other guys who had collected a few" of the songs, said Kein.

But when she returned to her New Orleans home on Spain Street, in the Gentilly neighborhood, she realized that 8 ½ feet of floodwater had destroyed her library of Creole song, as well as 5,000-plus books, 1,000 baptismal records of slaves and free people of color, interviews with musicians and other original research for books she was planning.

The material "fell apart in my hands," she said. "I'm sorry I'm not 20 years old and don't have a lifetime to give to this again. But I'm not."

Other collections also were devastated.

Nearly everything in Fats Domino's home, in the Lower 9th Ward, was waterlogged, said Lambousy, the Louisiana State Museum curator.

The same fate destroyed the personal collection of Michael Gourrier, who for decades amassed documents on antebellum orchestras in which many post-Civil War black musicians learned to read score -- laying the groundwork for the emergence of jazz.

Some collectors have begun collecting again. In the past year, White has acquired several hundred CDs, storing some in his new apartment in Houston, some in his FEMA trailer in New Orleans.

But he despairs over what has slipped away.

"People say to me, `Could you save anything?'" White said.

"How do you really explain?"

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