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WWOZ and the Sound of New Orleans  E-mail
Sunday, 05 February 2006 05:41
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WWOZ and the Sound of New Orleans

By John Sinclair

When Smiley Lewis slIpped into Coslmo Matassa's J & M Recording Service at Rampart & Dumaine late in 1947 to cut hls first sides for DeLuxe Records--"Turn On Your Volume Baby  b/w Here Comes Smiley  (#3099)--no one could reasonably predict that the music recorded that day would still be heard on the city's alrwaves 40 years later.

Go back another 30 years to the beginnings of jazz recording, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from New Orleans wowed New York City and the world with their first side for Columbia, The Darktown Strutters' Ball --another historic recordlng you can still hear on the air today in the city that literally gave jazz to the world.

From Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to Wynton Marsalis, Earl Turbinton and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; from Roy Brown, Annie Laurie and Larry Darnell to Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville; from Tuts Washington to Professor Longhair to Allen Toussaint and hundreds of recording artists in between--all the magnificent music of New Orleans is still alive and in the air every day in 1988, sounding better than ever and keeping both old and new generations of musicians and listeners in constant touch wIth their glorious cultural heritage.

This unending stream of ancestral and contemporary music flows out over the airwaves on WWOZ, 90.7 on your FM dial, a completely unique public broadcastlng service which greeted its first listeners on December 2, 1980 from makeshift studios upstairs over Tipitina's and a volunteer staff of blues mental patients who simply could not be restrained.

After seven and a half years of musical ups and financial downs, WWOZ is now somewhat comfortably ensconsed in and emanates from a modern broadcasting facility in Louis Armstrong Park, just a trumpet blast from the site of the old J & M studios and only a drumbeat or two from the original Congo Place meeting ground where the music of New Orleans was given its initial impetus.
Close too, on nearby North Rampart Street, are the offlces of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, sponsor of the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival and owner of WWOZ since January 1, 1987.
The transition necessitated by the change in ownership has not been an entirely smooth one, nor was it made any easier when an errant barge knocked over the WWOZ tower on the banks of the Mississippi and put the station off the air for some time last year.

But the sound of WWOZ remains as strong and compel1ing as ever, with the vast musical imaginatlon and steady programming hand of Jerry Brock at the helm and a veteran crew of community- based volunteer music producers on board to keep the mix as multi-various and yet as closely focused on the native musics of Louisiana as possible.

Heard at regular weekly intervals are such stars of community broadcasting as the great Billy Delle, the fantastic Gentilly Junior, the magnificent Gene Scaramuzzo, the unstoppable Otis Claim Jumper  Blanson, the infinitely knowledgeable Mike Mr. Jazz  Gourrier and Kalamu ya Salaam, the indefatiguable Hazel Schleuter and Big Mama, the always amazlng Steve Armbruster, the truly incomparable Duke-a-Paducah with the lovely Ms. B.B., the incontestably earthy Belle Moore ( Brown Sugar ), the absolutely peerless Allen Fontenot, Bobby Mitchell and Bryan Lee.

Missing in action since the ownership switch are memorable programs by colorful local personalities Ernie K-Doe and J. Monque'D, while the new currents have floated in a mid-day "jazz drive" feature hosted by Kim Boutte and a late-afternoon "Jazz from the Park" slot which demonstrates the directions jazz has taken everywhere in the world since itshumble origins in the streets, parks and taverns of New Orleans before the turn of the present century.

The various permutations of the blues are given full reign too, from the country blues of MIssissippi, Louisiana and Texas to the urban blues of today's big cities, from post-war b1ues-with-rhythm to the soul sounds of the sixties and beyond.

Gospel music, bluegrass, ethnic musics of North and South America, Africa, the Caribbean, the hills and backwoods of the southern United States; even music of Ireland gets a regular play on WWOZ.

But it's the ever-present focus on the music of Louisiana and the sound of New Orleans itself that lifts WWOZ head and shoulders above any other similarly-formatted public radio station in the USA. Nowhere else in America may the listener gain such splendid exposure to the historic and contemporary music of the immediate locality, and this feature alone qualifies WWOZ as a living national treasure which demands preservation.

WWOZ keeps New Orleans music alive in the age of technology and puts it right in the ear of the populace, day and night, week after week, year after yeer, extending the contlnuity of the culture through the immediacy of radio, letting the music be heard where otherwise it would fade into the musty record stacks at the Tulane Jazz Archive and the otherwise inaccessible shelves of the private record collector.

Where the jaded New Orleans listener may take this phenomenon somewhat for granted by now, some eight years followIng the inception of WWOZ, an observer from the outside world cannot help but be completely floored by this incredible offering of ancestral sounds.

As one listens from morning till night, a brilliant kaleidoscope of sounds keeps turning up new aural images to wig out on, with the weekends bringing an even more eclectic collection of electrifying programming. The accompanyIng chart will give you the full story, but it goes something like this throughout the week:

6:00 - 8:30 am Morning Jazz
8:30 - 10:00 am Tradltlonal Jazz of New Orleans
10:00 - 11:30 am Folk, Country, Blues & Gospel
11:30 - 1:00 pm World Music
1:00 - 2:30 pm Classic Jazz with Kim Boutte
2:30 - 4:00 pm Rhythm & Jazz
4:00 - 7:00 pm Jazz from the Park
7:00 - 10:00 pm Blues in the Night
10:00 - 12:00 pm The Kitchen Sink
12:00 - 2:00 am Late Night Jazz

Weekend nights jump like crazy with the Duke-a-Paducah's rhythm & blues show and "B.B.'s Bad Blues" on Fridays and Gabou Mendy's "African Journey," Gene Scaramuzzo and Elise Abolafia's African and Caribbean sounds, and the always excitlng "Claim Jumper" blues program on Saturdays.

Sundays are a veritable St. Joseph's Night feast of ethnic musics--gospel with Bro. Larry Bell, bluegrass with Hazel Schleuter, Cajun music with Allen Fontenot and Johnny Fasullo, mainstream jazz with Clinton Scott, traditional New Orleans jazz with Barry Wratten, the "Foxtrot Museum" with Justin Winston, the Sunday night "Kitchen Sink" show with Nkossi, and two of the author's most personal favorites: Brown Sugar with the soulful modern-style blues from 7:00 to 10:00 and a wonderful late-nIght soul music program hosted by a variety of communltY producers.

WWOZ is a community radio station In more ways than even its exemplary programming would indicate. Born as a wild dream in the brain of a not-yet-transplanted Texan, Walter Brock, back in 1976, this bright idea survived a most difficult struggle to obtain its FCC license and then picked up enough support to assemble a bunch of raggedy equipment and actually go on the air in late 1980.

Lacking the traditional public radio funding base in a college or university setting, WWOZ has had to call upon the public--its listenership at large--to provide all of its operating necessities and most of its staff, not an easy task in the wealthiest of communlties and even more strenuous in the economically-depressed New Orleans of the 1980s.

But the station has survived, and its glorious sound fills the airwaves even as we speak. The stewardship and support of the Jazz & Heritage Foundation should help to even out the financial peaks and valleys of the future, and it's a good bet that the public itself will continue to bless WW0Z with its cash and appreciatlon during the semi-annual fund-raising drlves which take the place of daily commercials and other income-producing announcements.

To paraphrase the great Shelley Pope, it's the baddest radio statlon in the world! Turn on your volume baby, fix your radio dial at 90.7 FM, and give your ears a great blg treat. You won't hear thls stuff anywhere else!


(c) 1988, 2006 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.