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Tricentennial Reading List With Jason Berry (Part 4)

This week on the Tricentennial Reading List, Susan Larson and Jason Berry discuss biographies of local, notable musicians.

  •  “Bamboula: The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk,” by Frederick Starr
  • “Mr. Jelly Roll,” by Alan Lomax
  • “Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton,” by Howard Reich and William Gaines 
  • “Pops,” by Terry Teachout
  • “Creole Trombone: A Life of Kid Ory, by John McCusker
  • “Ernie K-Doe: The Rhythm and Blues Emperor of New Orleans,” by Ben Sandmel
  • “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock and Roll, “by Rick Coleman
  • “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues,” by John Wirt


Susan Larson: Now so many biographies the list goes on we have Bamboula!: The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk by Frederick Starr, Gottschalk is so important in New Orleans music history. 

Jason Berry: Gottschalk is a progenitor and the music he was making, as Fred writes, in that very thorough and comprehensive book, it was not jazz but it was a prelude to what became jazz. 

Susan Larson: Some of the others are, of course, Mister Jelly Roll by Alan Lomax, Jelly's blue, the Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton by Howard Reich and William Gaines.

Jason Berry: It is a great book and Howard Reich is the longtime music correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Bill Gaines, he'd won at least one Pulitzer, for his investigative work. 

Jelly had long claimed that he was being cheated out of his money by the Melrose publishing company of Chicago. Well, they tracked down all the documents and they proved that it was true that they had not given him royalties. It's not often that you find that sort of industrious research which really endorses and corroborates what the musician himself was saying. And I must say, Howard whom I know fairly well is able to describe music on a piece of paper about as elegantly as anybody in the business. 

Susan Larson: I remember that about that. 

Jason Berry: It's a very fine book. 

Susan Larson: Then, of course, we have John McCusker’s book Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and then Ben Sandmel’s Ernie K-Doe: the Rhythm and Blues Emperor of New Orleans. 

Jason Berry: Each of those books has a certain signature, you might say, in a cultural sense. What John McCusker did was bring Ory to life, in a way that no one had ever done. He got access to his own writings from his last wife. It's a very poignant story about this guy who grows up the son of a white father and an African- American mother moves to the city from the countryside out near Laplace and is really making it in New Orleans; he was a very entrepreneurial fellow. 

He used to get bands to go out on the back of wagons and they would play long into the afternoons, advertising the gigs that night, at a given dance hall. He finally got squeezed out by a guy who comes off almost as a gangster. I mean, his great quote is “He started about 50 cops coming around me and I began to feel my health was being challenged. I didn't like the climate.” 

Susan Larson: Then for a piano guys, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the last dawn of rock and roll, by Rick Coleman; Huey “Piano’” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues by John Wirt. 

Jason Berry: Each of these guys put in many years of work and research on their respective books. Rick Coleman had the advantage of knowing Fats and interviewing a lot of people who knew Fats, and so he situates him in the turbulence of 1960’s, as a kind of ironic figure, because here he is playing good time music that all these white kids are dancing to while all the civil rights demonstrations are going on. 


The Reading Life in 2010, Susan Larson was the book editor for The New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1988-2009. She has served on the boards of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the New Orleans Public Library. She is the founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Women's National Book Association, which presents the annual Diana Pinckley Prizes for Crime Fiction.. In 2007, she received the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities lifetime achievement award for her contributions to the literary community. She is also the author of The Booklover's Guide to New Orleans. If you run into her in a local bookstore or library, she'll be happy to suggest something you should read. She thinks New Orleans is the best literary town in the world, and she reads about a book a day.

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