You don’t need to explain to Michael White where jazz comes from. For starters, the 60-year-old clarinetist, who is the star turn at this year’s Shared Sound New Orleans-Rosh Ha’ayin Jazz Festival (June 3 and 4), is a seasoned professional and hails from the cradle of the art form.
But he also has a personal connection with the very roots of jazz and the pioneers who set out their musical stall to an unsuspecting world more than a century ago.
“I come from a musical family that goes back to the first generation of jazz musicians,” says White, who is also a professor of Spanish and African American Music at New Orleans’ Xavier University. “I had three relatives in the first generations of jazz musicians, and they all came to record at one point. Two of them recorded in the 1920s and one started in the 1950s, even though he was the oldest one.”
The latter went by the name of Papa John Joseph. He was born in 1877 and was a bass player.
“He was a neighbor of Buddy Bolden,” continues White, referring to the cornettist who was a key figure in the development of the New Orleans style of ragtime music, which later came to be known as jazz.
“Papa John owned a barber ship that was half a block from Bolden’s house, where Bolden used to hang out. Papa John played with people in New Orleans like King Oliver and Kid Ory,” he says.
We are talking genuine jazz aristocracy here. Oliver and Ory are giants of jazz folklore. Joseph also left for the celestial bandstand in remarkable style, too.
“He died while playing [gospel hymn] “When the Saints Go Marching In” at [famed New Orleans jazz venue] Preservation Hall,” says White. “For a long time he was the oldest living jazz musician. He was 90 when he died.”
There are also more contemporary artists in White’s wider family tree, including Plas Johnson, who played the iconic saxophone solos in Henry Mancini’s theme music for The Pink Panther movies.
White, with his genetically enhanced musical lineage and his own considerable achievements in music over the last three-plus decades, is clearly the real deal, and the audiences at the festival in Rosh Ha’ayin will be all the richer for his appearance there. On June 4 (8:30 p.m.), White will join forces with longtime collaborator drummer Miles Levett, as well as trumpeter Eli Preminger’s Chocolate Factory band of trombonist Amnon Ben-Artzi, banjo player Ilan Semilan and bassist Tal Cohen.
Other attractive items in the lineup include a show by the local Begin High School Big Band; the Nokia New Orleans-Symphonia Rosh Ha’ayin Quintet, featuring Levett; and the high school’s gospel choir, with veteran singerpianist- flutist Shem-Tov Levy adding a more local ethnic flavor to the proceedings with his own fivesome. White will also give a master class to budding local musicians.
White set out on his own musical path at the age of 13, when he picked up a clarinet for the first time, and honed his skills with his school’s marching and symphonic bands. In the interim, he has taken his craft to ever higher plains with such leading members of the jazz fraternity as feted trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton. He has also fronted his own ensembles, such as The Original Liberty Jazz Band, which White founded in 1981 with the express intent of preserving the musical heritage of New Orleans.
However, although any jazz musician worth his salt will tell you that you have to dig into the primary fundaments of the music before you take off in your own personal direction, surely one cannot stay rooted to the past forever. You have to keep up with the times. White grew up with 1960s rock ‘n’ roll and all kinds of other modern-day influences, in addition to the music his antecedents played so memorably.
With that in mind, does White strive to reproduce the sounds and textures of yesteryear or does he bring the traditional form of jazz into the here and now? “That’s something I’ve been dealing with all my life,” White notes. “I look at New Orleans jazz, first of all, as one of the world’s great musics. I think there are several musical principles that can be used for endless creation. It’s like a language, so you can use the principles of that language to create. I try to keep the sound of the music traditional, as opposed to putting a lot of obvious other styles in it that change it,” he states.
That said, White says he is very much a product of his time and is not inured to what’s going down in the music industry of today.
“I have influences from just about every genre imaginable – not only New Orleans jazz but sometimes also modern jazz, to rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip hop, everything,” he says.
But White does not just airlift motifs and passages from the “extraneous” areas of music straight into traditional jazz.
“I convert those influences into the language of New Orleans jazz. There are no modern jazz overtones in my music and things like that. I used melodic phrases and things like that. I sometimes take ideas. That’s all,” he says.
White says his approach to jazz is based on several main principles. He plays the revival style of jazz, which seeks to recreate the early sounds that came out of the city, but he also improvises on older jazz. He writes his own original scores which, while feeding off primary jazz material, is the work of someone born in 1954, not 1904. He also converts songs from other genres, including wellknown numbers by the likes of Janis Joplin and Bob Marley.
White is a firm believer in the intrinsic quality of traditional jazz and that it is just as relevant today to audiences of all ages and with all kinds of cultural backgrounds as it was when Papa John Joseph and his ilk were doing their groundbreaking thing in the early 20th century. The clarinetist came across tangible collateral for that belief on a previous visit to this part of the world.
“I was playing at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, and there were some modern jazz musicians playing at the same time [on another stage at the Port of Eilat festival site], and there was a point when we saw crowds of people coming to the stage,” he says. “We thought someone must have finished a concert. But what happened was they heard our music and they came running. I remember I played [jazz pioneer] Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur,’ but I started out with a cadenza that sounded like Jewish music. Young people got up and started dancing in the aisles. I think that shows that what we do is still relevant today,” he says.The Shared Sound New Orleans-Rosh Ha’ayin Jazz Festival takes place on June 3 and 4. Most of the events are free. For tickets and more information: 1-700-502- 250 and http://www.makombalev.org.il/
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