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, September 01, 2006

The Lower Nine.

“ I’m an uptown ruler from the 13th ward

‘Little Liza Jane’

Blood shiffa hoonah I won’t be bowed

‘Little Liza Jane’

I told my mama, done told my wife

I’m gonna mask that morning it cost my life.”

Neville Brothers: Little Liza Jane

Tuesday’s ‘Katrina Anniversary’ was an extremely weird experience. This is really the first time in my life that I’ve been right in the middle of a major historical event, yet also able to view it (through the ‘magic’ of the boob tube) as others perceive it (or mis-perceive it). Seeing just how much the mainstream media gets screamingly wrong is giving me a new appreciation of the narrow line between reportage and narrative fiction.

Putting aside the obvious biases and water-carrying on behalf of the Bush administration that many of these outlets pander in, a lot of them don’t even bother with stuff like basic background information. I guess they figure the viewer will be bored if they don’t get right to the maudlin sentimentality and vicarious porno-violence that makes up most of television ‘news reporting.’ A prime example of this would be the ‘devastation of the ninth ward.’

Wards in New Orleans refer to electoral boundaries, and most middle class white people here don’t know much about them. For poor black folks though, they are a kind of tribal marker and source of community pride. Hip-hop music references them constantly, both in song (‘Sixth Ward Niggah’) and in the ‘noms-de-disc’ that artists adopt (‘Third Ward Weebie’). If you live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, it’s easy to get caught up in the romance. Darlene and I just recently moved from the 13th ward to the 6th ward, and already we feel a strange sense of dislocation and loss, because ‘the Mighty 13’ has such historical resonance. The Neville Brothers grew up there (Art Neville still lives there, on Valence Street, just a few blocks from our old pad) and the place is celebrated in their songs, as well as those of the local Mardi Gras Indian gang, the Wild Tchoupitoulas. Most 6th ward musical offerings are in the Hip-hop genre, and that doesn’t quite resonate with folks our age.

Since Katrina though, everybody knows the ninth ward as the place where the shit really hit the fan, where the water ripped houses right off their foundations and tossed cars up into trees. Pre-Katrina, it was nationally known as a place of violence and drug dealing and murder, the ‘psycho ward.’

But there are really two ninth wards, the ‘upper ninth ward,’ and the ‘lower ninth ward,’ known locally as ‘the lower nine.’ The upper ninth ward has recently become kind of trendy, in no small part due to the ‘re-branding’ (by local real estate companies) of the place as ‘Bywater,’ an effort to avoid referencing the financially poisonous ‘ninth ward’ moniker (sort of like calling the northwest Bronx “Riverdale.” The ‘B’ word must be avoided at all costs). The ninth ward in general has always been an unfashionable, working class place, but the increasing presence of trendy, artistic types in the upper ninth (driven there by the increasing yuppification of the 8th ward, now re-branded back to it’s original 18th century name, the Faubourg Marigny) had left the lower nine as the last bastion of uncorrupted, down and dirty funkiness in New Orleans, with a fierce, territorial sense of pride. When you asked people from that neighborhood where they were from, they didn’t say “New Orleans.” They said “Lower Nine.”

Well into the seventies, the Lower Nine was racially mixed. People who lived there tended to own their modest homes, and many worked on the docks walloping freight, or in one of several meat packing and food processing plants in the area. White flight to the suburbs changed the demographics, and the advent of container freight took the jobs. By the time I moved to New Orleans in 2003, the place was falling apart, because although many of the residents owned their houses, the minimum wage service industry jobs that had replaced long-shoring jobs didn’t pay enough to maintain them. It had also aquired a reputation as the most violent neighborhood in a very tough town.

My own experience of the ‘hood was surprisingly benign. I found that I quite liked it’s sense of community and history. In fact, my wife Darlene and I recently looked into purchasing a house there. It was a beautiful place, right across from Holy Cross Catholic School, and the idea of buying a house in the worst neighborhood in town appealed to my contrarian nature. But our saner selves prevailed, because paying $149,000 for a house that took two feet of water seemed a bit much. Plus, we didn’t have the down payment even for that.

Musically, New Orleans neighborhoods work hard at distinguishing themselves one from another, and the Lower Nine definitely has it’s own groove going, especially with drummers. Doctor John’s drummer Herman ‘Roscoe’ Ernest can (and will, given half a chance) hold forth at great length on the distinctive sticking techniques and use of accent patterns used by players in the Lower Nine. Percussion patriarch Deacon Frank Lastie was from the neighborhood, and his descendants continue to shape the music to this day. His son David was a tenor player who performed on countless R&B records and his other son Melvin (cornet) played with Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley before moving to Los Angeles to make a career in the studios. Wynton Marsalis drummer Herlin Riley is Deacon Frank’s grandson, as is Preservation Hall drummer Joe Lastie.

Probably the most poignant image to hit the mainstream media was the shot of Fats Domino’s rescue by boat from his house at the corner of Caffin and Marais streets. The fact that a musician of Fats’ stature, who could afford to live anywhere he liked, would stay in the Lower Nine is indicative of the hold the area has on it’s residents, as well as a mark of their character. Apparently, black New Orleanians have a reputation outside the city as bloodthirsty gangbangers. My own impression is that they are among the kindest and most sweet-natured people on earth. Fats himself is probably the shyest ‘rock star’ on the planet.

His houses (there are two of them, a large modern place on Marais, and a smaller old-fashioned shotgun house right next door on Caffin) were ruined, and Fats and his extended family are parked out in the suburb of Kenner now. For someone whose family has lived in the same two square miles for eight generations, it must be like an exodus to the moon. Kenner, Louisiana is out by Armstrong Airport, and is for the most part a modern, characterless suburb such as might be found in any sun-belt city in America. It is the exact diametric opposite of a place like the Lower Nine, which is like most other New Orleans neighborhoods in it’s insular, tribal nature; a place where life is lived outdoors and anonymity is impossible. Going to the store can take an hour, because there are so many neighbors to visit on the way.

It is Fats exile, it seems to me, that puts it all in perspective. To many of you who live elsewhere, what has happened here probably seems abstract, like earthquakes in Asia or Tsunamis in the South Seas. I myself was guilty of this kind of disconnection, believing (wrongly, as is so clear to me now) that these kinds of things happened only elsewhere in the world . I now know that the tragedies here, as there, are personal and vivid, not newsreel footage, and that the people involved, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, are just like me.

I love living here. But it breaks my heart every single day.

Comments on "The Lower Nine."


Blogger Haze Ablaze said ... (11:41 AM) : 

I love living here. But it breaks my heart every single day.



Blogger anomaly76 said ... (4:17 PM) : 

Couldn't have put it better.



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