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Book Review: Up Front and Center: New Orleans Music at the End of the 20th Century by Jay Mazza

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Up Front and Center, Jay Mazza’s love song to the New Orleans music scene at the end of the 20th century, takes its title from the author’s favorite spot at a musical performance. He wants to be close to the band. He wants to be able to see the musician’s faces. He wants to be at the center of the crowd. The audience, he says, energizes the band; the band energizes the audience. The best place to feel the power of that energy is not just “up front and center.” It is “up front and center in New Orleans.”

New Orleans and music have long been synonymous in many people’s minds. Yet in his introduction, Mazza explains that in the 1970s when he got to town, the music scene was not quite the dominant force it had been. It was through the last few decades of the century that it was to flourish once again. New venues for all kind of music would appear. New generations of musicians would energize the community. Old traditions would be reinvigorated. Mazza’s book is an attempt to describe what was going on. Given the subject—great music in one of the most exotic of settings—it could have been a great read. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Indeed, getting through it is something of a chore.

It is not that Mazza doesn’t know what he’s talking about. When it comes to New Orleans music of the period, he speaks with as much expertise as anyone could want. He has been to gig after gig, all kinds of music, all over town and he has put it all down in his journal. He can tell you who was playing where and with whom, what they played, and whether they were playing well. He can tell you about artists you’ve heard of—the Marsalis brothers, Dr. John, Harry Connick, Jr., and the Neville Brothers. He can tell you about artists you should have heard of—George Porter, Jr., the Batiste brothers, Walter “Wolfman” Washington. He can reel off name after name of musicians you’ve never heard of and more than likely never will. Mazza knows what he’s talking about.

He’s been to Tipitina’s. He’s been to the Maple Leaf Bar to listen to the Rebirth Brass Band. He’s been to Jazz Fest and heard the partial reunions of the Meters. He’s been privy to the Indians’ practices and walked in second line parades. He can tell you about jazz. He can talk about world music. He can chant with the Indian chiefs. He’s written about the music scene for the Louisiana Weekly. New Orleans music has clearly become the passion of his life.

The problem is not a lack of knowledge. It’s not a lack of enthusiasm. The problem may be too much knowledge coupled with too much enthusiasm. The book is stuffed with names: names of drummers, names of guitarists, vocalist, trumpeters, names of saxophonists, even a sousaphone player or two. It’s filled with names of bars and clubs. It’s filled with descriptions of performances he’s seen—more often than not simply listing who played, perhaps some indication of what they played, and maybe a line or so about audience reaction. Rather than making the scene come alive, too often it begins to read like a list. Everything seems to meld together.

What this book needs is a good editor: someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are some interesting anecdotes, but they are few and far between. There are too many repetitions. There are too many musicians who are little more than names that play instruments. When he talks about a character like a James Booker, Booker sticks in your memory. You remember Fats Domino pushing a piano down the stage with his stomach. You remember David Crawford; he’s the guy who called for a bassist from the audience and got a guy who could only speak Russian. More of this kind of story would add some human interest and a lot more life to the book.

Up Front and Center is overly concerned with the trees. It would do better to spend more time on the forest.

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