Letter to the editor: Claiborne Williams' Jazz Legacy

Staff Writer
Donaldsonville Chief
A shot of Claiborne Williams, which stands in the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville.

To the Editor of the Donaldsonville Chief:

The blindsided idea of tearing down Claiborne Williams’ house recalls what Gunther Schuller, late of New England Conservatory, spoke in 1983: “The general public’s ignorance of (jazz) is a national disgrace. It is a sad fact that this music, which now embraces an almost century-old tradition…is unknown and non-existent for the vast majority of Americans.”

Williams not only “played” with the St. Joseph Brass Band; he became its leader at the age of 18, when the band had existed for at least 10 years. He played with at least four different bands around D’ville and organized D’ville’s first Mardi Gras parade, in 1907. He appeared regularly during grinding seasons. As bandleader for the nationally known Billy Kersands’ Minstrels, Williams toured Canada and Europe. For decades, he led bands and taught hundreds of students, both black and white, around D’Ville. His students included Oscar “Papa” Celestin, who would go on to lead New Orleans’ great Tuxedo Brass Band, with which Louis Armstrong played.

Mr. Williams’ house is about to crumble into dust. Louis Armstrong’s Perdido Street home went down to the wrecking ball. Joe “King” Oliver’s Abend shack has vanished into history. To tear down Williams’ home is to further bury the legacy of River Road music—which includes Celestin, Oliver, Edward “Kid” Ory, George “Pops” Foster, Dave Nelson, Richard M. Jones, “Papa” John Joseph, Dave Bartholomew, Plas Johnson, and other American jazz icons, many of whom played with or learned from Claiborne—a “musician’s musician.”

It has been said that dance is music made visual. I would suggest that, rather than a “bunch of chaotic noise,” jazz is freedom made audible. In its joy, creativity, virtue, vision and community, jazz music embodies the essence of American culture—democracy itself. As an old music teacher of mine had it, in jazz, “Everybody is playing a different song, but everybody is playing the same song”: Out of many, one. E Pluribus Unum.

Our American flag waves not just for the battles we fought, but for the “Big Noise” we blew.

Peter Gerler

Newton, Mass.