Since I’ve started this blog, I have had chances to visit Chicago and Memphis, two cities that are viewed as “music cities:”
And I just recently came back from a third: New Orleans.
The so-called Big Easy has music in its blood. There, you’ll see impromptu groups of teen-age boys playing horns on street corners. The city’s famous brass bands play picnics, carnivals, street fairs, parades, even funerals. Considered by many as the “birthplace of jazz,” the city was home to many of that genre’s most famous figures: trumpeter Louis Armstrong, saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, cornet player and bandleader King Oliver, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton and, more recently, the Marsalis family.
And not just jazz. Fats Domino was a key figure in early rock-and-roll. The Meters were important trailblazers in funk music. And Master P and Lil Wayne have helped give the Crescent City a hip-hop heritage.
The city is also known as the birthplace of “sludge metal,” a slow-tempo, pessimistic form of heavy metal played by groups such as Acid Bath and Crowbar that draws from southern sock, hardcore punk, grunge and stoner rock, among other forms.
And the trumpeter-trombonist Trombone Shorty is mixing several genres to present a New Orleans style sound that is becoming more and more popular around the country.
With all of these different genres, what makes up the New Orleans sound? I figured that New Orleans saxophonist Khris Royal of Dark Matter could answer that question better than I. I talked to him in the city’s Frenchman Street music district:
But the first music I had actually heard on this trip to New Orleans was not from a local performer. It was from Toronto-born rhythm-and-blues singer Melanie Fiona, who gave a private, up-close-and-personal concert to the National Association of Black Journalists, then holding its annual convention in New Orleans. The conference was the reason I was in town.
Fiona whetted my appetite for live music with performances like this:
A few hours later, I learned from locals that you can find a venue for live music practically anywhere in New Orleans. Still, the city has certain districts that are literally packed with clubs frequently so close together that often music from one bleeds into another.
My hotel was in walking distance of Frenchman Street (well, a fairly long walk to there!) and Bourbon Street, another popular music district.
Part of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street attracts tourists who like its bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and wild,seemingly out-of-control atmosphere.
Located just outside of the French Quarter, Frenchman Street is a somewhat more subdued two-block concentration of music clubs, restaurants, shops and bars that stretches from Esplanade Avenue to the Gentilly Neighborhood. Two of the city’s better known performance venues, Snug Harbor and the Maison, sit on Frenchman Street, which in general seems to attract a college-age crowd.
Drummer Walter Allen, whose Wa Wa Band regularly plays The Beach nightclub on Bourbon, said Bourbon clubs in general pay better than those on Frenchman Street.
However the Bourbon bands are under more intense pressure to attract customers, he said. “Once the register stops ringing they’re going to put someone else in your place who makes the register ring,” he said.
Keeping tourists in mind, Bourbon clubs encourage their bands to stick to popular cover songs, he said. And over the years , certain genres have come and gone. First, it was rhythm and blues and Motown, he said. In the air now is contemporary rock.
Musicians playing Frenchman Street earn a living—but not as much of one, he said. Still, he said, they have more artistic freedom. “On Frenchman Street, you can play your music,” he said.
Like a lot of New Orleans residents, many musicians found themselves unable to return home when Hurricane Katrina hit in August, 2005.
Russell Batiste, Jr., drummer for the Funky Meters, was wrapping up a long tour and anticipating the trip home when the hurricane hit. He ended up living in Dallas for a year.
“I was on tour with this band Bonerama (a funk/rock brass band based in New Orleans), we were out for about a month or so, something like that,” recalled Batiste, part of a well-known New Orleans musical family. “And the hurricane hit just about the end of our tour, about the last few days of our tour, and I’m sitting in my hotel room looking at the TV and seeing people stranded and all of that stuff they kept showing over and over—it was un-fucking-believable—and that’s when the panic may have started setting in. ‘Where’s my family? Where’s my mom. Where’s my people at? How am I going to see them? How am I going to get back to my family?’ That didn’t happen for a while. Until they cleared things out in the city of New Orleans, we weren’t able to come back.”
Allen recalled that, after Katrina struck, many musicians evacuated to the Louisiana Superdome (now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome), infamous during those days for harrowing conditions suffered by hurricane survivors. Afterwards, many traveled to Austin, Texas, he said.
Allen fled Katrina for the Texas-Arkansas border for a couple of days, then traveled to Tallahassee, Florida where he received word of how flooded New Orleans was. He lived in Tallahassee for eight months, he said.
Allen said he wishes he had gone to Austin. “They gave a lot of guys work,” he said. In contrast, Tallahassee was difficult for a musician who favors blues, R&B and classic rock. A college town, it was full of musicians who played gospel or "progressive" rock, he recalled. “We don’t play Green Day and Nickelback and stuff like that,” he said.
Moreover, getting the help he needed—vouchers for food and clothing and other assistance—was a “slow process” in Florida.
Many musicians returning to New Orleans found life difficult, he said. Rents had doubled and sometimes even tripled from what they had been before Katrina. And there were not that many gigs, he said.
Some musicians died from strokes and heart attacks, said Allen, attributing the deaths to post Katrina stress. “These were guys that I knew, that, before Katrina, they were fine,” he said. “They were here one day and gone the next.”
But he said he was glad to see some people making special efforts to help musicians.
For example, a group of displaced New Orleans musicians formed the New Orleans’ Musician’s Relief Fund, which provided grants, instruments and other assistance to musicians.
And, buoyed by support from native musical celebrities such as Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., Habitat for Humanity created Musicians Village, a development of 72 homes anchored around a multi-million dollar performance/musical education center named for jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis.
“It was a good idea, ‘cause they’re helping musicians own homes, not just rent a place,” Allen said of Musicians Village.
Allen said the current trends he sees on Bourbon Street--the extra pressure on musicians to draw patrons, the emphasis on rock covers over other forms of music--have nothing to do with Katrina.
He said his Wa Wa band plays everything. When I saw the group, it was playing the R & B oldie “Drowning in the Sea of Love” by Joe Simon:
Other bands on Bourbon were also playing rhythm and blues. Up the block, for example, the Ka-Nection band was playing Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ For Jamaica” to a packed house at the Fat Catz music club:
And at Bourbon Live, the group BRW was performing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
Elsewhere on Bourbon Street, a 61-year-old trumpeter who calls himself Steamboat Willie was playing a more traditional style at a club called the New Orleans Musical Legends Park. What I heard from him was like this video someone else recorded of him about two years ago:
Like Royal, Steamboat Willie talked about the New Orleans sound and what made it unique. He also spoke with me about his own life as a musician:
Steamboat Willie also talked about the workings of New Orleans music communities, including Bourbon Street and Frenchman Street:
Allen said that the musicians who regularly play Bourbon frequently test themselves by sitting in with bands on Frenchman. “I pretty much use Frenchman to gauge my individual talent,” he said. “’Where am I with this guy? Where am I with that guy? I like this guy’s style. Can I incorporate this guy’s style?’ And that’s what I do.”
Keyboardist/guitarist David Stocker frequently plays clubs on Frenchman Street. In this interview, among many other things, he talks about what it’s like to play the district on a night when there's a band playing almost every ten feet. We also talked about "Treme," the HBO show that depicts New Orleans' musical community after Katrina:
One of the better known clubs on Frenchman Street is the Blue Nile. It was there that I met Khris Royal. Being from Washington, I was tickled to hear his band play a set of D.C. Go-Go music:
At the Maison—also located on Frenchman Street—Ashton Hines and the Big Easy Brawlers appeared to be generating a lot of excitement in a near-capacity crowd made up of college-age kids:
From a musical point of view, my only disappointment was not catching a zydeco show. Well, maybe next time....