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, October 03, 2006

But Beautiful...

It occurred to me the other day that this column must come across as a real bummer sometimes. I rattle on about death and destruction and loss and what a sackful of bastards the Bush administration are, and people must wonder why I stay in this horrible place. It was like that even pre-Katrina. I remember talking to a guy up in Vancouver a couple of years ago, and describing the crime and violence and corruption and heat and humidity and the broken school system (the only things they consistently taught to excellence were sports and band) and he said something to the effect that it sounded like hell on earth. I said no man, it’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful place to live. And he gave me one of those looks, like I needed medicating or something.

People who love New Orleans tend to really, really love it. Few cities inspire this kind of devotion, New York, Paris, Rome…the list isn’t much longer than that. I’ve lived in a few different places, some by choice, others for more mundane or utilitarian reasons. I even thought I ‘loved’ living in one or two of them. But that wasn’t real love, not the irrational, obsessive, dysfunctional, sometimes even destructive love I feel for this place. This is some kind of municipal-level erotomania here, with a heaping side-helping of sentimentality. New Orleanians are hard core. No drearily sane human being would have put up with this place even the way it was before. But if all you want is clean streets and good government, there’s always Kansas. This is the kind of place that inspires people to emotional excess. I did a phoner interview on August 29th (the Katrina anniversary) for CBC Radio Canada and actually choked up on-air. It was embarrassing.

The history and culture here are not abstract things in books, but a living reality lived by us all, everyday. The summed total of many small things, oblique encounters, experiences and events, make it a place I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave.

Here are some of them, in no particular order:


No, I’m not talking about prim little Dana Carvey church ladies. I’m talking substantial, African-American church ladies in their best Sunday dress and hat. I’m talking Sister Big Bone, bruh. When we lived in the 13th ward they used to gather every Sunday around the corner from our house at the Springhill Missionary Baptist Church, an unassuming little cinder block place that would have been easy to mistake for an auto parts warehouse if not for the sign, and the crowd of sharp-dressed black folks going in and out.

In our new 6th ward ‘hood the nearest church is St. Peter Clavier a few blocks down St. Anne. Black Catholics in New Orleans can be just as flamboyant as Ebenezer Baptists or African Methodist Episcopalians or even some of the Holiness churches, but St. Peter is far enough away so I haven’t had occasion to pass by on a Sunday morning yet. But a couple of Sundays ago, Darlene and I were driving on South Claiborne when we noticed a young black woman in a Nissan Sentra pulled up next to us at a stop light. Her windows were up so we could barely hear the music, but she must have had the WYLD Sunday morning gospel show on, because she was clapping her hands and grooving, making the whole car shake. When she saw us looking she waved and smiled, and drove off throwing her hand up in the air, index finger forward, the sign to “move on up a little higher.”


A lot has been written about the barbershop’s role as unifier and community conduit and I’m not going to go over that again here, except to point out what may not be obvious to white folks, which is that black people cut their hair a lot. Once a week is about average. It just would not do to hit the street with one’s fade looking ratty. Katrina flooded out many barbershops and I remember last winter a lot of barbers setting up under tents on the berms of abandoned or ruined gas stations up and down South Claiborne Avenue. But lately I’ve been seeing crowds in front of actual four-walls-and-a-roof barbershops again, including the other Saturday morning at an establishment in Gert-town called the New Directions. Four chairs, and there must have been at least eight customers waiting on each one, including many fathers with their sons. I have a soft spot for this last because I remember my own father taking me to the barber shop when I was little. It was my introduction to the world of men, and I responded, as did the little wigglers at the New Directions, by behaving as the men did, speaking gravely of manly concerns and engaging in teasing banter. This sort of bonding with adults seems to be disappearing in the world, where young people often seem to exist in a world devoid of adults, a kind of Planet Teen where anyone even a few years older is regarded as hopelessly out of it and not worthy of respect. In New Orleans, where pre-Katrina it sometimes seemed we were losing a whole generation of young black men to drugs and the street, seeing young boys and their fathers at the barbershop seems like grounds for cautious optimism.


New Orleans is justifiably famous for grand architecture, and rightly so. The stuff you’re likely to see here as a tourist falls into roughly two categories; French Quarter Eclectic and Garden District Victorian. The French Quarter stuff dates from the 18th century and is actually Spanish (the original French settlement having burned to the ground), the Garden District was developed after the Louisiana purchase of 1803, and reflects wealthy Americans obsession with creating their own versions of English manor houses. The French Quarter looks remarkably European, with the dormer windows, gallery-covered sidewalks and ornate ironwork that most people associate with New Orleans. The Garden District is where you find the antebellum mansions, the “old south” stuff. The streetcar ride up St. Charles Avenue gets pretty Gone With The Wind. If you were to get off the streetcar and walk towards the lake though, you’d see the Potemkin Village aspect of New Orleans, with grand mansions facing the tourist boulevard and desperate slums a few blocks back. Even those slums have magnificent architecture though. Because they were built before the advent of air conditioning, the houses have high ceilings, and generous porches and galleries. Because houses were taxed by the amount of street frontage, you’ll often encounter modest, narrow facades that expand back and back in all kinds of innovative and weird ways, with extra rooms and camel-back additions added on higgledy piggledy. Because there’s not a lot of money around, over the years people tend to add on to existing structures rather than demolish them and build bigger. It’s been said here that ‘poverty is the best architectural preservative.’


There is nothing, I mean nothing, like going about your day and suddenly hearing the spangle of a trumpet, the thud of a drum, and you realize it’s a parade and you run out of your house or park your car and follow it for, you know…a long ways, and then suddenly realize you were supposed to be somewhere twenty minutes ago, and you go to your appointment and explain you got held up by a parade or a funeral, and they totally understand.


The prevailing vibe in New Orleans is always Thank You. Thank you for this blessed day. Thank you for waking me up this morning.. Thank you for my friends and family. I’ve had people who own nothing, not even a car, and who work like dogs at the most menial, low jobs, tell me they are blessed. And they say that if you give a blessing, you will receive one in return. So here, in no particular order, are some people I’d like to thank, some of whom don’t even know me, or know me only as a face on the street. Thank you and bless you all.

The wino I see everyday outside the jail at Tulane and Broad, who yesterday started dancing and singing along to Al Green’s version of “Never Found Me A Girl” as it played on my car radio.

Melvin, Spug and Zelda for starting up the domino game on Palmyra street again. Welcome back, boo.

Second Chief Rob, of the Golden Arrows Mardi Gras Indian gang.

Harry “SwampThing” Cook of the Hot Eight brass band.

My old neighbors in the 13th ward, Miss Louise, Mister Parker, and the Poplion family (Therron, Elenore, Christina, and Little T).

My new neighbors in the 6th ward. I look forward to getting to know all of you.

My wife Darlene, most of all. I love you today, and every day.

Tulane University, for letting me run with it.

Frederick Sanders, John Dobry, Jim Markway and Kevin O’Day, for being great players and even greater friends.

God bless us and keep us all, through another hurricane season.

Comments on "But Beautiful..."


Blogger Steve Bagnell said ... (10:06 AM) : 

That's a damn fine post, but how about the food? A real bowl of gumbo? The coffee with chicory? A city where everyone knows what lagniappes and pirogues are?

Living in a city that's never had a really decent Cajun or Creole restaurant is a challenge. It's gotten to the point where some restaurants' idea of Cajun spicing is an extra shot of pepper.

Now excuse me while I go pleasure myself with my autographed copy of Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen...


Blogger John Doheny said ... (9:16 AM) : 

The last year or so I've been on a 'naturopathic' diet which, regrettably, proscribes anything I'd call real food . I'm pretty much limited to chicken, fish, and vegetables. No dairy. No wheat. No cheese ("what's life without cheese?" I asked. "Longer," replied Dr. Aaron Hoo.)

The good news (and the only reason I've been able to continue this lunacy as long as I have) is that I can 'fall off the wagon' once a week. If I'm broke, I just cook up a huge pot of chicken and suasage gumbo at home. But if I'm flush, Darlene and I will hit Franky and Johnny's, or Liuzza's, or the Parkway Tavern, all places where you can eat yourself into a coma for under $20.

My next post will likely be the food porn you're hankering for. If you're good, I'll even let the cat out of the bag about a little ghetto fried chicken place so undercover that their number isn't even in the phone book.


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