Gwen Thompkins

Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.

Sweet Crude, a six-piece band from New Orleans, combines English and Louisiana French, a dialect that has evolved over hundreds of years, mostly in southern Louisiana. The band's percussive sound is the result of classical training and youthful enthusiasm.

Sometimes, even when you think you have everything perfectly planned out, life can be unpredictable. New Orleans artist Maggie Koerner wasn't looking for a career in music; in fact, she was on her way to getting her master's in child psychology.

Pope John XXIII said such nice things to her. The National Baptist Convention was no less captivated, as were the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of black and white bishops and preachers and worshippers worldwide. The King and Queen of Denmark wanted more. So did the Empress of Japan, four U.S. presidents, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, broadcaster Studs Terkel, the City of New Orleans, Ed Sullivan and James Baldwin, among others.

Each year, Quint Davis commissions two aerial photographs of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival's massive operation at the Fair Grounds Race Course in Mid-City. The first is a still life: Passels of white tents and purple, green and gold bleachers are easily visible in the frame, grass is still growing in front of the food booths and the stages look quiet. The outside track encircling the field is, if not pristine, nearly so.

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.

This essay is one in a series celebrating women whose major contributions in recording occurred before the time frame of NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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It's somehow fitting that a biography of Sarah Vaughan would emerge during the centennial of Ella Fitzgerald. That's been Vaughan's story from the get go. The brilliance of her instrument was, is and ever shall be compared to Fitzgerald's — the First Lady of Song, the darling of rhythm, the swinging-est singer on record.

Sometime around the 11th century, Western composers began to make room on the page for a new kind of sound. These notes would fall outside the key of a piece of music — generally a half-step higher or a half-step lower. They could even sound like a mistake. And that's how accidentals were born.

This week, the 77-year-old New Orleans songwriter, producer and arranger Allen Toussaint died after a concert in Madrid. For most of his career, Toussaint preferred working behind the scenes, but our friend Gwen Thompkins met him at a time when he'd thrown himself into performing extensively around the world. Before they parted ways for what would be the last time, Toussaint gave Thompkins a gift: a demo recording of a song he never got to release, but said he wanted the world to hear.

There are a lot of stories to tell about New Orleans.

There are uplifting stories about new houses, new shops and gigantic drainage projects. There are melancholy stories about everything residents lost in Hurricane Katrina, about all that can never be recovered. There are stories about all that remains to be done, 10 years after the hurricane and the levee failures.

And, throughout it all, there are love stories.

Want to hear one?

'It Was Still Mardi Gras'

From what people remember, he fell like a tree. Malcolm X — all 6 feet, 4 inches of him — had taken a shotgun blast to the chest and a grouping of smaller-caliber bullets to the torso while onstage at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights on Feb. 21, 1965. After a ghastly moment of stasis, he careened backward. His head hit the floor with a crack.

A detail that witnesses often omit, in part because it seems more of an afterthought given the circumstances, is that Malcolm X never got to say what he'd gone to the Audubon Ballroom to say.

Did you know that John F. Kennedy was a Republican? Neither did I. But that's what one of my college students guessed in a course on news writing. I asked another kid what period followed the Industrial Age and she said, "The Golden Age?" We moved on.

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