Sustaining the Age-Old Tradition: Rising Artists in New Orleans

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By Amanda Kraus

 

“Music is a language, and in New Orleans, that language is jazz. The people here, they get it, and it makes it easier to communicate,” said Josh Mosier, an Austinite who moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University. In seventh grade, he visited New Orleans for the first time with his school’s jazz band, which performed around the city. “I just remember it being a great experience,” said Mosier. “We saw some second lines, which I thought were really cool, and that’s one of the main reasons I decided to go to school here. I fell in love with the culture and the music, and I became really interested in jazz.”

New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, was built by a diversity of ethnicities that spoke their own languages; music became a way for New Orleanians to communicate. “New Orleans music has always been defined by mixture and taking things from different places and putting them together in new ways,” said Will Buckingham, Tulane professor and musician. Just as New Orleans is constituted of a mix of ethnic backgrounds, so is jazz, which encompasses ragtime, blues, folk, and other popular genres of the time (from the 19th-20th century). Jazz music is unique in that it’s the first genre of music that Americans can claim as their own, making it undoubtedly patriotic. Jazz goes deeper and spreads further than just being music — it’s a pervading way of life that’s been lived since the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New Orleans, when musicians such as Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong made names for themselves.

It is commonly thought that Bolden essentially “created” jazz by transforming blues into more upbeat, danceable music by mixing a variety of styles and genres into one. Despite the number of stories and accounts written about Bolden, there is no actual proof of his existence and musical career since there was no technological recordability during his time. Armstrong, perhaps the most famous jazz musician of his time, shifted jazz performance from group improvisation to solo-based performance, according to a chapter on Louis Armstrong from the African American Almanac.

Although “There’s a lot of scholarship on the historical context, in the end it’s up to the historical imagination to think about how jazz started, because the music isn’t recorded until 1918 in Chicago by New Orleans musicians,” said Buckingham. The murky origin of jazz is mystical in a way that makes it attractive, spiritual, and pervasive. Despite its unknowable origin, we are still able to place jazz in New Orleans, through the mythos surrounding it and the legacy of artists such as Bolden and Armstrong. “We really embrace the musical history in New Orleans. It’s a point of pride, it’s something we draw on with the music we make and the stories we tell about it,” said Buckingham. “From the early 1900’s, cats like Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong were essential to forming New Orleans musical traditions… then came the funky meters in the 60’s…  to current artists such as Frank Ocean, Trombone Shorty, and Lil’ Wayne,” said Mosier. The old musical figures and traditions have been preserved in New Orleans culture by the musicians of every new generation, such as Mosier himself.

Mosier first picked up the guitar when he was eight, following in his older sister’s footsteps. What started as an after-school activity soon became an obsession and a career path. “Once I started playing jazz, it opened my mind,” said Mosier. After playing in jazz bands throughout middle school and high school, New Orleans seemed like the obvious next step in his evolution as a jazz musician. “Playing in the jazz band here was kind of a slap in the face,” said Mosier, reflecting on his first experiences at Tulane. Although being in the jazz hub of the world was intimidating for him, it was simultaneously profoundly inspiring.

“You have to see it [jazz] as a language. It’s not something you’re going to be able to naturally speak eloquently and fluently, you have to learn and practice the vocabulary. I specifically remember seeing Soul Rebels freshman year. That’s what inspires me to reach that goal of being able to fluently express myself through music — once you have the vocabulary, the music sounds incredible,” he said.

Since jazz is a pervading way of life in New Orleans, it’s unsurprising that native New Orleanians grow up with a natural understanding of it. “The main thing that has helped me since being in New Orleans is working with artists that are from New Orleans, especially TJ. A lot of musicians I’ve met that are from New Orleans’ parents are musicians, which isn’t the same in Austin” said Mosier. TJ Washington, a singer and rapper who goes by the name Aux, is exemplary of the jazz culture in New Orleans. “It’s normal to me, the culture of it; it’s natural down here,” he said. Growing up in a musical household, Aux was destined to follow in his father’s and sisters’ footsteps. His father, who plays piano and organ at Washington’s church, is a professional gospel musician. “You hear gospel in everything,” said Aux. “Once you start doing other music, you hear gospel in it.” This is what made his transition from gospel to R&B/soul easy — although he wouldn’t categorize his music as gospel, his songs evince the influence of gospel music.

It’s evident to Mosier too. “The way TJ can harmonize, the things he writes about, and his appreciation of and desire to make music is beautiful. It inspires me. I think he enjoys working with me because of my jazz background; we take our influences and put a spin on it,” said Mosier. “Before I came here, I was one of the only people that wanted to make music my career, and now that I’m meeting people who also want the same thing and have wanted it their whole lives, I’m able to learn from them and relate to them.”

In the same way that Buddy Bolden transformed blues into the upbeat, danceable music that is jazz, Mosier and Aux are transforming jazz, gospel, and blues into something unique, carrying on the New Orleans tradition. Mosier would describe his sound as bluesy, R&B, soul, and pop, although he is still evolving and experimenting with sound. He is currently working on an album, which he described as being more bluesy and upbeat than his past EP’s and singles. He’s also producing new music for Aux, who has recently released two singles and will be releasing an EP soon as well. Although Mosier performs regularly with Tulane’s jazz guitar ensemble, he has performed as a solo artist at venues such as Gasa Gasa, Tipitina’s, Hi Ho, and Dragon’s Den, sometimes featuring Aux.

“Music is like painting. You capture the moment that’s in your head but no one else can see it,” said Aux. “I want to be the best when it comes to sound. The absolute best. Hearing things and hearing where they go.” Much like painting, according to Aux and Mosier, content is important. “We can make the songs and we can make them sound good, but we’ve started to realize that it’s more about what you’re saying and what the message is. And that’s what sets you apart from all the other music out there,” said Mosier.

“Apart from practicing, you have to actively listen,” said Mosier. “A lot of great bands come to New Orleans because of the musical culture. And the rappers who come here or who are from here, the stuff that they talk about inspires me because it’s just very honest and genuine. Jazz brings you past your basic chords and it gives you a whole new view of the different things you can do with them. It encapsulates all different styles. In terms of improvisation, it gives you a lot more options with what you can do melodically. People that are from New Orleans, they can hear the harmony in jazz chords as second nature. For me, I’ve been trying to learn it, I’m still learning it, and I’ll never stop learning it.”

Although both Mosier and Aux found a musical haven in New Orleans, like so many before them, they plan on leaving after graduation in order to continue growing, learning, and evolving. “As far as success goes, it’s tricky for musicians in New Orleans,” said Aux. Afterall, Armstrong did not stay in New Orleans forever — he moved to Chicago, then New York (and back and forth again) in order to further his musical career. This move allowed him to make recordings and go on tour, something that Mosier hopes to do in the future with a band. Mosier plans on moving to Los Angeles in the interim, “since there’s a big music scene there with a lot of connections to be made.” However, he “definitely want[s] to come back to New Orleans at some point, whether it’s for a show or to live for a couple of years.”

“Over time New Orleans music has evolved and blessed us with incredible musicians, and to this day, it remains a melting pot for different styles of music; since I’m not from New Orleans, I think my style adds to this fusion,” said Mosier.

 

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