By Samantha Brandbergh and Megan Lupo
Sitting at the bar of D.B.A., a music club in New Orleans, Professor of English Jack Sullivan talked with Todd Duke, the guitarist of The Soul Rebels. The sunlight pouring in suddenly disappeared as the band’s sousaphone player, a man as big as the brass instrument he plays, entered the building.
“You don’t see that anywhere else, do you?” Duke asked Sullivan.
It’s moments like this, Sullivan said during his “English Matters” lecture on April 5, when he realizes that in New Orleans, “magic is ordinary.”
Sullivan’s recently published book, “New Orleans Remix,” is a “direct outgrowth” of his annual New Orleans trip with Rider students, which he has organized every January since 1990.
Through the decades, Sullivan began to notice a lot of changes in New Orleans music.
“Every year, it seemed like there were more clubs, performers, diversity, immigrants and more kinds of music,” he said.
While the idea of writing a book wasn’t originally the plan, Sullivan began taking notes during his time in New Orleans and had conversations with musicians about the evolving scene.
“It’s not like New York where everyone is real cool and you can’t be near them. It’s the opposite; it’s very open-hearted,” he said.
Once Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Sullivan said he became more inspired to write the book. With an enthusiasm for New Orleans culture, a list of contacts and a passion for a new project, Sullivan’s love of writing about jazz developed.
“I’ve always written about classical music, and we always talk about things like codas and overtures,” he said. “With jazz, I can use words like ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ and ‘vibe.’ It’s the language. It’s the lingo.”
Sullivan said most of the book is interviews with New Orleans musicians, “reacting to each other on the page.” Reading a passage, Sullivan said the book will educate readers about musicians beloved by locals and those who perform at clubs far from Bourbon Street and tourist areas.
“This book addresses what is really happening every day, not just at Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, in America’s musical capital,” he said.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Sullivan was still determined to go with Rider students. The trip was pushed back to May, he said, but people questioned how they could travel if the city was underwater.
Sullivan and his students were surprised to find that a diverse mix of regulars were still packing into bars and clubs.
Reading from the chapter “After the Flood,” Sullivan said, “The minute we got into the clubs, everything burst into life. The life-affirming spirit of the music — the jazz funeral tradition of looking death in the eye and then partying anyway — was intact, with the tragic backdrop of the hurricane adding a subtle poignancy.”
Sullivan’s book also details the influx of female brass players and Asian musicians.
“Jazz used to be associated as an old thing, and now it’s a hip thing,” he said.
The music of New Orleans, Sullivan said, has a rich, primitive, sophisticated and versatile style with bands navigating many genres throughout their sets. He recalled a time during his 2017 trip when members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers pushed through the crowd to perform with the Rebirth Brass Band at the iconic Maple Leaf bar.
“There is always a surprise,” he said.
Senior political science major Bethany Gartner, who attended Sullivan’s New Orleans trip this year, said she wasn’t introduced to jazz music before the trip, but gained interest while in the city.
“It’s not my type of music, but when you’re down there, everything is infectious,” she said. “You have to move to it. There’s not anyone ever sitting down at any of the clubs.”
Gartner reminisced about the group’s first night at D.B.A. just after the Saints won an NFL playoff game.
“It was just so alive,” she said. “It was the first night, so we were all relatively new to each other, but we just tore up that dance floor. There was no bashfulness.”
Sullivan echoed this statement in his lecture, saying that jazz music today appeals to the younger generation now more than ever, as “it’s a constant remix of the old and the new.”
“New Orleans Remix” can be purchased at https://amzn.to/2Eyq0dY.
Published in the 4/11/18 edition.