When clarinetist Michael White headed to the Mississippi River’s west bank for a two-month residency at A Studio in the Woods, he had the rare opportunity to contemplate New Orleans traditional jazz that has been central to his life. One of the concepts that the 49-year-old musician kept returning to was the duality that occurs in the music and in the nature of existence. White’s latest release on Basin Street Records, Dancing in the Sky, brims with the results of the clarinetist’s retreat and reflects these musings.
White, who began his musical career in his late teens blowing with veteran trumpeter Doc Paulin’s Brass Band, proclaims on this album full of original material that fresh tunes and modern flavorings can be added to the classic jazz songbook without compromising the tradition. While shades of Sidney Bechet echo through White’s lively “Bounce (Out of the Woods),” the clarinetist ambitiously takes his solo into the free space of present decades.
“Everything came out,” White maintains of the many musical influences that found their way into his compositions and performance. “It crosses a lot of lines,” he admits adding, “I just kind of cut loose. I’ve always listened to and always liked the best of all kinds of jazz.”
The old and the new marry on “Give It Up (Gypsy Second Line)” that is structurally based on the familiar “By Mere Mr. Shame” though by embracing eastern European flavors, it dances to a novel rhythm.
A New Orleans native, White has primarily led an urban life as a jazz musician and professor at Xavier University where he teaches African-American Music and holds an endowed chair in the humanities department. Thus his retreat to the quiet forested area across the river from the city was an especially unique experience that provoked the exploration of such duel concepts as urban/rural, east bank/west bank and land/water. He bows to both the power and tranquility of the river on the sultry “Algiers Hoodoo Woman” and the melodically rich “When the Mighty Mississippi Sleeps”.
White began playing clarinet in classical settings and moved on to perform with brass bands, including the Fairview Baptist Church Band that was established by the noted banjoist/guitarist/author Danny Barker. His earliest contact with traditional jazz bands was hearing veteran musicians such as clarinetist Willie Humphrey and Louis Cottrell at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“I had an epiphany of sorts when I heard my first George Lewis record,” revels White, who paid tribute to his champion on his 2000 Basin Street release, A Song for George Lewis. “It really changed my life. It felt like everything that it meant to be in New Orleans. The way I would describe my life seemed to be played out in the music.”
White clearly recalls the first time he performed traditional jazz with a “sit-down” band that took place outdoors in Jackson Square, which is located in the heart of the French Quarter. He arrived at the job to discover a ten-piece ensemble that included noted elder statesmen of the style including trombonist Louis Nelson, bassist Chester Zardis, banjoist Emanuel Sayles and trumpeter Kid Thomas.
“I played ‘Burgundy Street Blues’ for the first time in public,” White remembers with a touch of wonder remaining in his voice. “So there I was with Emanuel Sayles who was on some of the records with George Lewis playing this song.”
Veteran trumpeter “Kid Sheik” Colar heard the performance from afar, found out who was blowing clarinet and soon started calling White for gigs. That put the young musician, a rarity in New Orleans style jazz, alongside his elders and deep into the tradition. White has since acted as a link between the generations with the life-long mission of assuring the continuance of the city’s classic jazz heritage. The clarinetist formed his own group, the Original Liberty Jazz Band in 1981 and continues to lead that band as well as the Liberty Brass Band and the Michael White Quartet.
With the passing of most of the older artists, White has since surrounded himself with like-minded peers and next-generation musicians. Dancing in the Sky includes a collection of talented native New Orleanians what move in and out of the ensemble. Taking the lead from composer/bandleader Duke Ellington, the clarinetist wrote many of the tunes on the disc with particular band members in mind.
“Jambalya Strut”, which is based on the sound of Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 groups from the 1920s, was designed for Nicholas Payton, a trumpeter who grew up in the tradition and who is presently renowned in modern jazz. White thought of trombonist Lucien Barbarin’s versatility and his ability to offer traditional tailgate and funk styles when he penned “Algiers Hoodoo Woman”. The clarinetist nailed vocalist Thais Clark’s gutsy personality when he penned the music and the humorous and somewhat suggestive lyrics of “Angel in the Day (Devil at Night)”. Here, the duality theme is again in evidence as it is on the imaginatively named title cut, “Dancing in the Sky”. The song is first introduced with a bright attitude and the vocals and trumpet of Gregg Stafford. At the close of the album, “Dancing in the Sky” is reprised to represent the emotional and spiritual transitions of a jazz funeral - the slow dirge and sense of sadness at the onset of the ceremony transforms to the upbeat second line rhythms that celebrate life.
White has gained notoriety as an informed purveyor of New Orleans traditional jazz as a gifted musician, composer, educator and historian. Long respected in his hometown and in classic jazz enclaves around the world, he enjoyed further recognition through his association with renowned trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The clarinetist is heard on Marsalis’ 1989 The Majesty of the Blues (Columbia) and he also arranged the music for and performed in “A Tribute to Jelly Roll Morton” at Lincoln Center where Marsalis holds the position of artistic director. “An all-New Orleans band hadn’t done Jelly since his death - it was like Jelly Roll was there,” White proclaims. The clarinetist played Lincoln Center in a tribute to Louis Armstrong and performed at Carnegie Hall as part of the prestigious venue’s American Folk Masters series.
While White keeps the torch of classic jazz ablaze, he simultaneously waves the banner of innovation on Dancing in the Sky.
“This is a bold step in the direction of carrying on traditional jazz music,” White admits. “Musically, I have a lot of influences. I hear things that are influenced by Jelly Roll, Duke Ellington and Mingus - I have rhythm and blues in here. But it’s still meant to be traditional music.
“I really believe that New Orleans is what I call a spirit center. In traditional New Orleans jazz the spirit is in the way it captures the personal, individual sound and feeling of musicians and in the way it unites. The collective improvisation is the spirit of souls uniting.”