Evolution of New Orleans musical culture is subject of Rider professor's new book
The only constant of New Orleans' legendary music culture is change. Its most recent evolution is the subject of New Orleans Remix, a new book by Dr. Jack Sullivan, a Rider University professor and chair of the Department of English.
“The book focuses on the change that came about in the 1990s,” Sullivan says. “Brass bands were revitalized and different music styles — funk, hip-hop, Mardi-Gras Indian chants, gospel, zydeco — were layered into jazz. Jazz musicians became more diversified, especially with new female and Asian musicians, in a city that makes it economically possible for musicians to survive.”
Published by University Press of Mississippi in October, the book examines the city’s musical history in an effort to uncover the secret of its dynamic success. Sullivan searches for answers to some of the most boggling questions surrounding the city, most importantly, asking how and why New Orleans is able to continuously spawn the greatest vernacular music.
“New Orleans is unusual in that it was a French colony, not Puritan,” Sullivan says. “From the beginning, it was a very pleasure-loving place, with constant balls, operas, and parades. The French allowed the slaves to practice their drumming music, something highly unusual in the New World. There are a lot of specific historical legacies and an undefinable atmosphere that you have to really go there to experience. It’s in the air. They have a welcoming music vibe going on all the time.”
Sullivan has visited New Orleans for more than two decades, talking to musicians and compiling notes in hope of someday writing a book. Every year he also leads students around the city as part of an American Studies course. Their experience improved with every visit as Sullivan developed relationships with musicians and learned the ins and outs of the city.
“Students get to experience something that they have never experienced before," Sullivan says. "You can’t find jazz comparable to New Orleans anywhere else in the country, unless a New Orleans musician is traveling. Often, musical theater or Westminster Choir College students would even go up on stage and sing with the musicians who look forward to us coming each year. This year, the New Orleans tri-centennial, students will get to march in the Joan of Arc parade, the opening parade of Mardi Gras.”
For the book, the musicians’ familiarity with Sullivan allowed him to tap into a network of musicians who were comfortable sharing their views with him.
“People ask me how I got musicians to say such remarkable things in these interviews,” Sullivan says. “It’s really because there were certain groups that saw me year after year and started to trust me. When I decided to start working on the book, I started telling people and they seemed perfectly happy to invite me into their homes or backstage. One connection led to another. These interviews led to other interviews.”
After collecting dozens of interviews and searching through archival documents, Sullivan proposed answers to what keeps New Orleans jamming while other music destinations have seemingly tuned down.
Sullivan has published six books, most of which tie into his interests in 19th- and 20th-century American literature, music and film. He finds his experience as an author adds excitement to the courses he teaches: “I try to teach courses that are connected to what I’m writing about and share my insights.”
Most recently, Sullivan was invited to the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge with other music historians and scholars, where he discussed New Orleans Remix and signed books for Barnes & Noble.
"It was my first event with the book and a relatively large one, attracting a total of 18,000 people, " Sullivan says. "It was a lot of fun. In the next few months I’m doing a number of book signings at New Orleans jazz clubs, including Rock n' Bowl, d.b.a, Palm Court, and The Little Gem Saloon, where Louis Armstrong played as a teenager. That place is sacred ground."
New Orleans Remix is available to purchase online and at the Rider bookstore. The book's launch party will be hosted by Carnegie Hall Notables at the Tangled Vine in New York City on Nov. 28. For details, please email [email protected].