Bruce Boyd Raeburn, author of New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History looks forward to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
Spring is here in the Crescent City and that means that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is about a month away. This year I’ll be interviewing drummer Johnny Vidacovich at the Music Heritage Stage on the first Friday, and I’m looking forward to it because we have been friends for thirty-five years and he also happens to be one of the best drummers in New Orleans.
Some might say, “Don’t you mean best jazz drummers?” but the fact is, Johnny plays everything: he’s performed with Professor Longhair and James Booker, as well as with Mose Allison, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, and his long-term band affiliation, Astral Project. If Theresa Anderson (a transplanted Swedish rocker) or Harry Connick Sr. (the former District Attorney, father of Harry Jr, and a singer in his own right) needs him, he’s ready. Like many New Orleans musicians, Johnny knows how to "cover the spread," which is what has kept him working steadily for so many years. The desire to acquaint people with this aspect of New Orleans vernacular musical culture was the motivation behind my new publication with the University of Michigan Press, New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History, which offers some fresh perspectives on how New Orleans musicians operate and how the city became hip to its own jazz heritage. A good deal of the book is about the conflict that “purism” creates between musicians and the writers who try to understand them through a process of categorization, which always fails to account for personal eccentricities. Yet it is through these eccentricities that most New Orleans musicians are known at home. Vidacovich is a philosopher of New Orleans drumming style, and he is also a composer. One of his pieces (performed as a spoken-word rap accompanied only by drums) is titled “Doctor Watson, What You Got in Your Pocket?” The reference is to Dave Watson, who was playing bass in Professor Longhair’s band when Johnny joined it in the late 1970s. Many people who hear the title immediately assume the song is about drugs, but they’re mistaken. It tells the story of how Watson shared his secret strategies for staying “in the pocket” when performing in Fess’ rhythm section, a challenge that many seasoned musicians had failed because the pianist was so particular about rhythmic perfection. Sometimes you just have to go to the source if you want to get it right
--Bruce Boyd Raeburn