Robert Doerschuk- Glitter and Glue – the everyday players who bind New Orleans music together all have their own ways of dealing with hard times in the Big Easy.
We all know well the trials that have beset New Orleans over these past few months. Most of us appreciate the immeasurable contributions that the city has made to America’s music. We’ve also tracked the survival of the city’s most famous artists: Fats Domino, rescued from his rooftop; Allen Toussaint, holed up in a hotel and catching a bus to Baton Rouge, eventually getting to New York and appearing on the Letterman show; the Neville Brothers, most of them, sharing a house in Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville, waiting for the waters back home to recede…
But for every celebrity, there were hundreds of musicians living gig to gig in New Orleans. Cast to the winds by Katrina, they found themselves in places they never thought they’d be, able only to look back to the clubs where they’d played, the flats they’d rented, the instruments and master recordings they’d left behind — and to wonder what hand they would be dealt in the days to come.
These are some of the musicians whose names the world may not (yet) know, for whom losing New Orleans means more than most of us could imagine…
New Orleans, just before Easter, 2004
My first glimpse of the city came after a ten-hour drive from Nashville that plunged in mid-afternoon through lush green wilderness in Mississippi. At dusk I turned south onto Interstate 10, and here the woods thinned, the horizon widened, and soon I was rolling along the bridgework that yawned over Lake Ponchartrain, now skimming low, now rising high and then sinking back down toward the water’s dark surface.
Around ten o’clock I pulled onto the St. Bernard Avenue exit, made a couple of turns, and in a minute or so found St. Peter Street. Preservation Hall would be a few blocks ahead; Ben Jaffe, the owner and bass player with the celebrated house band, had told me to park outside and knock on the door. Getting there wasn’t easy: Just before Royal Street I ran into a crowd unlike any I’d seen before — scores of people, most with plastic cups in their hands, all of them in a state of extreme festivity.
Now, this was a Thursday; the weekend wasn’t even upon us. Yet it took a good five minutes to inch through the last half-block, double-park, and run up to the entrance. Right at that moment Ben showed up, having ridden his bike from home a few blocks away. He gave me the keys to the guest house, just around the corner on Bourbon Street, told me where to ditch the car, and welcomed me to town.
Later, having acquired my own plastic cup and refilled it a couple of times on the half-block walk from my place to the venue, I settled onto the floor, a couple feet in front of the band. Later I would write about what I saw, for the Preservation Hall website:
“Lights are low, furniture is rudimentary — some benches, cushions scattered in front, paintings of musicians, their dignity undimmed within the faded colors. The wooden floor is buckled and rough. Pegboards patch the old stone walls. In front, before the tall windows which somehow make St. Peter Street seem far away, are the simple chairs, the upright piano, the thirty-year-old drum set — the altar in this church…”
Over the next four days, I interviewed the band and looked at old posters and photos and archives that documented Preservation Hall’s history back to the early ’60s, when Ben’s parents, Allan and Sandra, had converted this 250-year-old building into a shrine to a style of music that dates (legend claims) to 1894, when trumpeter Buddy Bolden blew some bluesy, brassy solos at a Globe Hall gig that pointed the way toward jazz.
I spent hours there, in the main room or out back, on the veranda where the musicians rested between sets, near the cherub fountain and the old slave quarters cluttered now with file cabinets and paperwork. I remember elder statesmen such as trumpeter John Brunious, white haired, courtly, concerned as we spoke about the state of a friend’s garden that he was tending while she was out of town. A former Dizzy Gillespie modernist, Brunious that night would lead his audience in a rousing chant — “Shake your ass! Shake your ass!” — over a parade-ground beat. Ralph Johnson, delicate and thin as his clarinet, whispered that there wasn’t a style of music he didn’t love because “all of it, all music, is made by God, not man.”
And I remember the young guys: Don Vappie, who never lost his wise-guy smile, probably the best banjo man in town, assuring me that he could tell what part of the city someone came from by the way they walked. “There’s an uptown walk, a downtown walk, a back-of-town walk,” he insisted, his eyes teasing. And Joe Lastie Jr., the drummer, a master of the Baby Dodds groove, a Louis Armstrong lookalike, who alone among these musicians would confess his doubts that this music would survive. Kids were drawn more to pop culture, he said, and the future harbored too many things that could not be anticipated, that might smash that fragile construct of history, culture, architecture, all the bits and pieces of New Orleans, over time or in a single moment.
“New Orleans is a complicated, multilayered place,” Ben Jaffe would tell me one afternoon, as shadows darkened the main room. “A lot of people think of us as part of the south, but we’re really the northern Caribbean. You can’t compare our music to music you hear anywhere else. Guys outside of New Orleans emulate us, whereas in our band we’ve got third-and-fourth-generation musicians. Our banjo player, Don Vappie, his great-uncle, Papa John Joseph, had performed with Buddy Bolden, and he died on the bandstand at Preservation Hall. They finished their last song of the night, ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, and he laid his bass against the wall, sat down, and passed away in his chair.”
“We’re an island,” he added. “We’re surrounded by water on all four sides. You can only get to us by bridge. Life here isn’t easy. But it’s the same with our food: You can’t ship the oysters or the crabs or the shrimp or the catfish. They’re delicacies that can only exist here. And that’s true of the music as well.”
Sunday morning, September 11, 2005, Nashville
There’s a greeting on Ben Jaffe’s cell phone, directing callers to a new number. This leads to another greeting, something like this: “Hi, this is Ben. We’re all OK. Preservation Hall is closed for now. We’ve accounted for almost everyone in the band. Please do not leave a message unless it’s an emergency. Thank you.”