Long before flood waters spilled into New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, an even greater deluge engulfed the region (and beyond).
The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 stretched from New Orleans to Cairo, Ill., killing hundreds, leaving nearly a million without homes and rattling American politics (much as Katrina did).
But the event also had other, less expected consequences. African-American sharecroppers – having lost their livelihoods -- picked up stakes and headed north, particularly to Chicago, deepening the Great Migration and, in effect, changing musical culture in America. For jazz, blues and related genres – which already were thriving here – gained new generations of artists and an enormous new audience, the music developing for decades to come.
It's a fair bet, however, that most of us don't know much about the flood of 1927, except, perhaps, what we encountered in media coverage of Hurricane Katrina a few years ago.
A new film and original jazz score could go a long way to change that. The much admired jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has partnered with filmmaker Bill Morrison for Friday night's Chicago premiere of "The Great Flood," an unconventional documentary with live jazz accompaniment. Rather than tell the tale via talking heads, "The Great Flood" – co-commissioned by Symphony Center with various arts organizations – combines rarely seen historic film footage with new music evoking the period.
In effect, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 will be re-examined via a performance event, with visual revelations promised by the filmmaker.
"It's really spectacular stuff, because it was shot by artists," says director Bill Morrison, referring to Fox Movietone newsreel footage he unearthed. "These guys were given license to shoot film in a very difficult situation, and … they took the opportunity to document (the flood) on a very visceral level."
Some of the footage has decayed somewhat, though Morrison has come to believe that that only adds to the historic power of the film – the sense that a distant event had almost, but not quite, slipped into oblivion.
"The Great Flood" tries to bring it back, with music as a key bridge. Morrison had partnered with guitarist-composer Frisell on many previous projects, but only by using already existing Frisell recordings. This time, the two launched the effort together, Frisell – whose work always has exuded the spirit of Americana – trying to craft new works that evoked the historic time frame without succumbing to it.
"I realized there's no way I could come close" to fully capturing the flavor of 1920s music by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and other jazz giants who migrated from the south to Chicago, says Frisell.
"I didn't want to mimic Robert Johnson or Blind Willie Johnson. So (the music) ended up being way more impressionistic," adds Frisell, of a score developed with bassist-guitarist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and cornetist Ron Miles, who will perform it with him. The historic American sounds are "just so much in my blood, I figured I'll just try to play my own music – it's all in there anyway."
The film unfolds as a series of chapters, or vignettes, each showing a facet of the flood or a particular perspective on it, says Frisell, with his score providing a kind counterpoint. Both he and Morrison were profoundly affected, they say, by a concert tour along the Mississippi River last year that happened to coincide with a new wave of flooding. Unexpectedly, Frisell, Morrison and friends found themselves face-to-face with the real thing.
"We'd see rows of houses, or we'd be driving down a road and then suddenly there was just a river in front of us, and the road was closed – as far as you could see, there was water," notes Frisell in the program notes for the performance. "Actually, when we started that trip, we flew into Memphis, and there was a point when we were landing that it was like flying over Lake Superior or something – it was just a lake as far as you could see. The river had flooded all of this farmland at that time. It was incredible just to feel the power of that, it's so huge … and the idea that man could try to control something like that is kind of absurd."
When Frisell and his quartet perform the film's accompaniment, "It brings back memories of being there," says the guitarist. "Just the smell and the feeling of the humidity in the air, the temperature."
Artists, of course, have been addressing the flood of 1927 for a long time, from Richard Wright's story "Down by the Riverside" and William Faulkner's tale "Old Man" to Randy Newman's song "Louisiana 1927" and uncounted old blues dirges.
"It's pervaded our history for awhile … but I'm not sure young people are aware of it," says Morrison, a former Chicagoan who sees this city as a climactic end point to both the story of the flood and the narrative of his film.
"Chicago is really the endgame of this project, and it's always been conceived that way," he explains. "Not giving too much away, but the film ends with sequences in Chicago. There's a real connection between the Mississippi (River) and Chicago, and I was always hopeful that the film would play there."
How could it not?
"The Great Flood" will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $23-$54; 312-294-3000 or cso.org.
'Our Kind of Tune'
Each year, Chicago's cabaret community comes together to celebrate the art form and itself, both eminently worthy causes. This year's gathering, "Our Kind of Tune," will spotlight an all-star list of performers, including Chicagoan Spider Saloff and veteran singer Marilyn Maye, who will receive awards; plus Anne and Mark Burnell, Joan Curto, Elaine Dame, Elizabeth Doyle, Hilary Feldman, Laura Freeman, Carla Gordon, KT McCammond, Tom Michael, Bob Moreen, Marianne Murphy Orland, Suzanne Petri and Denise Tomasello, with Daryl Nitz hosting and Beckie Menzie as musical director. The festivities begin with a "Cocktail Hour" set at 6:15 p.m. and the main event at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.; $30-$60; 312-409-3106 or chicagocabaret.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.