My excuse for not posting for a month is a good one. I was travelling in places where the internet was bad and where the music was just too good to sit around posting stuff. I refer to New Orleans, Crescent City, Jazz City, The Big Easy or as the locals say, ‘NOLA’. We had been planning a reunion with our American based family for some while when my son said, ‘we have to go to New Orleans, and without further ado he organised it’. It’s a no brainer for a Jazz writer and in fact for anyone who wants to understand musical evolution. Almost everything we call modern music emanated from that steamy delta city, a place where happenstance and oppression caused cultures to collide.
Louisiana was once the home of the Choctaw, Natchez, Atakapa, Caddo, Houma and Tunica, the first nation peoples, but after colonisation it was French, then Spanish, French again (almost German or British) and finally after the Louisiana Purchase, a part of the United States of America. It was the greatest real estate bargain of all time and it happened because Napoleon was broke (it was a wonderful bargain unless you were Indian, creole, or a slave). Today it is a place where the old music lives on in its original forms and if you look beyond the lights of Bourbon Street, you realise, that what began in Congo Square lives on; it is the Buddy Bolden, King Oliver gig; a hundred years along the road and the bands are still marching to those hypnotic voodoo beats.
We began our journey in San Francisco and had a few days to spare before heading south. I checked out the S. F. Jazz offerings and spotted the name, Carmen Lundy. We booked immediately. The show was at the San Francisco Jazz Centre and it lived up to expectations. Hers is the Jazz of the deep south and her voice overflows heartfelt soulfulness. Carmen Laretta Lundy was born in Miami which is east of New Orleans across the Gulf of Mexico (Cecile Mclorin Salvant comes from nearby well). ‘Hi y’all, are you ready’ said Lundy and from that moment the southern vibe was locked-in ready for the trip ahead. She has variously been compared to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin and all of those comparators are accurate. She is also noted for her ability to cut through to diverse audiences. She performed no standards, but sometimes referenced them as her voice moved through the styles with ease; then she just as quickly she would reference gospel blues and in a way that brought a lump to the throat. She had a recent New Zealand visitor Terreon Gully in her band (a powerhouse drummer). He sends his greetings to his Kiwi Jazz friends.
Lundy has always attracted the best musicians and this band was no exception. A few albums ago she had Geri Allen on piano, on the next album Patrice Rushen. As we travelled to the airport next day I heard an unmistakable bassline and double-clap emanating from the car radio. Wow, I said to the driver, they’re playing ‘Forget me Not’ by Patrice Rushen. It’s just been re-released he told me. There on local Jazz radio was the gifted Jazz pianist who for a brief time blazed across the firmament as a disco-funk diva. Check it out, black disco-funk, Patrice Rushen.
I had been suffering from a bad cold and so I planned an early night. It had taken over four hours to fly down to NOLA and on US domestic flights four hours in the air requires stoicism and lots of Vicodin. Our brains were also stupefied after watching days of congressional impeachment hearings (why you may well ask). It was winter in the North and not winter in the South. We arrived in the French Quarter just on nightfall and within minutes all ideas of an early night evaporated. The street music was seeping under the door and when the voodoo beat calls there is no option but to rise up and follow. Outside the hotel and almost invisible in the shadows, an old guy played a sad delta blues, along Royal Street a brass-heavy ensemble testified and around the corner skinny kids were playing on makeshift drums. The combined effect was hypnotic, and it gave us a taste of the heady stew that is NOLA. Throughout the next day, we discovered the food; cornbread, grits, gravy, gumbo, jambalaya, collard greens, Beignets and my guilty favourite; Southern Fried Chicken. I was definitely going to add some weight in that town; and as for Beignets, well imagine a pillow fight in an icing sugar factory and as a forfeit, you are made to eat crunchy crusty doughnuts.
On the second night, we found Frenchman Street. I had previously asked musician friends where we should go to hear the best music. ‘Just head up to Frenchman Street and follow your ears’ was the advice. Frenchman Street and not Bourbon Street is where the best music happens (although the daytime street musicians in the Quarter can be amazing as well). As you near Frenchman Street the music grabs you, amplifies and intensifies until it reaches crazy. You turn into the sound and are confronted by a special kind of mayhem. Bar after bar and the music spilling onto the pavements and fighting for supremacy. Pure New Orleans Jazz (and real old school), New Orleans funk, washboard blues; songs by WH Handy, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima or Henry Red Allen and everyone wailing and thumping. It was vibrato rich, the horns played licks as filthy as swamp mud; the brass players whooping as they shook off the ‘dirt’ and all of it floating joyously above a seething dancing throng. On the street corners, attractive dancers held out buckets, strutting their stuff while just behind them, Second Line Parades formed. Call and response while the drums roiled the air with heart-stopping polyrhythmic beats. To experience that was really something. This is where it all began, and this is where the flame burns purest.
I was also amazed by the funk units with those pumping groove lines; three drummers, percussion, horn-heavy, organ, guitar and always an e-bass, leading with a groove like a prizefighter, landing killer blows. The received wisdom is that James Brown invented funk, but New Orleans funksters tell another story, ‘Yes, brother Brown nailed that mother down, but it took a third drummer from NOLA to get it just right’. I was informed (correctly it appears) that funk was recorded in NOLA long before JB recorded and the evidence is there for anyone to check out.
I must also mention Congo Square. For those who love music and who understand the history, going there is akin to visiting an atmospheric cathedral. This is where the Spanish slave masters reluctantly ‘allowed’ their slaves to play music and dance. The slaves and Creoles responded with an inestimable gift to the future, the creation of modern music. Here, traditional African rhythms met European melody and civil war musical instruments were bent to new uses. It is a silent place now, surrounded by mature Live Oaks, each tree trailing dreamy sprays of Spanish moss while around the edges, statues of the luminaries like Louis Armstrong look benignly on.
That New Orleans happened at all is a miracle, as it’s an unsuitable site for any settlement. It has defied calamity after calamity and yet it survives, and at its heart, the Mississippi barges and the paddle boats ply their trades. On a calm day, the mighty river looks benign but the threatening waters wait patiently, and alligators and cottonmouth vipers wait in the bayous. Five pumps and a few meagre levies are all that protect it, but barely. The cities inhabitants were appallingly treated during Katrina and the federal authorities nearly closed the city for good. Indeed, they tried, but back the inhabitants came, and all the while the music played on.