ruth be told, I'm no expert concerning New Orleans or its native culture. But I can state without hesitating it is one of my favorite places. Here's why:
My first exposure to this fascinating musical Mecca came in 1979. Two members of my first band had lived there and had enough connections to book a few gigs, enough to pay for a trip to the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
It wasn't necessary to play AT the festival (an impossible feat for a new band); our goal was to pay for the trip. It would be fun.
Mardi Gras is New Orleans' most famous event; when the average tourist thinks he or she might like to visit. Mardi Gras is an amazing spectacle, but it is thoroughly exhaustingas much pure work as vacation. The city is jammed, traffic is unbelievable, prices are jacked up, and a "war zone" attitude prevails. Mardi Gras is worth seeing, but it is not really a good way to try to experience New Orleans. It overwhelms the city; a caricature of culture.
The Jazz Festival, on the other hand, still works as a celebration of New Orleans music and culture. There is live music everywhere, plenty of people to pay to see it, but not so many that the city is choked to its limits. The Spring weather is nicer than the earlier Mardi Gras and the full flower of the local culture is on display with, um, robust enthusiasm.
Many people think current New Orleans Music is traditional Jazz (also known as "Dixieland"), which isn't true. The stereotype of New Orleans as the birthplace of Jazz is true enough, and indeed, today's traditional style was the happening Jazz in the 1920's. But today, at least inthe sense of it being "current" music, is as much an anachronism there as anywhere. There is plenty of traditional Jazz to be heard in New Orleans, but (with the exception of the famous Preservation Hall) it is played largely in French Quarter tourist traps, for people who want to squeeze in some "New Orleans Music" between visits to Jackson Square and the Superdome.
Modern New Orleans music is a unique syncopated, funky attitude. It is the result of the centuries of African, Caribbean, Latin and Acadian influences, blessed with purely American influnces: Jazz, Blues, Brass Bands, Rock and Funk.
The great New Orleans musicians have left a legacy that continues to evolve. A legion of great musicians cut their chops there: Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Zutty Singleton, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, The Meters (and their modern incarnation Neville Brothersthe current Kings of New Orleans funk), and perhaps the greatest of all New Orleans musicians: Louis Armstrong and Professor Longhair. This is only a fraction of a list of course.
New Orleans has spawned some of the greatest American drummers. Their style of playing is unique and alive, and exists in any density only there. Consequently, generations of New Orleans drummers have grown up with the knowledge passed to them, watching and learning from great, if unknown, masters.
And we were going there.
Our trip was planned; we made the 20-hour drive in our singer's oversize Buick station wagon. We visited the Jazz Festival, wandering around gaping at the plethora of great bands. We saw Fess (Professor Longhair) and piano wizard James Booker"The Piano Prince of New Orleans."
A genius of the New Orleans style, Booker was known to perform brilliantly if it was his choosing, and decidedly not so if annoyed. We made special effort to see him play at a few other venues, one gig being marred by the unruly Booker, angry with the club owner, refusing to play more than a few songs.
Though he died in 1983, his body exhausted from years of alcoholism and heroin addiction, his recorded work is available, though it is not a mass market commodity. (If you can't find Booker's records, you can easily find CD's by his wildly successful protegé Harry Connick Jr.)
As a young drummer on his first road trip, I was agog. We saw the legendarily-eccentric Ironing Board Sam play "underwater" in a 1500 gallon aquarium, and some Gospel Choirs that seemed to shake the earth. I was captivated by the unique drumming and lucky for the chance to get to know some of the players. Since a couple of us were former members of the New Orleans musical community, I was introduced around and given the first-timer's tutorial about music in Crescent City.
I learned "The Quarter" isn't cool, and the Maple Leaf Bar is. The Maple Leaf is the grandaddy of New Orleans music clubs, "the oldest continuously-operating nightclub in New Orleans outside of the French Quarter." Nowhere near the French Quarter, it is 'uptown' in Carrollton (where many of the hipper clubs are found) on Oak St. The Maple Leaf was a drug store at the turn of the century. The original walls and ceiling are there; they are made of ornately pressed tin and are painted fire engine red. The acoustics of a long narrow room lined with tin are horrible beyond description, but it doesn't matterthe place is perfect. (Photos in this paragraph by Jim Rees.)
When we visited in 1979, the patio out back was overgrown with tropical plants, and there was a little seafood joint next door where one could buy a Po-Boy sub or a pound of crawfish to eat in the bar. Another room contained a few washing machines and dryers. If one hungers for a "New Orleans experience," eating crawfish and drinking locally-brewed Dixie beer while doing laundry in the Maple Leaf is more on the mark than catching a plastic necklace thrown from a float in a Mardi Gras Parade.
We played the Maple Leaf, opening for some friends of my bandmates, The Radiators. 'The Rads' have since released major-label recordings and acquired a nationwide following to match. Though they were popular at the time they had many miles to travel before this success would find them. Both groups played that night for the same 100 people at the Maple Leaf.
The following afternoon we jammed in a garage with the Radiators. I learned their leader Eddie Volker wrote songs by the hundreds, and had them all recorded and stashed on cassette tapes. Also in the garage was the now-defunct L'il Queenie and the Percolators. (A bit of trivia: Radiator guitarist Dave Malone and Percolator guitarist Tommy Malone are brothers. They are from from Edgard Louisiana, where their roots extend back many generations. After Tommy left the Percolators, he achieved some measure of success by leaving New Orleans for Colorado, where he bacame a founding member of The Subdudes.)
The Percolators ultra-funky drummer was one Kenneth Blevins. Kenneth's long career extends beyond such diverse talent as New Orleans mambo-king John Mooney, John Hiatt, the Mamas and the Papas and country star Don Williams. In the late 1990's Kenneth and Tommy reunited to form a funky rock and roll band they called tiny town, but the project ultimately disbanded. Such are the twists and turns of the music business. Kenneth's version of the "second line,"a mainstay of New Orleans style so named due to its association with marching in parades, the drums typically second after the trombonesopened my eyes wider than manhole covers. I got to discuss it with him during a late-night, post-gig breakfast at one of the Quarter's 24-hour restaurants, Lucky Pierre's. (Also in attendance were other Percolators, and a favorite of the New Orleans scene, Austin Texas' Marcia Ball.)
We jammed all over town. I sat in during a jam session at a local oyster bar, and tried my hand at this foreign music. After viewing my naive attempt at second line style, and learning I was not from New Orleans, local music promoter Rickie Castrillo took me under his wing to another bar to see the Meters, the breakthrough group who first played New Orleans funk on a mass scale. Rickie introduced me to the Meters' master drummer, Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, thusly:Ziggy, this is Brian. He's a drummer too, and a Baaad Mother******!
Suffice it to say I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Our trip was low budget; bohemian. We ate Manuel's Hot Tamales sold from a cart on Charles Street and slept on boxsprings on the floor of the shotgun house where one of the Percolators (and two of the future Subdudes) lived. A shotgun house is a common sight in Carrollton. So-called because it is long and narrow, one room connected to the next in a straight line. One could fire a shotgun in the front door, and the blast would come out the back. This style house, frequently utilized as plantation slave quarters, characterized the city's poorer neighborhoods at the turn of the century.
I have been back to New Orleans three times since that first road trip, visiting Mardi Gras in 1981 and 1982, and a 1987 tour with (my then full-time band) The Assassins. Only on the 1987 tour did I feel any sense of the legitimacy of experience. The Assassins were booked at New Orleans' premier showcase club, Tipitina's, a place where I had danced and listened until I could no longer stand. (The weekend before Mardi Gras 1981, the bill included the Nighthawks, Neville Brothers and Etta Jamesin ONE NIGHT. Etta James didn't even start until 5AM!)
Today, my ability to play New Orleans second line and mambo styles has come a long way from the wide-eyed 1979 version, or the more experienced 1987 version for that matter. But in 1987 I had enough to solo in that style during Jimmy Thackery's "Too Tall to Mambo." New Orleans being the only place in the world where second line and mambo are normal, I was nervous. But the crowd embraced it and danced right on through. To play that club, for those people, in that style was (unbeknownst to me at the time) a very special career milestone.
Of course, like any American city, New Orleans has its ups and downs. It is cold and wet in the winter, hotter than Satan's Sauna in the Summer, and the cockroaches are as big as Volkswagons. Many who live or have lived there view it as a gilded cage; it's easy to stay and accomplish nothing. There is extreme poverty and serious racial tension (witness the election of white supremecist David Duke as State Representative from Metairie, a New Orleans suburb).
But the Music. That's it. There's a couple lines in the Meter's song Hey Pocky A-Way:Feel Good Music... In Your Soul... Makes your body... Want to rock 'n' roll...
Anyone who loves music owes themselves a trip to New Orleans to investigate these unique artists, and their wonderful style.
© Copyright 1988-2006 by Brian S. Alpert.
All Rights Reserved.