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."

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

In trying to put an optimistic face on things, I’ve decided to label the last couple of months since Katrina the ‘unintentional North American tour.' I’ve spent time in several cities (Dallas/Fort Worth, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Seattle, Vancouver), and had lots of opportunities to play. Folks have been really good to me. But it’s time to go home. I just don’t feel right being away from New Orleans. I’ll be leaving Vancouver (where I am at the moment) for San Francisco on December 3rd. I’ll be meeting my wife Darlene there (she’s currently in Miami on business) and we’ll drive on back to New Orleans.

I’m a little worried about what we’ll find there. Our house didn’t flood (we were among the lucky 20% who got no water) and the roof is still on. But many, many of my colleagues were not so fortunate. Bass player Jim Markway was in Belgium on a gig when the storm hit. He sat watching the storm on TV, this huge, monstrous creature heading straight for his home, and there was nothing he could do except call his wife and tell her to grab what she could. She escaped with their car and Jim’s two upright basses. When I talked to Jim two weeks ago, he was in Baton Rouge. They’d lost everything, their house, everything in it, their whole neighborhood is gone. And, as Jim put it, “the musical community I’ve known for 30 years is scattered to the four winds.” Jim used to do 400 gigs a year. He doesn’t think that will ever come back in his lifetime.

In a weird way, it’s almost as if the flood was designed by architectural preservationists. Any neighborhood more than about 90 years old was spared most of the flooding, because those areas were developed before the advent of Alfred Wood’s “Wood Screw Pump,” the device that enabled New Orleans to drain swampland and expand it’s boundaries past the original French settlement. My 13th ward neighborhood was originally a sugar plantation, then a town called Jefferson City that was annexed by the city of New Orleans in the 19th century. On the ‘lake’ side of Magazine Street (the side towards Lake Pontchartrain) are grand mansions. On the ‘river’ side (nearest the Mississippi river) where we live are little cottages, originally built for the Irish house-servants who tended the rich in their mansions (hence it’s name, the “Irish Channel”). Later these were replaced by African Americans, who make up the ‘hood’s population now, along with Mexicans, Hondurans, and old-time Yats (working class whites) who are often descendants of the original Irish servant class. (the term Yat comes from the traditional greeting, “where y’at?”).

The problem is that an awful lot of musicians lived in neighborhoods that were utterly destroyed by flooding, such as the upper and lower 9th ward. These neighborhoods didn’t just get one or two feet of water (which, if you live in one of New Orleans ubiquitous “raised creole cottages,” is not necessarily a disaster) but flooded right up to the roof line. Many houses were actually swept away in the current, ending up a block or more from the lots they originally stood on. If you’ve got a little money (folks like 6th ward resident Allan Toussaint and Gentilly Terrace’s Aaron Neville would be in this category) you can probably afford to wait on an insurance payout and rebuild. But most New Orleans musicians fly lower to the ground than that, and will be extremely vulnerable to out-of-town developers and real estate sharpies offering them tiny but much needed sums for the lot where their house used to be. This process is already being referred to as the “bleaching” of New Orleans. One scenario has it that we’ll wind up with a city of about half the size, with a majority white population. This would kill the music scene. It’d be Atlanta, Georgia with better architecture. And it would be of no interest to me

But people in New Orleans are stubborn. Ellis Marsalis is back playing Friday nights at Snug Harbor with his quartet. Tipitina’s has re-opened, as has the Maple Leaf, farther uptown. The Palm Court in the French Quarter has live jazz once more. Donna’s on North Rampart is kickin’ it again with brass bands, both old-school and new. Even places that didn’t have music before, like Angelli’s on Decatur, are now featuring small, live bands. In times of trouble, music is more important than ever.