Dr. John on New Orleans and the Spirit of Satchmo
Photo by Jeremy Gaunt
Dr. John has been playing New Orleans jazz, blues, voodoo rock, what have you, since the late 1950s. Now, at the age of 74, he reckons it is touch-and-go whether that special Big Easy culture and sound he so loves will continue. It’s all due to Katrina.
Speaking before a gig at the Barbican Centre, part of the EFG London Jazz Week, the musician says that the Lower Ninth Ward of the city — which he clearly saw as the crucible of New Orleans creativity — is essentially no more. Nine years of rebuilding have passed it by in favour of wealthier, more gentrified areas, leaving the community of folks like Fats Domino still wrecked by Hurricane Katrina’s fury.
“That’s sad to me,” Dr. John says. “That area was a breeding ground for so much. It’s on … the edge. People have always had good spirit. If they can survive in a time like this, that would be good. But it could go this way, it could go that way.”
The good doctor — a.k.a Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, a.k.a. The Nite Tripper — was talking to me ahead of a concert in which another New Orleans great, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, was to feature strongly. Nearly all the performance was taken from Dr John’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat … Spirit Of Satch album, an eclectic interpretation of songs played by Armstrong rather than a tribute.
It was all Armstrong’s idea, Dr John said, something you are tempted to believe given his canes covered in voodoo charms (or at least what an Englishman takes to be voodoo charms). “He came to me in a dream. He said, ‘Do my music, but do it your way’,” he explained.
The band, led by music director and trombonist Sarah Morrow, hit its stride about halfway through the concert with a powerfully bluesy rendition of the spiritual “Motherless Child,” and rounded it off towards the end with a voodoo rock version of the New Orleans anthem “When The Saints Go Marching In” — a world away from its traditional rendition.
Very few of the songs sound like anything Satchmo would have done. They are most definitely Dr John. But Armstrong would probably approve. “I met him two or three times,” Dr John told me. “He was a very funny guy. He always had a good sense of humor.”