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A lesser-known influence on jazz music: opera

(SOUNDBITE OF JELLY ROLL MORTON PERFORMANCE OF GIUSEPPE VERDI'S "MISERERE")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And that is Jelly Roll Morton, the jazz legend, playing "Miserere" from the opera "Il Trovatore" for Alan Lomax in 1938. Jazz, of course, is born of the African American experience and draws from musical influences around the world, including opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF JELLY ROLL MORTON'S "JELLY ROLL CARVES SAINT LOUIS")

SIMON: The New Orleans Opera has commissioned a project on the subject of opera and jazz. It's featured on its website, and there you can see videos produced by our pal and former colleague here on Weekend Edition, Gwendolyn Thompkins. She's the host of the public radio program Music Inside Us.

GWENDOLYN THOMPKINS: Hello, Scott. So happy to be with you again.

SIMON: And we're also pleased to welcome Givanna Joseph. She teaches at Loyola University, New Orleans. She is a mezzo soprano singer and founded OperaCreole, a New Orleans-based opera troupe. Thank you for being with us.

GIVONNA JOSEPH: Thank you. I appreciate it. It's wonderful.

SIMON: Gwen, let's begin with you. Jazz and opera - when did it strike you that there was a relationship between these two genres?

THOMPKINS: Jelly Roll Morton - you know, if you know anything about Jelly Roll Morton, and in New Orleans, you just have to, then you know that Jelly Roll spent a lot of his youth at the turn of the last century at the French opera house. And so he even said, you know, I actually cribbed a lot of the arias and I jazzified (ph) them, you know, in my early life. And I think that that's what we were listening to just now. He was playing - originally he was playing "Miserere," you know, from "Il Trovatore," you know, Verdi. And then he jazzed it up.

SIMON: New Orleans, of course - we understand its position as a center of jazz, but opera, too, right?

THOMPKINS: Absolutely. And you know what? New Orleans was the first city to have a full opera season on the North American continent. Givonna Joseph, who we're talking with now, she has done an extraordinary amount of research on all of this for her organization, which is called OperaCreole.

SIMON: And let's turn to you, if we can, Givonna, because your group, as I understand it, presents operas that have been lost or at least rarely performed by composers of African descent. Tell us about some of these works and how this influenced jazz.

JOSEPH: Well, the wonderful thing about New Orleans is that free people of color were in the opera houses participating in, playing in the orchestras. And we have just been a part of this - opera's in our DNA from the very beginning. We had composers like Basile Bares, Edmond Dede, Victor-Eugene McCarty, Charles Lucien Lambert, as we would say, and so many more that contributed to this art form. And we still feel their impact today as OperaCreole performs their music.

THOMPKINS: It's true. And, you know, Scott, have you ever read Louis Armstrong's book about his life in New Orleans? It's just beautifully written. He was a great writer and really a fun writer. And his idols at that time were Enrico Caruso, they were Henry Burr, you know, the Canadian tenor, Amelita Galli-Curci, you know, the Italian coloratura singer. And Armstrong himself played opera every day. He played on the trumpet. He played...

JOSEPH: "Cavalleria Rusticana."

THOMPKINS: There you go.

SIMON: We have some audio of Louis Armstrong. And I'm really intrigued by this because - of course, known for his trumpet work and of course, singing between various stanzas and of course, what we now call scat singing. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, no one to talk with - all by myself. No one to walk with. I'm happy on the shelf. Ain't misbehaving - I'm saving my love. Oh, ba ba da da da da, za zaddie (ph)...

SIMON: Givonna, what do you hear there...

JOSEPH: Yeah (laughter).

SIMON: ...That you think you can also hear in opera?

JOSEPH: Well, you know, this morning I was thinking about the purpose of coloratura in opera.

SIMON: What is coloratura?

JOSEPH: Coloratura is a style of singing - like, people would say - in jazz, might reference this as a run. There's a lot of quick and fast notes that come about as declarative statements. And I was reminded of hearing a jazz musician say that when jazz was formed, in the middle of Jim Crow and all of these things, it was about self-expression. And I started thinking, well, why did opera composers - why did they use coloratura in the voice? And it seemed to me that it was designed for that character to make declarative and specific self-expression moments. And that's what Armstrong does. And that's what the jazz artists do when they take that time on their own to fully...

SIMON: Wow.

JOSEPH: ...Expand on who they are and what they have to say.

SIMON: Why don't we know more about this connection between opera and jazz?

JOSEPH: There's been years of separation, unfortunately. Too much of the idea of opera being this elite thing for only certain people got communicated and miscommunicated. And because those originally classically trained musicians were kind of kicked out of the opera houses during the Jim Crow era, it became separate. And for a while we were not allowed to go. I've read stories of Louis Armstrong sneaking around to doors just to hear rehearsals because he was not allowed to go...

SIMON: Oh, my God.

JOSEPH: ...When he was here in New Orleans. So we had some separation. But we are reclaiming all of these wonderful things and reclaiming what New Orleans opera has meant in my life. So it's a great legacy, and I'm enjoying putting them back together.

THOMPKINS: Well, it is amazing, and I have to say that it takes programs like the New Orleans Opera, which is the organization that asked Music Inside Out, my radio program, to conduct a bunch of interviews, talking about the marriage between opera and jazz - it takes these kinds of organizations to really explore these - you know, these relationships. And without - you know, without smaller opera houses around the nation who are curious and who are trying to get their communities interested and excited about opera, reaching out to - you know, to explore opera's other tangential relationships with other forms of music, then this would all just be a secret, a secret of history.

JOSEPH: Yeah.

SIMON: Givonna, is there more going on today of the forms being mixed in new works or at least revived works, trying to present it to people?

JOSEPH: I was in Pittsburgh. I went to see an opera called "We Shall Not Be Moved" where hip-hop, spoken word, jazz and operatic moments were all combined in this production.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Been brewing since '85, what you thought was dead is...

JOSEPH: So I think people are really looking to honor the way that these things can work together, because it's all about telling stories. Our job is to tell stories.

SIMON: Givonna Joseph, founder of OperaCreole, and our friend Gwen Thompkins, who hosts the public radio program Music Inside Out. Thanks so much to both of you.

JOSEPH: Thank you.

THOMPKINS: Thank you.

JOSEPH: I appreciate it. It's wonderful.

THOMPKINS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JELLY ROLL MORTON'S "JELLY ROLL CARVES SAINT LOUIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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