“And they got a little street they call mystery
Got a whole gang of Jazz Fest history”
–Dr John, Sweet Home New Orleans
For many years, I have pursued the music and history of New Orleans as an ardent disciple. The music of New Orleans is a direct influence on my rhythmic principles as a musician. It is also a touchstone for my continuing journey as an American music historian. I have had many moments in the Crescent City that have made my heart, to quote Dr John, “Skip a little beat.” The many neighborhoods of New Orleans are the diversity of America incarnate.
In the 1990’s, I would travel from Virginia to New Orleans to spend my birthday, in April, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. As I got into the new millennium , I would also go to New Orleans for Halloween and for All Saints Day, November 1st. My Nephew, George Ingmire III, has always graciously opened his home to me. In this manner, I got to learn the Crescent City, from Uptown to the French Quarter to Mid-City, to the Garden District, and in 2009, the Musician’s Village in the Upper Nine.
In recent years, the passing of so many seminal New Orleans musicians like Wardell Quezergue, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Dr John, Dave Bartholomew and Art Neville, among too many, has made me reflect on my years of going to New Orleans on a regular basis. New Orleans, where my insomnia was deliciously fed and informed. A nocturnal life where I became a continuous graduate student of the many musics New Orleans has to offer. Where the scent of night jasmine creates a perfect perfume for the senses.
I have had many musical adventures in New Orleans. I remain blessed to have learned from those visits. My experiences in New Orleans have been some of the most positive ones of my varied existence.
Here are a few:
In April 1994, at the 25thJazz Fest, I got to see classic sets by Little Richard, The Allman Brothers, The Band, Dr John, Buddy Guy, Buckwheat Zydeco, Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, among many, in a three day period. There was always something about Jazz fest where the performers always gave their best and I always gave them the best of my undivided attention.
There are a whirlwind of images that I remember from the 1994 Jazz Fest from Little Richard rocking the Fest crowd wearing a fire engine red suit to the Allman Brothers playing “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” at 3 AM at UNO Coliseum to getting books signed by Buddy Guy and Dr John at a Jazz Fest book tent. I ate quail and sausage gumbo and marveled at the varied music on the many stages. I felt awash in the best New Orleans has to offer any American musician.
A few years later, at Jazz Fest 1997, I had a childhood fantasy fulfilled when I saw Fats Domino and his big band play every classic from his catalogue. His version that day of “Let the Four Winds Blow,” moved me closer to 40. I spent my 40thbirthday dancing to Taj Mahal and Phantom Blues Band at the House of Blues. Another year older always seemed to be an evolving moment in New Orleans in those days.
On my 41st birthday, April 28, 1998, I saw Louisiana born, Texas World musician, Gatemouth Brown play with Wardell Quezergue’s big band.
A big band that was conducted by the “Creole Beethoven,” Wardell Quezergue himself. The show was in the Warehouse District of New Orleans at a place called The Praline Connection Gospel and Blues Hall. It was a great, intimate place, folding chairs, that sold fresh pralines and reasonably priced drinks. I found that Grand Marnier and maple pralines went well together, at least to my unsophisticated palette. Gatemouth played his set like a man inspired by this world class backing band. This was the best show I ever saw Gatemouth Brown perform.
That night, our audience also got to see the classic New Orleans R&B singer, Chuck Carbo (Of The Spiders and “Witchcraft” fame), open for Gate. Chuck Carbo, another favorite of adolescence who I never thought I would see live. Carbo was also backed by Wardell Quezergue’s magnificent big band.
In April 1999, I got to see Levon Helm and the Barnburners play at Levon Helm’s Classic All America Café.
I wrote about that evening extensively in the April 2016 Politichicks article, Chris O’Leary: Honorable Vet, Dedicated Bluesman. Chris was playing and singing as part of Levon’s Barnburners, still one of the greatest Blues bands I have ever seen live. In turn, Levon’s club was one of the greatest clubs that I have ever been to in New Orleans. A true shame that it did not stay open longer as it closed fairly soon after that April visit. Chris O’Leary continues to innovate on the traditions that he learned from Levon.
I am still amazed how many small moments in New Orleans turned into larger inspirations and friendships. I met a guy named Curly, originally from Norfolk, from a mutual Virginia acquaintance. Like my nephew, Curly had New Orleans wired. So I got to second line in a funeral parade and had spiritual conversations with Mardi Gras Indians that he knew.
April 1999, also was when I met Reverend Goat Carson, a Cherokee Christian minister, natural healer, poet songwriter, performer and singer. A truly kind man. He gave me a hawk feather as a present that I stuck in my hat. On the trip back to my nephew’s place in the Quarter, it flew out of a street car window. Goat loved that, he thought it was a good sign. He was right. I had the privilege of playing on his first record, Simmerin’ during that first visit and on his second album in 2000. I was inspired by the tuning of his buffalo jaw harp and tuned the Stratocaster that I brought with me to it with marvelous results.
The spiritual was an additional part of my visits to the Crescent City. The stillness, peace and offerings at the Chapel at Saint Roch Community Church, during one visit, humbled me. Elysian Fields remains a place of great beauty and magical history. I walked the long track there from Mid-City once. A visit to Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s grave, at Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, is a rite of passage in a initial visit to New Orleans. But few people notice the grave of Senegal Prince, John Montaigne, the original Dr John because his gravestone is faded. I was fortunate that my friend Curly pointed it out to me. Celebrating All Saints Day in 2000 with Mambo Priestess Sallie Glassman and her Sosyete (Creole for Society) reinforced my respect for my ancestors.
I remember the Monday morning breakfasts at Fiorella’s Café on Decatur Street and the late night/early morning Burgers at the Clover Grill on Royal Street, among many. Food is always an aesthetic activity in New Orleans.
Through the years, I remember the kindness of both strangers and heroes in New Orleans. In particular, I remember my visit in 2000 during Halloween and All Saints Day. I had a ninety minute informative conversation with New Orleans Songwriter, Allen Toussaint, about songwriting while walking through the French Market. He gave me his address and I sent him a CD of my work.
Toussaint always took the time with inquiring musicians and fans like myself. His praise and attention meant a lot to me in our various conversations over the years.
I hung out with Reverend Goat and Louisiana Roots singer, Coco Riobochaux, on Halloween 2000. They showed me the oldest tree in the square, the Grandfather tree. The next night I went with my nephew to an All Saints Day Ceremony with Sallie Glassman’s Sosyete, where I paid tribute to my Father and Brother.
I was so inspired by this particular visit that I wrote the song, “New Orleans Testimony,” which is referenced at the close of this article, on the plane home.
My experiences in New Orleans are many more than referenced here. Maybe, I will write a book about that period some day, maybe. Ultimately, if one spends time pursuing the true history of New Orleans, one will be always enriched.