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."

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Back in New Orleans, Feeling Like A Ghost.

We arrived at night, and so were spared the sight of the worst of the damage. We could tell something was up as the interstate swung out over Lake Pontchartrain, though. The big, bright-lit urban glow one normally sees was just a little glimmer, like a small town. We could have been pulling into Tyler, Texas or Sheridan, Wyoming.

We clunked down off the freeway at the Carrollton Avenue exit, and right away our eyes started watering from black mould spores in the air. There were no street lights. No traffic signals. At major intersections, like Tulane Avenue, the NOPD had put up metal brackets with stop signs to create four-way stops. Not much of a problem, since there was so little traffic. As we rolled along in the dark we could see flood-lines on the buildings, about 3 or 4 feet up. Traveling along Carrollton towards St. Charles Avenue, the waterlines gradually became lower. On the lake side of South Claiborne they were around 3 feet high, but by the time we passed Hickory Street they were down to about a foot. Ellis Marsalis lives on Hickory, and I initially thought his house was okay. I’ve since found out that he suffered wind damage to the rear roof of his house (and subsequent water damage to the interior) but is now back in residence with his family, as well as holding forth again with his quartet at Snug Harbor every Friday.

As we passed Oak Street in the Universities neighborhood, things started looking almost normal. Some trees down, piles of brush up on the neutral ground. Occasionally, a house that had just…collapsed. Around the corner from us, at Duffosett and Annunciation, a house had lost an entire wall, so you could see inside. It looked like a giant doll house. And yet our house was fine. It fact, it was cleaner than when I left. Our landlords had replaced our refrigerator (Sorry, Frank and Carol. If I’d known we’d be gone 3 months, I’d never have left that chicken in there), and repainted the floor. They’d also put out clean towels and put clean sheets on the bed in anticipation of our return. Darlene cried when we walked in the door. So did I.

We’ve been back about 3 weeks now, and have had a chance to roam around town a little and see the full extent of the damage. The French Quarter, Uptown, and the Garden District are almost normal, except for occasional wind damage and some mighty long lines at the banks and grocery stores. Ditto for Esplanade Ridge. Pretty much any neighborhood more than about 100 years old got minimal flooding, because that’s when Alfred Wood invented the “Wood Screw Pump,” the device that allowed New Orleans to drain swamps and extend itself into the surrounding marshland. Like a lot of cities, the poor in New Orleans usually get stuck with the most undesirable real estate, hence the spectacular, almost total destruction of the lower Ninth Ward, where the water was so swift and deep that it ripped houses from their foundations and deposited cars in trees. But lakefront neighborhoods like Lakeview and Lakevista (predominantly white and wealthy) and Gentilly Woods (upper middle-class and black) were destroyed as well, although in not quite so spectacular a fashion. The damage there was the result of houses sitting in several feet of brackish water for 3 weeks, so that while the outside looks sort of okay (except for the bathtub rings and a coat of dusty mud) the inside looks like the Blair Witch Project. Imagine a washing machine full of mud with no door, on spin cycle. Then the black mould moves in, sets up colonies, builds cities, establishes government, and makes art.

The population of Orleans Parish (New Orleans proper) is currently estimated at about 100,000 people (down from a pre-Katrina half-million), with another 150,000 or so parked out in the suburbs, commuting into town daily to rip moldy drywall out of their houses and argue with insurance agents. Vast swaths of the city remain unpopulated, and without gas or electricity.

From what I’ve been able to gather, those musicians with viable national and international touring careers are doing okay. Some have moved back, or intend to shortly (Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, Tony Dagradi, John Vidacovich). Others, like Cyrille Neville (who has bought a house in Austin, Texas) say they will not return. But these are folks who can pretty much live wherever they like, as long as they have good airport access. The vast majority of musicians in New Orleans are not jazzfest headliners, although they may sometimes work as side-players for such people. The day-to-day reality of gigging here was much more than club gigs. There was lots of work that involved things like private parties (such as our neighbor Miss Barbara’s birthday bash last year, which featured beer, barbecue, and the Stooges Brass Band on her side-porch), funerals, parades, church picnics, hullabaloos of various kinds, and the various get-togethers of the city’s many Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. Many of these people are still scattered to the four winds, and the federal government’s continued stumble-bum approach to ‘rebuilding’ the Gulf Coast (which seems to involve grand speeches by the president, followed by…not much, and continuing snide insinuations by a Republican dominated congress that we wore our skirts too short and asked for it) is not making it easy for them to come back.

The musician’s problems are really just a microcosm of the Catch 22 situation facing the city at large. Many businesses are up and running again, but face acute shortages of staff. There are ‘help wanted’ signs everywhere, but no affordable housing for workers to live in. Other businesses are suffering from a lack of custom, but once again, where would these customers live? And the nightclub business has always counted on the tourist trade, but tourists are in short supply right now.

Still other businesses and residents are reluctant to return because of the uncertainty of the days ahead. Will there be affordable electricity? (The power company, Entergy, is bankrupt, and electricity rates will likely double or triple in the next year unless they receive a federal bailout such as was extended to New York’s Con Edison Company after 9/11. The Bush administration so far is refusing to do this). Will the levees be shored up to withstand a category five storm? (They were supposedly good up to a Cat Three. Katrina had actually slowed to Category Two by the time it reached New Orleans, but the faultily designed levees gave way. Documentation has now come to light showing that concerns about the levees viability were brushed off by senior management at the Army Corps of Engineers in 1990. The city of New Orleans was not destroyed by a “natural disaster,” but by cronyism and incompetence).

Given the fact that New Orleans was laid low by bureaucracies beyond it’s control, one would think responsible and compassionate leadership at the federal level would demand a sweeping, national effort to make things right. But that kind of leadership is not currently on offer at the White House.

The truly scary thing is that the aspects of New Orleans that most people think of when they think about the city are more or less intact. The Garden District and the French Quarter did not flood. Bourbon Street, otherwise known as the “March of the Drunken Collegiate Zombies,” is back up and running, although the strip joints are mostly filled with contractors and real-estate sharpies now. A bartender acquaintance says she loathes the creeping ‘sports bar ambience’ that’s beginning to infect the Quarter.

The truth is, the powers that be are just fine with a New Orleans that’s nothing more than a kind of x-rated theme park for conventioneers and college students, and a help desk for the oil industry. The street-level culture that created so much great music and art here holds no value for them. And anyway, a lot of those people are African-Americans, who tend to vote democrat and sometimes join unions and make unreasonable demands for things like decent wages and health-care benefits.

On my bad days I think this is the end of it. The marvelous accident that was South Louisiana is doomed, and will soon look just like the rest of North America. And then there are days when I realize how stubborn New Orleanians are. These are the same people who won’t leave for hurricanes. The same people who, when a flash-flood inundated Antoine’s restaurant with a foot of water in 1972, stripped off their suits and ties, placed them in plastic bags, and finished lunch in their skivvies.

Around the corner from us, on the corner of Bellecastle and Annunciation, is Domilise’s Bar and Po’ Boy. It is not a restaurant of note. It’s a homely little neighborhood joint, run by the same family for three generations that, before the flood, did a modest but consistent business, mostly with people from the neighborhood, or people who used to live in the neighborhood. Since Katrina folks have been lining up out the door every day at lunchtime. When almost everything about your city that you once knew and loved has been destroyed, you cherish what is left.

Late in the afternoon of December 31st, I thought I heard a band. I’d been faked out like this before (there’s a lot of roofers around wielding hammers these days, and some of them can really swing) but when I heard a Sousaphone sketching out the funky bass-line to “Feets Don’t Fail Me Now,” I knew I was hearing the genuine article. When you live in New Orleans you become hard-wired to the stimulus of music, and Darlene and I immediately ran out the door and around the corner towards the sound.

It was a parade. With the Re-Birth Band. And crowds of people in weird costumes, with drinks in hand, dancing in the street. The procession boogied on up Annunciation, doubtless to make a stop at Domilise’s (musicians are not fools; a bar stop means they will be honored with free food and drink), and Darlene and I joined in, because that’s what we do in this town. Come wind, rain, or Republicans in the White House, we’re going to make some music, get out there in the streets, do our thing, be in that number.

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