Reminiscences of New Orleans: New Orleans Music
The Assassins' most recent tour went through New Orleans. I had
not been there in quite some time, and our trip refreshed my
memory. New Orleans is one of my favorite places. Here's why:
My first exposure to New Orleans came in 1979. Two members of
my first band lived there for a number of years; we hoped that their
connections would help us find enough work to pay for a trip to see
the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It wasn't
necesssary 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/she might like to visit the town. Mardi Gras IS
amazing. It is the kind of spectacle that is worth the enormous effort.
But it is thoroughly exhaustingQ as much pure work as vacation.
The city is jammed, traffic is unbelievable, prices are jacked up, and
the "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 culture. There is music EVERYWHERE, and
enough people to support it.
Our trip was planned and we made the drive. We visited the Jazz
Festival, wandering around the racetrack facility gaping at the
plethora of great bands. We saw Fess (Professor Longhair) and his heir
apparent James Booker - "The Piano Prince of New Orleans".* [*A
genius of the New Orleans style, Booker died a few years ago, his
body exhausted from years of alcoholism and heroin addiction.] We
saw "Ironing Board Sam" play underwater (his then-current
gimmick), and some Gospel Choirs that seemed to shake the earth.
We played at The Maple Leaf Bar, opening for The Radiators.*
[*The Radiators are still around, and finally have an LP on a major
label. It is called "Law of the Fish" and is on CBS. They have always
referred to their music as "Fish Head Music."]
We jammed with the Radiators, and got to know "L'il Queenie and
the Percolators", one of the funkiest Rock'n'Roll bands to ever play on
a stage. I met their drummer, Kenneth Blevins. Kenneth is one of the
baddest living drummers, and now plays with John Hiatt, The
Mamas and the Papas (!), and New Orleans mambo-king John
Mooney. I was and continue to be heavily influenced by him.
We jammed all over town. One night, after viewing my attempt
at the New Orleans "second line" style of drumming, and finding out I
was not a New Orleans native, a local promoter took me to see The
Meters, and introduced me to (Funk Master) drummer Joseph
"Zigaboo" Modeliste thusly:
"This is Brian. He's a drummer too, and a Baaad
I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Most people think New Orleans Music is Dixieland. That's not
really true today. I think the stereotype of New Orleans as the
birthplace of Jazz is true enough, and indeed, Dixieland was THE
happening music in the twenties, but it is as much an anachronism
there as anywhere. There IS plenty of Dixieland to be heard in New
Orleans, but (with the exception of the famous Preservation Hall) it is
played in the tourist trap joints of the French Quarter, for people
who want to hear "New Orleans Music" in between visits to Jackson
Cathedral and the Superdome.
The great New Orleans musicians have left a legacy that continues
to evolve. Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith, James
Booker, The Meters (and their modern incarnation Neville Bros. - the
current Kings of New Orleans Music), and perhaps the greatest of all
New Orleans musicians: Professor Longhair. These are but a few.
Their music has always been very syncopated; funky. The drums
being the major source of the unique rhythms has caused New
Orleans drumming to be unique and alive. There is nothing like it.
As a young drummer on his first road trip, I was thrilled.
Thrilled to hear this drumming and to get to know some of the
players. I found out that "The Quarter" was not hip, but that the
Maple Leaf Bar was. The Maple Leaf is the grandaddy of New Orleans
music clubs. Nowhere near The Quarter, it is uptown (where many
of the "real" 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 pressed tin and are painted red. They
form an ornate pattern that disappears after a certain amount of
alcohol. Imagine what a band in a long narrow room lined with tin
sounds like. But it doesn't matter. The place is RIGHT. The patio out
back is overgrown with tropical plants. There is a little seafood joint
next door, where one can buy a Po-Boy sub or a pound of crawfish to
eat in the bar. There is also a laundramat, or rather, a few washing
machines and dryers. Go to the bar, drink (locally brewed) Dixie
Beer, eat crawfish, and do your laundry. I think this is more of a
"New Orleans experience" than catching a plastic necklace thrown
from a float in a Mardi Gras Parade.
Our trip was low budget; bohemian. The kind I no longer have the
energy for. We slept on the floor of the shotgun house where one of
The Percolators lived. A shotgun house is so-called because it is long
and very narrow. There is no floor plan, only 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. They are a common sight.
I have been back to New Orleans three times since then, visiting
Mard Gras in 1981, again in '82, and this most recent visit with The
Assassins. This time, I felt the sense of legitimacy that comes with
experience. The Assassins were booked at the main showcase club,
Tipitina's, a place where I had gone and danced, and listened until I
could no longer stand (I once saw the Nighthawks, Neville Bros. and
Etta James there - in ONE NIGHT! Etta James didn't even start until
I have since assimilated the "second line" style, and did a long
drum solo in that style during Jimmy Thackery's song "Too Tall to
Mambo". To play for those people, in that unique and generally
unknown style was a thrill in itself. New Orleans is the only place
IN THE WORLD where second line is the normal thing. I was even a
little nervous. It was fine though; the crowd embraced it and danced
right on through.
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 Volkswagens. Many who live or have lived
there view it as a gilded cage; it's easy to stay and accomplish
nothing. There is serious racial tension, and the Police are World
Famous for being, um, "non-merciful"...But the Music. That's it.
There's a line in The Meter's song "Hey Pocky Way": "Feel Good
Music...I been told...Good for your Body...Good for your Soul."
Anyone who loves music owes it to themselves to investigate New
Orleans Music. It is a unique and wonderful style.
[Hope y'all enjoyed this, or at least found it in some way interesting.]