Gwen Thompkins

Host of Music Inside Out

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.

Ways to Connect

Deacon John.
Music Inside Out

Deacon John’s mother wanted him to be a singer, but she hated rock ‘n roll.

Oh well. Mrs. Moore’s little boy picked up a guitar, and it wasn’t long before rock ‘n roll came tumbling out.

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.

Allen Toussaint.

This week, we learned that Allen Toussaint died after performing at a concert Monday in Madrid. He was 77 years old. Toussaint had toured extensively since Hurricane Katrina, but he was, in many ways, a reluctant performer. He preferred his life behind the scenes in the studio — writing, producing, and arranging songs. A disciple of Professor Longhair, Toussaint seemed to understand what New Orleans music could do for the world.

Ben Jaffe, Gwen Thompkins and Charlie Gabriel.
Amanda Irizarry / Elephant Quilt Productions

Giants of traditional jazz played here; hell, they still play here: tucked behind walls with a patina worthy of the temple Preservation Hall has been through the years.

The doors opened in 1961. This was to be a sanctuary for America’s original music, born on the banks of the Mississippi. Here, the original sound of jazz would echo down St. Peter Street, even as rock ‘n’ roll swallowed radio.

As a child, Jason Marsalis watched old television shows as much for the music as for anything the characters were doing onscreen.

“I became a big fan of reruns of the tv show, The Monkees,” he tells Gwen. “My father thought it was just hilarious that I was into this. But when I look back on it, that was music from the 1960s.”

(L to R) Crystal Morris, Dr. Valerie Jones, Eldric Bashful, Ebonee Davis, Tyrone Chambers II, Aria H. Mason, Brandon Richardson, Givonna Joseph, Ivan Griffin, (Pianist Wilfred Delphin, not pictured)
Derek Bridges / Flickr via

Givonna Joseph and her New Orleans-based troupe, OperaCreole, tackle some of opera’s most challenging works with gusto, including early compositions written by free people of color in the United States and Europe. So, in addition to Bizet and Puccini and Verdi and Gershwin, OperaCreole gives full attention to composers Andre Ernest Gretry, Edmond Dede, Lucien Lambert and Samuel Snaer, among others.

In doing so, OperaCréole is continuing one of the nation’s longest running opera traditions. New Orleans was home to North America’s first opera house.

Rebirth Brass Band at Underground Arts, 1.11.14
Wendy McCardle /

This is not John Philip Sousa’s band music.

Don’t get us wrong, Sousa is in the pantheon of them-who-haul-brass-through-the-streets, but we suspect the maestro might be surprised by the music today. Which, if you think about it, is good.

Otherwise, there would only be the old-timey brass band idiom and the genre would have lost touch with the people.

Which is precisely where this music has always lived. With military bands and civic orchestras and parades and funerals and weddings, brass band music has always been popular music.

Sweet Crude
Zack Smith

  Onstage, they don’t look like a traditional rock ‘n roll band. Sure, the seven members of Sweet Crude are kinda young and kinda scrawny and their clothes suggest a GAP-meets-Garanimals flare.

But they carry no guitars. Five of them play percussion. And yes, there’s a glockenspiel in the mix.

Sweet Crude sounds different too. They produce a sophisticated mixture of rhythm, classical strings, and musical theater that’s highly danceable and even educational. That’s because the band sings in English and Louisiana French – a language they’re learning on the job.

Luke Winslow-King
Matt Robinson / Elephant Quilt Productions

What do you get when you combine modern jazz, the music of Woody Guthrie, Delta blues, and Antonín Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet?

You get Luke Winslow-King.

Born and raised in Michigan, a crime landed him in New Orleans. But, ever the optimist, Winslow-King decided to stay. Luke Winslow-King’s talent has drawn aggressive praise. One music lover, who was moved to weep while listening, slapped Winslow-King at the end of the song.

Rickie Lee Jones: The Other Side Of Desire

Rickie Lee Jones says she moved to New Orleans, in part, because she wanted to be around people. In Los Angeles, she was mostly around cars.

So far, so good. People from New Orleans — either real or imagined — are all over her latest effort, “The Other Side of Desire.” And one of Jones’ neighbors here even helped inspire a song on the album.