On how I came to the church of jazz…and a little news about My Morning Jacket
It was 2002, and I’d had enough of post-9/11 life in New York City. I wanted a break, to see trees and water, to be somewhere where I could hear birds flap their wings and crickets chirp.
Let me back up a bit. A friend of mine had, a couple years prior, been in a motorcycle accident outside of New Orleans. The settlement money she picked up afforded her the opportunity to purchase a 1974 Volkswagen Bug (she and the car were the same age) and a good year or so on the road driving around the U.S. She landed in New York City, where the car broke down and had since been in storage at a friend’s house in Queens. When I piped up with my interest in getting the hell out of Brooklyn if only I had a ride, she offered the car to me if I was willing to help put a new engine in it. To that point, my only mechanical prowess consisted of changing the strings on my Alvarez acoustic and finding balance on a PA head by turning little nobs arbitrarily.
I spent the summer of ’02 in a driveway in Queens learning all the various ways a VW engine can be held together with four bolts, and all the ways it could be hacked together – if necessary during my travels – using duct tape, coke cans, and WD-40. Then, in late July or early August (it’s all one big long, hot, sweaty day in Manhattan that time of year), I took off on what was intended to be a three-month tour across the U.S. I was going to land back in Portland, Ore., the town from which I came to New York a year and a half prior. I crammed everything I owned in the back seat. Plugged a CD walkman into the tape deck, following my friend’s orders that I had to start each day with Ani DiFranco’s “Going Once” from To the Teeth. The rest of the time, I tuned into country radio, or drove in silence.
I had one roll of duct tape and one can of WD-40, a wrench, and a copy of Volkswagens for Dummies. The car’s name was Lucie. It had one orange fender.
Six weeks into the trip, I landed in New Orleans, got a couple of parking tickets. Played a show at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse, then headed out to Nashville. I never made it the rest of the way. Lucie broke in Mississippi and I ran out of cash. Went back to New Orleans to get a quick job – something for a couple weeks that could get me back on the road. I wound up being there nine months.
You have to understand I was a folksinger. I’d come up studying classical music and listening to the Billy Joel school of pop. I’d spent my angsty teenage years rocking out to grunge and riot grrl music before finding some kind of something in the accessible narrative verses of Woody Guthrie. I’d never listened to jazz or the blues – both seemed needlessly repetitive and directionless. Needless to say, all that changed.
I got a job in New Orleans as a Hospitality Ranger. I wore bright yellow and carried around a walkie talkie, which I used to say things like “R7 to all rangers. Where’s the best hurricane in town, outside the Quarter?” I was a walking concierge for the city and had to be able to answer any question thrown at me. These would range from “Where’s Bourbon Street?” to “What’s it mean when people say ‘Where y’at’?”
“Where can I hear good live Cajun music?”
“How do you say Tchoupitoulas?”
“What’s a calliope?”
It was my job to learn everything I could about the city, which in New Orleans pretty much amounts to food and music. (Being that this site is about music, I’ll forego telling the story of how many oysters I ate and how much Abita I consumed.) Suddenly, there was a requirement that I know who Louis Prima was, where the Neville Brothers grew up, where Louis Armstrong was shot, what happened in Louis Armstrong Park before it was so named, who was Clifton Chenier, the Marsalis family and the Connicks, Tipitina’s, and on and on.
I didn’t make a lot of music when I was living in New Orleans. Suddenly my focus was not on making a career as a songwriter, but absorbing the gut-twirling pow and pop of a well-blown trumpet. I spent only a couple of nights in Bourbon Street bars finding the scratchy washboard in the mix of the Cajun band onstage and catching ancient blues pianists.Most of my live music experiences were in the Marigny at clubs like the Fat Black Pussycat or the Matador. There was some place in the ninth ward that had a pool table in the middle of the room, another on St. Claude which I think was a pizza place by day. There were a few on Magazine St. way uptown…
I never actually set foot inside Preservation Hall. It’s my one regret, particularly since it burned after Hurricane Katrina. I did, however, wander across a handful of curbside saxophone buskers, and the occasional impromptu second line – a handful of brass players in front, a couple of twirling hangers-on, a booming bass drum bringing up the rear as they turn a corner and head down your block on any given Tuesday afternoon.
But no live music experience in town could possibly compare to that of the marching bands in Mardi Gras parades, the insanity of French Quarter Fest, and the overwhelming comprehension of JazzFest. Particularly sharp in my memory is the latter, where every kind of music imaginable is represented. Exhausted by the heat and crowds, I took a seat on the far bleachers inside the jazz tent one afternoon, and kicked back as artists as variant as local jazz quintets and vocalist Cassandra Wilson blew my mind. Over in the blues tent, bands channeled the likes of Muddy Waters and Lightnin Hopkins, opening my world to those artists and so many more. On the far end of the field, I watched Crosby, Stills & Nash groove through a set, as the opposite stage had Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams. It’s the first venue in which I saw each of those folks for the first time, between crowd-pleasing performances from locals like Bonerama and Rebirth Brass Band.
It’s there where I learned jazz’s deepest secret: that everything is jazz. There’s jazz in the maniacal stage-running of Cowboy Mouth’s lead singer, jazz in Lucinda Williams’ crackling vocals. There’s jazz in the improv guitar riffs of CSN, and from the warbling electricity of Bob Dylan’s keyboard-guitar dialogue.
Jazz is the music of the unexpected. It’s about life’s unpremeditated diversions. As such, you could say, Jazz is the thing which brought me to New Orleans in the first place and the thing which kept me there nine whole months. It’s certainly jazz which prompted me, a few years later, to set aside a lifetime love affair with stringed instruments for a bit to learn how to play the trumpet. I learned jazz from the trumpet the same way I learned the life of a roaming troubadour from playing the guitar. I learned what musicians living in New Orleans know – that the gulf between jazz and the blues, and whatever it is you play, is not as wide as you’d think. In that town, it’s all just music.
But, every song ends, and so did my time in New Orleans. Lucie the VW Bug got towed and auctioned off from the car pound. The drummer hit a rimshot, the horns fanfared, and I eventually boarded a Greyhound to Seattle with my Alvarez acoustic zipped into its softshell case.
I still appreciate the anything-goes of a good jazz riff, though, and I still hear it in every song I love. And I understand why a band like My Morning Jacket would jump at the chance to tour with the Pres Hall guys. I only regret they’re coming nowhere near Seattle.
For those of you back east, though, here are the dates:
Apr. 20 – Birmingham, AL @ Alabama Theater
Apr. 21 – Nashville, TN @ Municipal Auditorium
Apr. 23 – Atlanta, GA @ Chastain Park
Apr. 24 – New Orleans, LA @ Jazzfest
Apr. 27 – St. Augustine, FL @ St. Augustine Amphitheater
Apr. 28 – Charleston, SC @ Family Circle
Apr. 30 – Raleigh, NC @ Koka Booth
May 1 – Columbia, MD @ Merriweather Post Pavilion
May 2 – Columbus, OH @ LC Outdoor Pavilion