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."

Saturday, January 07, 2006


A couple of months back, when Darlene and I were shivering in our Vancouver, Canada evacuation digs, it occurred to me that the great untold story of Hurricane Katrina may turn out to be the deep internal malaise that often settles on New Orleanians when they are forced to leave their hometown. People who were born here tend to stay here, and if they leave, they often find life outside the city intolerable and return. Pianist Marcia Ball’s lyric to “La Ti Ta” says it well.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’re gone.

We’re gonna party when you come home.

And when you get back,

Everything gonna be the same.”

This is a real, true thing. A lot a people in New Orleans can throw a ‘family get together,’ make a half dozen phone calls, and two hundred people will show up. Unlike other American cities, with their high levels of mobility and rootless, post-modern social structures, it is not at all unusual in New Orleans to meet people whose families have lived here since the 18th century.

While it’s true that some white, well-to-do neighborhoods (Lakeview, Lakevista) were among those decimated by the flooding, there are now vast swaths of the city in the 6th, 7th and lower 9th wards that are essentially empty of their (predominantly African-American) inhabitants. Many of these people owned their own homes, modest though they may have been. Very few fit the stereotype of the welfare-bum- ghetto-dweller (‘welfare,’ as it existed in the pre-Reagan era, is no longer an option in this country). The 6th and 7th wards in particular were the dwelling places of many old, Creole-Of-Color families, people prominent in the building trades traditionally dominated by that particular social and racial class. These are the folks who repair and maintain the beautiful plaster moldings and medallions in the fine, old homes for which the city is justly famous. Many early jazz musicians came from families like these. The Bechet’s, the Ferbos’, the Picous. Now they are scattered throughout the country, working menial, minimum-wage jobs. There’s not much demand for ornate, scrolled ironwork in Salt Lake City. And they are also beyond the reach of the longstanding support networks of extended family, church, and social club, many for the first time in the lives. For some I fear that this winter may be, sadly, too much to bear.

So far though, the only person I knew personally (and only slightly at that) who has succumbed to this malaise is filmmaker Stevenson Palfi (1952-2005). The director of ‘Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together,’ a documentary featuring New Orleans piano legends Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint playing together in the studio, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in his badly flooded home on Banks Street.

I first saw “Piano Players…” when it ran on American public television over twenty years ago, and was impressed by how deftly Palfi had captured the New Orleans vibe, something very, very few filmmakers have managed to do. Professor Longhair died during the filming, and Palfi had the prescience to capture his jazz funeral on film.

Informed of his death, Allen Toussaint said, “My friend Stevenson Palfi’s life’s work was immortalizing others and in doing so, he has immortalized himself.”

Next week, my wife Darlene and I plan to set ourselves up in the viewing room at the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University with a copy of “Piano Players..,” and indulge ourselves with a private screening. Of the three pianists in the film, Toussaint is the only one surviving. With Palfi’s death, the circle grows smaller.



Blogger Haze Ablaze said ... (10:53 AM) : 

Hey John,

The continued loss of life continues to disturb. You did right by Mr. Palfi with that eulogy.

I've moved to this more public forum - I'm going to circulate it as much as possible in order to restore a little, ah, reality and humanity to the inaccurate, sadistic and plain annoying portrayals of New Orleans these days.

Let me know if/when you'll be gigging locally.

Haze Ablaze/Lisa

(I'll link ya when I figure out the mechanics of blogroll.)


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