Why Music Matters in City Life
After spending two weeks in the cities that gave birth to jazz (New Orleans), blues (Memphis) and country music (Nashville), I’ve developed a new curiosity for how cities foster and sustain a vibrant music scene.
When I say “vibrant music scene” - I mean more than just a city where a lot of musicians perform. New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville each have neighbourhoods lined with bars playing live music that spills out on to the street, incredibly talented buskers, numerous recording studios, music festivals and an audience that loves and appreciates music (not just the stuff played on Top 40 radio).
How does this happen? How does a city give birth to, or become the centre of, a genre of music and foster creativity and a culture of music lovers?
Of course, much of it has to do with history. New Orleans became home to jazz music in the late 19th century, apparently because it was the only place in the New World where slaves were allowed to own drums. According to New Orleans Online:
VooDoo rituals were openly tolerated, and well attended by the rich as well as the poor, by blacks and whites. It was in New Orleans that the bright flash of European horns ran into the dark rumble of African drums; it was like lightning meeting thunder. The local cats took that sound and put it together with the music they heard in the churches and the barrooms, and they blew a new music, a wild, jubilant music that made people feel alive! It made people get up and dance.
In Memphis, a rockin’ and rollin’ blues scene developed after World War II, as African-Americans left the Mississippi Delta and other impoverished areas of the south for urban centres. Many musicians gravitated to Memphis, such the legendary B.B.King. They performed on Beale Street and recorded some of the classic rhythm and blues and rock & roll records for labels such as Sun Records. Sun Records took these artists outside of Memphis to the mainstream, strongly influencing early rock & rollers like Elvis Presley (who was discovered by execs at Sun Records in 1954). Beale Street is still considered the home of blues, and music spills from the clubs that line the street.
Beale Street: blues bars and hogs
Nashville turned country music into a multimillion-dollar industry when major labels in the city like RCA and Columbia began developing a more pop style of country, known as the ‘Nashville Sound”, and exporting it to the masses. Today, you can walk down a long street called “Music Row” which is home to hundreds of recording studios and music businesses (don’t do it though - it is literally block after block of recording studios and nothing else). The longest running radio show in history, the Grand Ole Opry, also helped broadcast country music across America starting in 1925 by a local radio station. Nashville has its own version of Beale/Bourbon Street on Broadway, lined with country bars where many legendary acts have played.
Grand Ole Oprey: That guy is 92 years old and he can fingerpick like nobody’s business!
Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans all have a deep rooted history of music that is sustained through each city’s support for music festivals, buskers and the creation of music districts. But how can cities create or support a vibrant music scene if they don’t have history on their side?
Where I live in Vancouver, the city was once considered a wasteland for live music. We had archaic liquor laws and a preference for high-rise condos over live music venues, leading to the closing of many of these establishments (Richards on Richards, the Starfish Room, The Yale, and more recently, O’Douls). Thankfully, this is changing with many new live music venues opening up in the Downtown Eastside and a budding indy music scene that includes promising bands like Mother Mother, Said the Whale, Dan Mangan and the New Pornographers.
The City has also become more receptive to live music in public spaces. During the Olympics, you could travel around the city visiting various closed off streets, parks and pavilions to catch a great live band. The City has kept this momentum going with all the live music at its 125th Birthday celebration last year, and its recent decision to move the free performances during the 2012 Jazz Festival from the fringes of the city to the downtown core.
Other cities have come up with various projects to incorporate music into city life. When I was in New York City a few years ago, they placed pianos around Manhattan in public places and at anytime of the day, you would find really talented people playing them. And who could forget those piano stairs in Stockholm?
NYC’s “Play Me: I’m Yours” Project
One of the most memorable moments on my trip down South was walking around the French Quarter at dusk on a warm evening. We passed a civic building on a quiet street and there was a man playing a haunting rendition of “Summertime” on a saxophone - he was really GOOD, like good enough to have an audience that paid money to see him. It was beautiful and inspiring. One of those moments…..I wish every city was full of these moments - where a musician makes you stop in your tracks, pay attention and appreciate.