Jelly Roll Morton
The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax
Rounder 11661-1888-2 BK01

Triksta Life and Death and New Orleans Rap by Nik Cohn
Harvill Secker (2005)

Originally published in the TLS, 12 July 2006.

There is something about the Deep South, , l’Amérique profonde, which exercises a seductive fascination on the white imagination. Not least the Louisiana swamp-city of New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and pleasure-zone supreme. Nik Cohn, author of “Triksta”, an entertaining account of his attempt to break into rap producing in New Orleans, originally fell under the city’s spell as a teenager, when he came across Alan Lomax’s oral history recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, purveyor of myths and stories about the Crescent City, and self-styled “inventor of jazz”. The link between Lomax and Cohn is not just anecdotal: for they’re both white men who have been sucked in by African-American music and culture because it offered something rich and strange, a sensuality which has been squeezed out of European tradition.

Lomax was a pioneer of field recording, encouraged by his father John who made the first collections of cowboy songs in the early 20th century. Lomax junior travelled all over the South from the 1930’s onwards, gathering music and stories from the marginalised and dispossessed – white mountain men and women as well as the sons and daughters of black slaves. The fruits of Lomax’s lengthy interviews with Jelly Roll Morton – originally made available on 78’s – have been re-issued as a lavish piano-shaped package which includes 8 CD’s and a handsome booklet, as well as Lomax’s classic biography“Mister Jelly Roll”, a book which combines Lomax’s narrative with edited transcripts from the interviews. This exhaustive material, although sometimes close to fiction, is as evocative of the essence of the jazz world as Mezz Mezzrow’s classic – and equally fictional – “Really the Blues”. Jelly Roll sat at a Library of Congress Steinway grand – a far cry from the uprights he would have played in the New Orleans brothels and gambling houses he frequented – and talked and talked, and then some more, only occasionally prompted by the young ethnomusicologist, whose prurient interest in sexual material is at times all-too-evident. It is a kind of sustained rap, meandering gently – if a little repetitively – above the steady piano chords that Jelly Roll uses to punctuate his well-rehearsed spiel.

Story-telling and sermonising are central to the African-American tradition, reaching back to the complex social and political role of the Manding jali or griot : repetition is central to the art, along with humour, bragging and downright lies. Rap is the latest in a line of African-inspired talking-styles, and here too, pleasure is taken in going over the same ground almost ad nauseam, playing with slight variations, suggesting magical incantation and showing off verbal skills and spontaneous invention. In “Triksta”, Nik Cohn describes his attempt to break into the New Orleans rap scene as a producer. Infected by the genre, “Triksta” is weighed down by a kind of circumlocution: entertaining but irritating with repeated choruses and refrains born of frustration. Equally true to the form he loves to hate, a genre not to far from the street-speak of new journalism, Cohn spits out his words with a keen sense of rhythm and pacing: “in New Orleans rap”, he quips, “it is a great surprise for anyone to do exactly what they promise. Mañana doesn’t cover it: tomorrow never comes”. Courting cliché like a seasoned rapper, but always alert to the possibility of irony or ambiguity, he describes one of his artists, Jabbo, as “a man of constant sorrow. Women troubles, money troubles, acts of God – though the black dog took many forms, it was always in the prowl”. Cohn’s story is one of almost complete let-down and frustration.

Unlike Alan Lomax, who always somewhat patronisingly thought of himself as an intrepid explorer and discover of hidden treasure, Cohn carries the karma of accumulated white guilt almost too heavily. Describing himself as a “gray-haired scribbler in black suit and hat” and a “half-assed fantasist playing out my senile hunger”, Cohn is the white man as victim of his own misplaced fascination with black culture, bound by his genuine love of the music, but bound also to fail in his quixotic attempt to make it on the music’s own very culture-specific terms.

Cohn’s personal (and slightly tiresome) story of severely halting creative involvement in rap is not as interesting as his often evocative description of New Orleans, “this fucked-up town”, with its “flashes of pagan joy and an incurable melancholy at heart”, and the musicians he meets: Jabbo, Soulja Slim,Choppa, Che, June B and others. Rap, as Cohn points out is “born of rage. The world had its foot on your throat and hip-hop was a howl of defiance”. As he observes, success undermines the “authentic primal roar” which makes for rap gold. Hip-hop is not what it used to be. There has always been posturing, a show of violence as well as its actual manifestation, the play-acting and real stuff both reflections of a deep-seated sense of inferiority. The future, Cohn claims, is “rebellion made family entertainment”: formulaic anger, co-opted by the forces of fashion and economics.

Cohn is, against his own better judgment, something of a purist: seeking the authentic roar, with its roots in the spiritual and ethical quest central to so much African-American (and American) culture, but also because the anguish of hip-hop speaks more plainly to his own despair, the inner waste land of a disenchanted and uprooted Jew from Derry, than anything a white rocker or singer-songwriter might come up with. Lomax, more of a folklorist than a spiritual seeker, enjoyed charting the creolisation of music that grew from New Orleans, and resounded through the South, where Scots-Irish, English, and African cultures mingled so creatively. Cohn is not interested in the sweep of cultural history, but in his own salvation – knowing full well that no such thing exists, and more than content to feel for a few precious moments the tangible magic that a booming bass-line can produce. There is something at once appealing and faintly repulsive about Cohn’s semi-confessional mix of narcissism and self-hate. But there is enough self-knowledge, not least in his playing with the assumed role of “Triksta” one of several masks he dons to smooth his way through the minefield of black racism and mistrust, to make the story more than one-dimensional, and fleetingly inspired.

New Orleans’s attraction for the likes of Lomax and Cohn arises in large part from the city’s continually shifting identity and pre-programmed entropy: a place of incipient decay, caught between worlds and between races, never under the sway of Southern plantocracy, but maintaining links with Africa through the drumming that was permitted within the confines of Congo Square, and the practice of animism and sorcery. Long before Katrina dealt a death-blow to the city, economic forces had almost entirely transformed New Orleans from a living multi-cultural community into something much less appealing, in which the heritage industry struggled on, blind to the ever-increasing poverty and internecine violence of most of the black neighbourhoods. Nik Cohn evokes the endemic murder almost casually, mirroring the black community’s own tragic resignation. And yet, violence and murder are not a recent addition to the New Orleans scene: they are as fundamental to blues and jazz as drugs and collective improvisation. Jelly Roll, as aware as anyone of the seductive power of brutal death, sings a song for Alan Lomax in which a woman threatens: ”I’ll cut your throat, drink your blood like wine” – the swing of black poetry serving the culture’s tortured soul.

Just as Jelly Roll vehemently (and somewhat dishonestly) claimed to have invented scat-singing and jazz, rappers habitually boast about their physical or sexual prowess. The braggadocio serves to hide an almost unbearable vulnerability – the product of a fragile sensitivity crushed by centuries of oppression. It is a miracle that the emotion buried under all of this should still fuel so much creativity, and not all of it bent on murder or misogyny. Cohn realises that no amount of pretending at being “Da Triksta”, unlikely rap impresario from Derry, can save him from the very real distance that his fan’s passion imposes. But, he gets closer, perhaps than many a white writer has done, to the pulse of the African-American heart.