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."

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Mardi Gras (Part 1)

Nothing displays the cognitive split between the world's perception of New Orleans and the actual flavor of life in the city itself than Mardi Gras. The drunks on Bourbon street, the breast-baring co-eds, the notion of alcohol-fuelled hedonism, all of that is here, but it's largely a creation of the tourist trade which has little to do with local reality. As Offbeat Magazine writer Bunny Mathews puts it, "No New Orleans girl would bare her breasts for a string of beads. For a German automobile, maybe. For Garden District real estate, definitely. But cheap plastic beads? Forget it!"

"Mardi Gras" is, in any case, merely the culmination of a season of parties, balls, parades and cultural events that begins on Epiphany (January 6th) and is referred to locally as 'Carnival Season.' The parading Krewes which are the public face of Carnival also reflect the byzantine racial and social structure of New Orleans itself, which more closely resembles the caste-based culture of places like Brazil than any North American society. Thus at the "top" we have the tight-assed pomp and pseudo-royal posturings of the old-line Krewe of Rex, populated by the Rich, White and Azure blooded business establishment (in a city with more black citizens than white these guys are becoming increasingly irrelevant). Below that are the more egalitarian, celebrity oriented Krewes like Bachus and Orpheus, whose "Kings" are picked from the ranks of Hollywood stars. For me, though, the really fun and interesting stuff is at the street and neighborhood level, among the African-American and Creole social clubs and the white working class walking clubs. Although the Rex parade features music (mostly high school marching bands) they are not really "about" music. Rex could easily have a parade with no music at all, since they ain't dancin'. But down here on the street, a parade is not just something you sit back and watch, and it's GOT to have a band.

My wife Darlene and I attended three formal parades before Mardi Gras day, Muses (which featured my friend Cynthia, who's a Phd. candidate in Tulane University's Latin Studies department, marching with her club, the Camel Toe Steppers) Iris (the oldest all-women Krewe, founded in 1917. As Darlene pointed out, I seem to do better with all-women Krewes, bead-wise. I give 'em the shy smile and they pelt me) and Thoth (known locally as the Krewe of Shut-ins, since their route takes them past 14 different care facilities, hospitals, and old-age homes). But for us, Fat Tuesday was the big day. Because of the Indians.


To understand the soul of Carnival (well, black Carnival, anyway) and, by extension, the nature of the development of jazz in New Orleans, you need to know about Mardi Gras Indians.

The conventional party line is that the Indians came about after a visit to New Orleans in the 1880s by Buffalo Bill and his Traveling Wild West Show. Since the Indians in that show were portrayed as fierce, warrior types, and since African Americans in post reconstruction Louisiana were viciously suppressed (both socially and politically), the idea of dressing up as Indians at Mardi Gras (the only day of the year when blacks were allowed to costume) probably seemed pretty cool. The first recorded tribe (the Creole Wild West) paraded in 1885 under Chief Becate Batiste, an ancestor of present day old-time Indian and retired plasterer Tootie Montana. Photographs show early 20th century Mardi Gras Indian costumes as home-made approximations of Native American getup, with long, flowing feathered head-dresses. But contemporary Indians strive for a conical-silhouette, pan-African look, with lots of brightly coloured feathers and intricate hand stitched beadwork. Tootie himself has been known to construct "suits" (costumes) that weigh upwards of 150 pounds.

The predominant gang (tribe) in my neighborhood is the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a relatively new organization started in the late 1960s by George (Big Chief Jolly) Landry, uncle to New Orleans first family of Rhythm and Blues, the Neville Brothers. The Nevilles were instrumental in turning the songs and chants of the Indians into a commercial craze with the release of the album Wild Tchoupitoulas in 1975 (the Wild Magnolias had released an album of their own under the direction of jazz pianist Wilson "Willie T" Turbinton two years earlier). The Nevilles incorporated contemporary R&B backing into performances of traditional Indian songs like Indian Red, Brother John is Gone, and Meet The Boys On The Battlefront. This last song is of particular significance because the Indian movement has undergone a profound social transformation in the last 50 years, from a violent territorial thing (where tribes would sometimes literally fight each other with hatchets in turf disputes) to one of aesthetics. Contemporary Indians prevail over rivals by making the most beautiful suit, and the chief who is the 'prettiest' wins the day.

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