Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Dear Friends

Dear Friends, Colleagues, Enemies, In-laws, Outlaws and various Vancouver types,

First off, I suppose I should offer a brief explanation. Hard as it is to believe, I found myself, at the end of my last sojourn (12 years) in Paradise by the Pacific, dissatisfied with what Vancouver had to offer me. While it is without a doubt the swellest place in Canada to live, it is not now, nor is it ever likely to be, a "music town." I'd found myself in that position so familiar to those who insist on playing jazz, that of taking the "teaching gig". In my case this entailed returning to UBC (University of British Columbia) for an education degree and working as a music sub in local high schools. I soon found I hated it, mostly because the job is about 10% music and 90% "'classroom management" (this is a fancy term for prison guard) and also the level of intellectual discourse in the average high school band room is . . . rather low. I'd gotten to the point where I realized that I would be much, much happier teaching at the post secondary level, but for this you need postgraduate qualifications. I was rather unenthusiastically toying with the idea of applying to UBC's graduate school of music when my wife Darlene (who doesn't suffer from my terminal pessimism) posed a question.

"If you could do any kind of graduate degree you wanted," she said," anywhere in the world, what would you do"?

"I'd do a masters in jazz history at Tulane," I said. "Right here in New Orleans." (We happened to be in New Orleans at the time) "But that's out of the question. Tuition is like, $42,000 a year."

"Call them," she said.

Long story short, they gave me a fee waiver and a teaching assistantship.

Incidentally, the only other university that offers this degree is Rutgers. In New Jersey. They have this thing called "'winter" there, so it was kind of a no-brainer.

In any case, this is a jazz website, so my trials as a teaching assistant and graduate student at a major American university, exciting as they may be, must be put aside. I know what you guys want to know. In the "birthplace of jazz" is there actually any jazz, and is there any money to be made playing it?


On a per-capita basis, I'd say there's as much straight-ahead jazz happening in New Orleans as in New York City, although it's been a few years since I've been in New York. Of course New Orleans is a much smaller town, smaller even than Vancouver. But unlike Vancouver, who's raison d'etre is skiing, hiking, sailing and shopping (have you ever seen a single piece of tourist-oriented literature about Vancouver that even mentions jazz?) New Orleans puts a lot of effort into promoting itself as a jazz town. At the Chamber of Commerce level this means traditional jazz, but the fact that the local culture revolves around going out to eat, drink, dance and listen to music means this translates into significant opportunities for jazz-as-art-music around the edges of the scene.

The premiere room in town for straight ahead stuff is Snug Harbor in the Faubourg Marigny, just downriver from the French Quarter. Ellis Marsalis has a regular residency there and there are usually several high profile out of town artists a month playing the room. Local guys like Nick Payton and Terence Blanchard appear regularly, and trumpeter Maurice Brown also has a regular Tuesday night spot. Maurice just released his first album as leader, "Hip to Bop," and it's a killer.

Several other rooms around town present straight-ahead stuff on particular nights, or on a semi-regular basis. Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar on Tchoupitoulas St. (right around the corner from my house) has jazz on Thursdays, the Columns Hotel Lounge ( where the movie "Pretty Baby" was shot) has modern jazz on Tuesdays and Thursdays (local tenor player Tony Dagradi did a great trio CD there called "Paradin'") and several other clubs near Snug Harbor on the Frenchman St. club strip also have jazz a lot of the time, joints like the Blue Nile, the Spotted Cat, and the Apple Barrel. There's also a lot of weird little out of the way performance spaces like the Uptown Arts Center (which for a while was tenorman James Rivers' regular gig) and the Zeitgeist Gallery on Oretha Castle Hailey Boulevard in Central City. The Zeitgeist hosts the annual Zeitgeist festival, an avante garde thing featuring guys like former Sun Ra trumpeter Michael Ray, and also periodically hosts out of town artists. The last guy I saw there was Skip Heller, a Los Angeles guitar player doing interesting things with the organ trio format (like transcribing Mahler symphonies for it).

It's hard, though, to talk about New Orleans in terms of categories, because there's a lot more overlap than there is in Vancouver. When I say New Orleans is a music town, I don't mean to imply that straight-ahead jazz gigs are falling off the trees, they can sometimes be as hard to come by here as in Vancouver (there's more joints, but there's more competition, too). And in terms of the quality of players, I'm tempted to say that Vancouver might even have a little edge. But unlike up there where, as Alan Matheson recently put it to me, jazz is "art in splendid isolation," here it's just part of the vast amount of live music that's part of the fabric of everyday life. So that, while one rarely sees members of the Vancouver jazz community holding forth with the blues bands at the Yale, here it's not at all unusual to see Wynton Marsalis drummer Herlin Riley or Harry Connick Jr. drummer Shannon Powell gigging with Chuck Carbo or Luther Kent.

Since a number of record companies do a lot of recording here (Rounder, Blacktop) and R&B label Malaaco Records is a short drive away in Jackson, Mississippi, there's a fair bit of work to be had as a sideman on recordings by southern circuit blues artists like Bobby Rush and Little Milton. And in terms of touring, there's a lot more major markets that are easily accessible from New Orleans, like Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Memphis, Atlanta and Miami, all of which are more or less a day's drive away. I always felt kind of claustrophobic in Vancouver, since the really big jazz markets (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa) were so far away, and the U.S. border can present formidable obstacles to performers wishing to work south of the line. Here, you can just pile into the car and drive. There's the usual society "tuxedo gigs" here, just like in Vancouver (with Mardi Gras coming up this aspect of the business is heating up) but there's also things like brass band gigs at funerals and parades though, the kind of thing that doesn't really exist up there. You gotta know the tunes though (old school stuff like "I'll Fly Away" and "Didn't He Ramble" and also contemporary things like "Let's Go Get 'Em" and "Blackbird Special") and you gotta wear the hat.

There is, of course, a down side to being here. Health insurance is nuts (or unavailable) and I'm getting to the age where that's an issue. The first year I was here, my wife couldn't join me due to immigration issues, and that was no fun. And establishing yourself in a new town is hard, man. Going to jam sessions, sticking your neck out. Occasionally (thankfully only occasionally) getting frozen out by more established, local players. But the playing opportunities are starting to come, and I'll be doing my first high profile gig as a leader (at Tulane's Dixon Theater) this March. More on that as the time draws near.

I haven't even scratched the surface of the local culture here, and you can't really understand music in this town as separate from the underlying structure of history, race and culture. I wake up in the morning to the shouting of African-American voices. The Wild Tchoupitoulis Indian gang calls the streets of my 13th ward neighborhood home. Art Neville lives 4 blocks away. Try as I might to be blasé about these things, I don't think I'll ever really get over the fact that all this stuff is literally right outside my front door. It can't help but affect the way you play.

Carnival season is well underway here, even though "Mardi Gras" (which is really only the culmination of weeks of parties, balls, parades and cultural events) isn't until February 8th. More on this later.