Just in time for Jazz Fest 2016, which opens today, New Orleans transplant, publishing veteran, music lover and bon vivant Michael Murphy has compiled a lively new guide to the city's vibrant music scene. Hear Dat New Orleans is the latest in a trio of guides from Murphy and Countryman Press, following the entertaining and informative Eat Dat New Orleans, which chronicles the restaurants and food culture, and Fear Dat New Orleans, which captures the spookiest parts of the crescent city.
Perfect for first-time visitors who want to hear authentic jazz, blues, R&B, Cajun or Zydeco music, Hear Dat New Orleans offers an overview of each genre—the history, the iconic performers, the musical genius behind it all—and pointers on the best venues for live performances. Murphy's trademark wit is in evidence thoughout, with entries that are hilarious as well as practical. ("The performers are drastically better than the current Bourbon Street cover bands that butcher ’70s hits by Journey and Foreigner, and there are no 18-year-old boys threatening to throw up on you," he writes of the scene on Frenchmen Street.)
A former vice president of sales for Random House and publisher of William Morrow, Murphy moved to New Orleans for good in 2009 after decades of enjoying the city's unique culture. Though he makes no claim to being a music authority (“My last gig was searching for the notes of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ on a plastic flutophone in the third grade”) he knows what he likes and relishes the chance to help newcomers find the best New Orleans has to offer.
We asked Murphy for some personal music recommendations and reflections on NOLA's music scene.
You grew up in the Midwest. When were you first introduced to New Orleans music and how did you become so well-versed in the subject?
I came to New Orleans the very first time in May 1983. I worked for Random House and came down from New York to work with author Anne Rice. I had never been to New Orleans before and bought into the lie that the city was all girls-gone-wild and frat-boy debauchery. I didn’t want to come. By day two, I had been completely seduced like so many before me and knew I was home. You aren’t so much “introduced” to New Orleans music as overwhelmed by it—as Ellis Marsalis notes, it practically bubbles up from the street. New Orleans jazz, blues, brass band and bounce music define the city every bit as much as Cajun and Creole cuisine.
What surprised you the most in your research for Hear Dat?
Rather than surprise, I would characterize writing Hear Dat as more driven by fear and intimidation. My first two books better fit my irreverent (some might say “snotty”) sensibility. It’s OK to make fun of restaurants in Eat Dat and you’re supposed to make fun of ghost stories in Fear Dat. But, getting too puckish with musicians can seem personal and cruel. The text was much harder for me to write and, in reading the finished book, I noted that I apologized three or four times for musicians left out. After delivering the manuscript to my publisher, the next day I ran across Davis Rogan in the Quarter. My reaction was a big OMG. Davis is a huge personality, highly opinionated and not afraid to express those opinions. I envisioned mean tweets from Davis Rogan, one-star Amazon reviews, and possibly in-person confrontations. I was able to get him in the final book.
What accounts for New Orleans’ very special place in the history of American music?
I can no better answer the question than form an opinion as to why Russia has the best ballet dancers or why Mexico produces so many great boxers. It just kind of is. New Orleans musical icon and wild man, Ernie K-Doe, says, “I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive all music came from New Orleans.” And as Lenny Kravitz says, “New Orleans is the heart, soul and music of America.” I have little to add or amplify.
What are three musical experiences that no first-time visitor to New Orleans should miss?
• Preservation Hall, with shows overnight at 8:00, 9:00 and 10:00 p.m., seems fairly must-do.
• Meschiya Lake has a string of Best Female Performer awards from 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
• Wandering Frenchmen Street, letting your ear be your guide as you stroll past 12 music clubs in two and a half blocks rounds out the three musical experiences.
Of course, I could scrap all three and toss tens of other three-experience combinations to make up additional must-do lists.
Jazz, blues and R&B dominate the New Orleans music scene, but there are other entirely original (or “discordant”) sounds to be heard. Do you have a favorite performer or group that falls outside the established styles?
As I write in Hear Dat, there’s a restaurant in New Orleans called Dis & Dem. On their menu is “The Only Omelette” and listed right below is “The Only Other Omelette.”
I have several #1 favorite outsider musicians. I love Helen Gillet, who plays the cello in ways you’ve never heard nor imagine it played. I love the Bingo Show, which I describe as a New Orleans hard-edged, slightly deviant version of Cirque du Soleil. I love DeBauche who describe themselves as a Russian Mafia Band. There are many discordant, outside the mainstream musicians who move me greatly.
There’s some fascinating material in the book’s appendices, including lists of Top 20 venues, Top 20 historic musicians and 50 essential songs. All were compiled with input from “expert” judges. We’re going to put you on the spot: If you had to pick just one, what song would be at the top of your personal New Orleans song list?
I’ll cry foul! One song seems impossible and, even if I chose one, I’d change my mind as soon as I sent my response. High on my list would be some songs that didn’t make the Top 50 list in the appendix. I adore Black Minute Waltz by James Booker. He takes the classical Chopin song and makes it quintessentially New Orleans. I’m equally a sucker for Do It Again by Galactic with Cheeky Blakk, which is an amazingly great song built around two-word lyrics (two words which BookPage would never print).
Allen Toussaint, who contributed the “Overture” to Hear Dat, died just a few weeks after the book was completed. How would you characterize Toussaint’s place in the pantheon of New Orleans musical greats?
New Orleans has many great musicians, but a handful of icons. Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino. Allen Toussaint not only belongs on this short list, but he belongs at the top of the pantheon. Mr. Toussaint was an exceptionally talented and generous person. New Orleans lost something essential last Fall with his passing, but I feel confident his music will live forever.
Is New Orleans resting on its musical laurels? Or continuing to break new ground?
When visitors come to New Orleans, they expect and we need to deliver traditional jazz. But, to be the musical hub, New Orleans needs to experiment and grow. With the immense variety of Lil Wayne, Big Freedia, Tank and the Banga’s, Quintron, Galactic, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Cole Williams, I think we’ve got new ground covered.
You write that no other city (including Nashville!) is as passionate about its music as New Orleans. Describe your personal, perfect night of soaking up the sounds of New Orleans. Who/what/where?
A perfect night is about discovering something new, particularly with a visitor new to the city. I love New Orleans and want others to love it as well. I had such a perfect night about a year ago when a dear friend and her husband were visiting New Orleans from Washington, D.C. I took them to Tipitina’s to hear Helen Gillet. The warm-up band, Sweet Crude, blew all three of us away. Then I watched as their jaws dropped, listening to Helen Gillet. And finally, we were all transported by The Wild Magnolias. It was a night where I got to watch two people, new to New Orleans, totally fall in love with my city and a night my love was taken to a deeper level.