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, June 02, 2005

Festival Season in New Orleans

Contrary to popular myth, it does get cold in New Orleans, and the high degree of humidity can make even mild, cool temperatures seem frigid. But generally speaking, by mid February things are warming up, and by mid March we’re into serious festival season.


This one was originally a chamber of commerce type deal when it was first instituted 22 years ago, something to get the locals to visit the Quarter and pump up business a tad in the dog days between Mardi Gras and Jazz fest. But in the last few years it’s gotten bigger and bigger, drawing more people from out of town than in, and the rumor at this years fest was that it drew more per diem crowds than jazzfest (AKA the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival). How the hell anyone could tell is a mystery to me. It’s not a ticketed event, just a series of free concerts over a random Friday Saturday Sunday every April (this year it was April 8-10). But it sure felt like a big crowd, the streets of the Quarter were choked with out-of-towners (you can tell they’re from out of town because they’re wearing beads. No New Orleanian wears beads except during carnival. They mark you as a tourist, and attract muggers) carrying plastic go-cups of beer. The big problem for my wife Darlene and I turned out to be how to get from one end of the Quarters to another in time to see the music we were interested in. Wading through the packed streets was too time consuming. We decided taking the Riverfront streetcar would be a pleasant and efficient method to get back and forth, but this was not the case. It seems out of towners (especially drunk out of towners) have trouble absorbing the concept that a streetcar is not an automobile. It’s essentially a brick with steel wheels that takes a pretty fair stretch of track to come to a stop. More than once we endured the knuckle-biting anxiety of watching an oblivious tourist wander onto the tracks with his back to us (often as not yakking into a cell phone) while the driver frantically rang the bell and squeezed the breaks. I asked the driver if he had to deal with this often, and he heaved a huge sigh. “All day long, bruh.”

Still, the streetcar gambit did allow us to take in a number of acts scheduled close together at opposite ends of the Quarter. New Orleans has a very active Latin music scene, and we were able to catch my current fave, Otre but, sadly, not the hugely popular Irvin Mayfield-Bill Summers collaboration Los Hombres Calientes. No big deal though, because any New Orleans based band whose festival appearance you miss will doubtless be playing at a club just down the street the following week (although that’ll involve a cover charge). All the Latin stuff was at the Fabulosa Latin Heritage Stage at the Old U.S. Mint, where in addition to lots of excellent music we also caught my first pick for the crummiest Latin band in New Orleans, Ovi-G and the Froggies. It looked like Ovi-G had his whole family in the band, including some amazingly inept 12-year-old percussionists and one kid whose job seemed to consist of programming the drum box that was about the only thing that kept the whole rhythm section on the rails. But people loved it anyway. I mean, it’s sunny, it’s New Orleans. There’s beer and food and people dancing.

Right next door was the Zatarain’s/Offbeat Cajun/Zydeco Stage, where we caught Sean Ardoin and Zydekool. Sean is the grandson of old-school Zydeco patriarch Alphonse “Boi Sec” Ardoin, and his updated take on the Zydeco tradition incorporates liberal borrowings from contemporary funk and hip-hop styles, along with the “double clutch” anticipatory 16th note on the bass drum that is the signature of the new-school genre. This stuff has a huge following in New Orleans and in South Louisiana in general, and artists like Sean and Geno Delafose put out big selling CDs and even have radio hits while rarely venturing outside the Gulf South.

The really defining moments of this festival for me, though, are always around the edges of it, away from the really big crowds. Like the hour my wife and I spent lounging on the grass behind the levy, listening to Frank Oxley’s Eureka Brass Band. The Eureka has been around in one form or another for nearly a century, and under Oxley’s stewardship it sticks close to the tradition, in both instrumentation and repertoire. In any other city in North America, young people (especially young black people) tend to avoid anything ‘old’ as if it had a smell, but New Orleans is different. When a young, hip brass band like the Young Soul Rebels or the Stooges hits the street in the Treme there’s never any shortage of old folks in the dancing crowd, and that beautiful afternoon in the Quarter Oxley’s Eureka had a multi-generational bunch out dancing to “I Ate Up The Apple Tree” on the grass, right down to toddlers and babes in arms.


Jazzfest in New Orleans is a vast and complex event that encompasses much more than just jazz. All kinds of folk, ‘roots,’ traditional jazz, funk and Cajun/Zydeco music is represented, along with various kinds of folk art and crafts, right down to things like ornate plaster work, represented by my pal the ever-elegant Earl “Mr. Earl” Barthe. Recently the much neglected genre of Swamp Pop has been coming to the fore, and this year marked the debut of the Heritage Stage, featuring brass bands of all stripes and some truly amazing costumery from the Mardi Gras Indian gangs.

A comprehensive review of the whole schmear is just too much for me right now, so I’ll offer these (for me) highlights.

Gerald French:

The French brothers (drummer Bob and bassist-vocalist George) are longtime fixtures on the New Orleans scene but second-generation offspring Gerald (drums) was a new discovery for me. I’d heard about him, but never seen him play. At this year’s fest, he was everywhere. But I especially dug him with Wendell Brunious at the Economy Hall tent (where he slyly quoted Smokey Johnson’s famous drum figure from “It Ain’t My Fault” during a solo) and with tenor saxophonist Eric Traub’s trio at the WWOZ Jazz Tent.

Eric Traub:

Eric Traub is part of that vanishing breed, the hardcore, hipster “jazz cat.” I’d guess he’s in his early 60s, but it’s hard to tell. He plays around the corner from my house at Dos Jefe’s Uptown Cigar Bar a lot, but aside from that has been keeping a pretty low profile the last few years, so I was a bit surprised to see him headlining at the fest. But in this day and age of World Music and Roots Music and increasingly complex marketing-driven sub stratifications of the jazz genre, here comes Eric with something you don’t see a lot of at ‘jazz’ festivals these days. A tenor player who comes out, plants his feet, and plays about 15 choruses of “There Is No Greater Love” right off the bat. Think of it. Actual jazz, played by a real old-school jazz musician. At a jazz festival.

Eric’s sartorial concession to this major gig was to wear an actual suit (most of the year, he could easily be mistaken for a wino) over a t-shirt. Three hours later at the other end of the fairgrounds, playing with Doctor John on the huge Accura Stage, I noticed he’d affected a costume change by sticking a New York Yankees baseball cap on his head.

Philip Manuel:

Singer Philip Manuel grew up in my neighborhood, the 13th ward, and in fact is Aaron Neville’s nephew. The resemblance ends there, though. Instead of Neville’s alto yodel, Manuel traffics in a smooth Nat Cole-style baritone. His killer band featured one of my favorite New Orleans tenor players, Ed Peterson, and the ever dependable, always fascinating Adonis Rose on drums. His acoustic-jazz version of the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” was killer.

The Meters:

The big news at this years’ fest was the reunion of legendary funk band the Meters. While this might not mean much to the larger world, it was front-page news in New Orleans (by contrast, a Beatles reunion would likely only make the entertainment section). Art Neville’s Funky Meters have been playing around town for years but that band only contains two original members, Art and bassist George Porter. Just like with John, Paul, George and Ringo, it ain’t the real deal if it ain’t Art Neville on B3, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter Jr, on bass and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums.

Things started off rather inauspiciously with the malfunctioning of Porter’s bass through the entire opening tune, “Fire On The Bayou.” Also, the presentation just didn’t sit right with me. I’m a small club kind of guy, not at all comfortable with the Woodstockian vibe of outdoor festivals. Deep down, I believe music should be presented as God in Her wisdom intended, in a place with four walls and a ceiling, and a waiter standing by with a tray of cocktails at the ready. Yet here we were, a good quarter mile from the stage (the crowds made it impossible to get any closer) being deafened by a warp-factor 10 sound system. It literally drove us out of the fairgrounds, and we caught the rest of the set sitting on someone’s front stoop two blocks away on Maurepas Street.

Actually, from this far away the sound was quite decent, much more evenly balanced than from up close. And I was clearly able to hear what all the fuss was about. The world is full of musicians who have chops for days and can play the hell out of a funk tune. The drummer in Art’s Funky Meters, Russell Batiste, is actually technically superior to Zig. Russell is a graduate of New Orleans fine arts high school, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and is formally trained as a percussionist. His technique behind the kit is fiercely impressive, but sometimes it’s just…too much. Funk needs space. And a drummer like Zigaboo, not trained in the academy but schooled on the streets and in the clubs, is not afraid to leave lots of room to get nasty. Tempos too, tend to be too fast in much contemporary funk. The four original Meters are absolutely fearless in their ability to count stuff off at tempos that at first seem much too slow, but prove to be…exactly…in…the pocket. Tunes like “People Say” and the rarely performed gem “He Bite Me” were positively stinky.


It’s important to remember that events like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival are merely the public face of a deeply community oriented musical culture that carries on all year round. While jazzfest goes out of it’s way to showcase local music, a large part of its’ draw consists of international headliners and the bulk of its’ customers come from out of town. It’s not that locals don’t go; it’s just that the local presence is easy to lose in the enormous crowds.

Out in the neighborhoods, away from the t-shirt shops in the French Quarter and the jazzfest crowds at the Racetrack/Fairgrounds, is the rich and nuanced culture that continues to produce amazing and varied music. It has formal elements and institutions, like NOCCA and the music departments at Loyola, Tulane, Dillard and Xavier universities, as well as the excellent jazz performance studies department at the University of New Orleans under the longtime stewardship of the recently retired Ellis Marsalis. Marsalis, along with other prominent jazz educators like Alvin Batist, Clyde Kerr Jr, and Harold Battiste, are responsible for mentoring the current crop of young and not so young lions like the Marsalis brothers, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison Jr.

But these formal institutions are only part of the story. Music in New Orleans is, in a way I’ve never seen in any other North American city, fully integrated into the fabric of everyday life. Every human occasion, from birth to death, has live music associated with it. The Jazz Funeral tradition remains alive and well, with traditional hymns and secular songs still being performed, as well as these same traditions being constantly reinvented by young, new-school bands like the Young Soul Rebels, the Rebirth, and the Stooges. The social clubs, Mardi Gras Indian gangs and various neighborhood organizations all sponsor functions which feature live music. People hire live bands to play in their yards at barbecues. When I lived in other cities I almost never heard music in a casual, everyday context, and when I did, it was someone’s stereo or Muzak in a supermarket. Here, more often than not, it’s live.

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