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."

Friday, February 11, 2005

Mardi Gras (Part 2)


Chief Jolly died in 1980, and the current chief is a man named Roger Silva. Since the Indians have no set parade route (and no parade permits — they're outlaws) I'd meant to ask my next-door neighbour, Mr. Tim (who's lived in this neighborhood all his life), where Silva lived. The only reliable way to see the Indians is to go over to the chiefs house early Mardi Gras day and wait for him to come out. But like an idiot, I had forgotten to do this.

At 6:30 a.m. Mardi Gras day, I awoke to the distant sound of chanting and drumming.

I nudged my wife awake. "I think I hear Indians," I said, and got up and got dressed to go outside to try and figure out which direction the sound was coming from.

The sun was just starting to come up through the fog, and the weather was mild and humid. But the fog played tricks with the sound, and no matter which way I turned, it seemed to come from the other direction. I went home and told Darlene (who was now having coffee in the courtyard) that the Wild Tchoupitoulas were probably on their way up to A.L. Davis playground to meet the other uptown tribes before proceeding en masse to the Treme neighborhood to meet the downtown gangs.

I was inside making breakfast when Darlene called that she heard drums again. Loud. It was a brass band this time, playing a funk-influenced version of the Carnival favorite The Second Line (the central motif of this tune would, in the 1950s, morph into Big Joe Turner's Rock Around The Clock). We ran round the corner to Annunciation Street just in time to see the Lyons Street Walking Club pull up to the Jefferson City Buzzards (another walking club) clubhouse, with the Rebirth Brass Band in tow. The Rebirth, under the longtime directorship of Sousaphonist Philip Fraser, are the Grateful Dead of new-school brass bands. Their regular Tuesday night residency at the Maple Leaf Club is notorious for 4 hour long, funk drenched jams that last till sun-up and leave the place a steaming puddle. There's some milling around after they finish the tune, and the Lyons (stocky, middle-aged Irish and Italian types) wish us Happy Mardi Gras (a phrase as unbiquitous in New Orleans at this time of year as Merry Christmas just a few weeks earlier) and several of them gift my wife with beautiful paper flowers in exchange for a kiss on the cheek. Then the Rebirth kick off Blackbyrd Special, and they head off, running smack dab into the Buzzards (with their own band in tow) at the corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle. The Buzzards head into their clubhouse with the band, so that the whole while Darlene and I are having breakfast, we can hear them burning through versions of local R&B classics (Earl King's Come On, Part One. TV Slim's Flatfoot Sam) and, weirdly (since the Buzzard band is composed of 40ish Irish guys) Zydeco hits like Hey! Ti't Fille. Darlene comments that, although it's not even 7:30 a.m. yet, she's already heard two bands and been kissed by three strange men.

Our original plan had been to head up to the Treme neighborhood, behind Armstrong Park, and spend the day at the corner of Orleans and Claiborne, but the schedule for the day was already out the window, so we decided to stay uptown and catch Zulu as they came down Jackson Avenue. There was nobody to tell us we had to stick to an agenda, and in any case I had mixed feelings about parking our car in the Treme on Mardi Gras day. Not because of fear of theft (14 year old Honda station wagons are not big with car thieves) but because on this day, there was a pretty good chance someone would wind up dancing on the roof of it. In the days before the interstate highway was built, Claiborne Avenue, a beautiful, tree-lined boulevard with a wide "neutral ground" (median strip) was the center of Black Carnival. I-10 was originally supposed to go through the French Quarter, but vigorous protests from the Vieux Carre Preservation Society put a stop to that, and the freeway was built along Claiborne bisecting the once contiguous neighborhood of the Treme, which had far less political clout, in half. But black folks can be stubborn, and even though the once beautiful corner of Orleans and Claiborn is now shadowed by a freeway, families still have cookouts on the neutral ground, and if you hang out long enough practically every organization of importance in Black Carnival comes past; all the various Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, the Babydolls (originally Storyville prostitutes strutting their stuff, then just neighborhood ladies, recently revived by R&B great Ernie K. Doe's widow Antoinette) the Bone Gang (men dressed in skeleton costumes carrying butcher bones, a tradition related to the Voodoo Lwa "Gede", symbolizing sex, death, and mortality) and the biggest parade of all in the African American community, the Zulu parade.


Zulu was founded in 1909, and was originally just one of many fraternal organizations in the city set up in the post-reconstruction era to provide social services to African Americans shut out of mainstream America. For small, monthly dues, these clubs would provide money for doctor bills in emergencies, and pay for the funerals of members and their families (the "jazz funeral" tradition, which started in the late 19th century, was financed in part by these sorts of organizations). The big deal about the Zulus was that they were, and remained for a long time, the only black organization officially allowed to parade on Mardi Gras day. For a disenfranchised group like blacks, masking was an ideal venue for satire, and from the beginning Zulu engaged in vigorous lampooning of white carnival royalty. Whereas Rex's king rides on a magnificent float with a golden crown, scepter and orb, in the early days Zulu floats were decrepit truckbeds (the first Zulu float was actually a garbage scow) and the Zulu King would hold a basketball "orb" and toilet plunger "scepter". The Zulus are renowned for their utter lack of political correctness. To this day, they parade in blackface, even though most club members are black (before the 1920s, the only way black entertainers were allowed to perform in public was in blackface). They wear grass skirts and ridiculous "wooly" wigs. When the club began, quietly and without fanfare, to integrate it's membership in the early 70s, a number of whites joined. Thus a situation occurred where, on Mardi Gras day, you had white people masking like black people pretending to be white people pretending to be black people. Truly, there is no such thing as cognitive dissonance in New Orleans.

This year's King was Isaac Wheeler, a prominent local businessman (Zulu's most famous king was Louis Armstrong, in 1949). On television news the night before, Wheeler predicted "perfect weather" for Mardi Gras day, and as Darlene and I walked towards the parade route, it looked like King Zulu was right on the money. The fog was breaking up, and the day was turning out sunny and only slightly humid.

I had suggested to Darlene that we watch the parade from Jackson Avenue, before it turned onto the much wider (and ritzier) St. Charles Avenue. Jackson Avenue, on the "lake" side of St. Charles, runs through a serious ghetto called Central City, so the farther up Jackson you go, the fewer tourists you see. By the time we got up to Lasalle St., we could see only a very occasional white face.

The vibe up there was loose and neighborhood oriented. Families were out on their porches barbecuing, and the sidewalks were lined with beer coolers, baby strollers, and kids freaking out with excitement. The floats were absolutely gorgeous (Zulu has come a long way from the garbage scow days. The club now contains many members of New Orleans' "Creole of Color" aristocracy, though the clubhouse remains in the Treme neighborhood and the club "zeitgeist" is determinedly working class). The ones up front carried "figurehead" riders in character as various club functionaries. The "Sheriff," the cigar-chomping "Bigshot" etc. As many types of pompous panjandrums as the clubs' creators could imagine, the better to take the piss out of whitey over at Rex. After the club officials came the theme floats. Since this years theme was Zulu Goes To The Movies, these depicted famous black-themed films like Shaft and Blazing Saddles.

Begging for beads is a much more theatrical process in black neighborhoods. While the ubiquitous "throw me something mistah!" is certainly present, exploiting ones children, playing to the crowd, and colorful innuendo from females (but no breast baring. This a FAM'LY parade, bruh) are also very big. A woman beside me was mock-tearfully imploring a male float rider to toss her a beautiful strand of red beads with a big heart medallion. As he caught my eye, I gestured to her, indicating that he should toss it her way. She snatched it out of the air and gave me a wide, beautiful smile of gratitude. "You know this means we have to get married now" I said. "A'ight then, boo," she shot back. "Go find us a preacher." I allowed as this might be a bit of a problem, and showed her my wedding ring. "Aw sugar!" she laughed. "And we coulda had such fun!"


After about two hours of screaming crowds, floats, brass bands, and costumed dancers, we decided to walk back down to St. Charles to catch a bit of the Rex parade. As we headed down Philip St. Darlene suddenly said, "Are those Indians?" And by God there they were, up ahead at Philip and Loyola streets. And the amazing, incredible, wonderfull thing about it was, the were just starting out, so there were no crowds. By the time the uptown tribes congregate at A.L. Davis Playground, the crowds are often so thick that unless you are very aggressive with the elbows all you can see is some feathers over the top of people's heads. But here were the Wild Magnolias all by themselves, with only a couple of spectators on bicycles standing by.

The Wild Mags (named for the nearby Magnolia housing project) were the first tribe to enter local mainstream pop culture when they recorded an album of Indian songs in 1973. A track from that album, "Smoke My Peace Pipe" (In my pipe there's some super bad herb. Guaranteed, to soothe your nerve) was a hit on local radio, and is still found on the finer jukeboxes at bars all over town. For the last 35 years the position of chief (and lead vocalist) has been occupied by the imposing figure of Emile "Bo" Dollis.

As we approach them, the tribe are still grouped in a circle, drumming and chanting, but while we're still a half-block away they start to move. Darlene takes out her camera and runs alongside the procession as they turn right onto South Saratoga Street. They're really moving, and it's hard to keep up. We can hear the second chief directing Bo over the sound of the tribe's percussion ("water, chief, look out. Pothole") It's difficult to see with the costume's headdress on. A block in front of us we can see the Spyboy looking out, and the Flagboy with the gang flag.

When the Spyboy reaches Washington Avenue, he turns right and leads the procession back towards Lasalle St. and the A.L. Davis playground, and we let them go. As we walk past St. Joseph's cemetary Darlene turns to me and says, "After that, the rest of the day's bound to be an anticlimax." And sure enough when we get down to the Rex route on St. Charles, with it's massive crowds, drunken tourists, and Eurocentric, pompous posturings, it all seems kind of flat. So we go home. Three in the afternoon, and we're fried.


There's an Africanist perspective on jazz history that would have it that jazz is "African" music, that everything that makes jazz a unique style comes from Africa. A few minutes listening to actually African music usually puts this notion to rest, and certainly my research in the Hogan archive would seem to indicate that this is nonsense. Jelly Roll Morton, for instance, would have been deeply offended to be described as "black." He was a Creole, and proud of it. Present day New Orleans is living proof that race is a social construction. People have been mixing it up for so long here that it's often difficult to tell, just by looking, what "color" someone is. The crucial issue is not what people are, but what they "identify" as. Jelly Roll identified as Creole. My favorite checkout girl at Whole Foods, who looks mostly like a tanned, California surfer girl with a few extra freckles, "identifies" herself as African-American when she opens her mouth and speaks in florid Ghetto-ese.

One fact about this town is indisputable. African Rhythms. They are everywhere. And every musician in town, regardless of style, has come up with those rhythms sounding in his head. Jazz, blues, R&B, cajun, zydeco, rock and roll, even klezmer, it's all got that second-line stutter in it somewhere. And the Indians, as the purest expression of West African village parading, or "Pagbo", embody this most, to me. Africans in colonial Louisiana, while treated as badly as slaves anywhere, nevertheless were never denied their drums. African rhythms have always been here.

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