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 27, 2007

Another One Gone...

Jazz and R&B reedman Frederick "Shep" Sheppard was found dead January 21st of liver disease in Phoenix, his home after he evacuated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He was 61.

I didn't know Mr. Sheppard personally, but I certainly knew him by reputation. He was another one of those reliable, journeyman players who used to populate the music business in great numbers but are now a rapidly vanishing breed. He'd worked as a sideman with R&B players like Otis Redding and Ray Charles, performed in several brass bands in the New Orleans area and was always turning up on gigs with local bandleaders like Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Irma Thomas, Eddie Bo, Bob French, Bo Dollis, Walter Payton, Greg Stafford and Cyril Neville. Like a lot of New Orleans players he could cover a lot of styles and was strong on all the doubles (flute, clarinet, soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones) and also doubled on Fender bass, an instrument he picked up in the 1960s when club owners began booking rock bands in place of jazz. Many of you may have seen him, sharply turned out in his signature suit and hat, as part of the New Orleans band featured on the NBC television program "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

Sheppard is a prime example of why the music scene in New Orleans is in real trouble these days. Like many musicians who wish to return to the city, he found himself the victim of a double whammy; unable to earn a healthy income in the city, and priced out of an overheated real estate market.

While the surface of the music scene here looks as active as ever (most clubs are open again, and there are even a few new additions) the club scene is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of income for many musicians. Out of the public eye pre-Katrina were all kinds of bread-and-butter gigs playing for jazz funerals, second-line parades, community picnics and sporting events and corporate shindigs in the big, downtown hotels. The corporate stuff is slowly starting to come back but all the rest was largely rooted in (and financed by) the African-American community. And while it's true that some primarily white neighborhoods here took a bad hit (Lakeview in New Orleans and St. Bernard parish downriver being primary examples) it's just a fact that black neighborhoods took the brunt of it, and that those same neighborhoods often contained people who have the fewest resourses to rebuild with. There was an awful lot of 'community' music in New Orleans pre-Katrina, and a lot of those communities aren't back.

And then there's the rent. One of the reasons New Orleans was such an attractive place for musicians was that it was possible to participate in a live music scene that had, per capita, as much straight-ahead jazz as Manhattan going on, but it wasn't necessary to pay out huge rent dollars for the dubious privilege of living like a rat. Good ole supply (as in there ain't none) and demand (huge) has changed all that. We're not quite up to the NYC standard yet, but we're definitely up to Vancouver's. The current labor shortage in the city is directly tied to this, and it's not just affecting low-wage service industry workers. The Recovery District school system has a huge teacher shortage (they've had to wait-list 300 students this semester) and is having great difficulty attracting teachers to the area, even offering a starting wage of $36,900, not bad by American standards.

The more I see guys like Sheppard dying off like this, the better I feel about pulling the plug on my career as a full-time musician while I still had my health. This country simply does not treat it's artists (or even it's entrepenuers) very well. Most people who live outside the U.S. aren't fully present to just how fucked up the situation is. Even the lucky ones (like me) who are covered by employee-based health insurance plans have to deal with significant co-pays and deductables, and can face the prospect of bankruptcy and homelessness in the event of serious illness. Musicians, or anyone foolish enough to work for themselves, either have to rely on private plans if they can afford them ( and they can be denied coverage completely for reasons as trivial as childhood asthma) or throw themselves on the mercy of the various 'charitable' alternatives (musicians clinics, charity hospital systems, neighborhood medical clinics) which nevertheless often still demand payment on the level of, say, 10% of cost, in addition to sometimes being the kind of third world hell-holes that you'd expect in a culture that views poverty as a moral failure on the part of the poor.

Being a musician is not a healthy lifestyle choice in this country.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Repeat After Me.

Occasionally I forget how much misinformation (or perhaps a better word would be un-information) gets passed around about our situation here. I just fielded a query from a friend in Austin, a guy who's visited the city many times before, wanting my take on the crime situation. I replied that from a tourist perspective, it's a non-issue. Most of the slaughter takes place, as it always has, over drugs and turf in areas of the city most tourists have no reason to go anywhere near. Dinerral Shavers, the second most prominent non-thuggery-involved victim of homicide this year, died in the 2600 block of Dumaine St., corner of North Broad, not an intersection most tourists are likely to see, even from a speeding car.

As I've said before, Helen Shaver's murder was given a high MSM profile because she was a nice white lady. I mean no disrespect by that, but it is a fact. Most out-of-town media couldn't resist spicing up the porno-violence quotient by referring to her neighborhood (the Fauxbourg Marigny) as a "quiet, middle class neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter." This is slightly disengenious (their house was actually more in the St. Roch area, which real estate interests have taken to calling the "New Marigny" but that would be best, and most kindly, described as 'transitional') and shows no sense of even recent history. I have friends who moved to the area 15 years ago and described it as a part of town some folks wouldn't even drive through. In recent years it's started to gentrify, and post-Katrina it appears to be going downhill somewhat (as is a neighborhood with a similar history, the Lower Garden District) but it's still better now than it was then by a long shot.

Bottom line, tourist areas like the Quarter, Garden District proper, and Audubon Park are about as 'safe' as they've ever been. Probably more so than in the 80s, when crack cocaine hit this city like a bomb.

For those of us who live here, this stuff is of concern because of it's systemic nature. The city is broke. The local monopoly utility (Entergy) is broke, and rather than receiving a federal bailout (as did Con Ed after 9/11) it is taking it out of it's captive customer's hides. Darlene and I got a bill last month for $271 for heating our house, which is more than my cousin pays for heat in northwestern Canada. The actual gas bill was only $40, but the 'gas purchase levy' (read 'bailing out our bankrupt ass' fee) was $160.

Meanwhile, the city has no crime lab, so cases often get kicked because physical evidence can't be developed. The DA is a grandstanding egomaniac racist who was sued pre-Katrina in federal court for firing every white face in his office. And don't even get me started on the "Danziger Seven." There's enough villains and incompetents, both black and white, to go around several times.

The most egregious line of bullshit though, the one that keeps getting shouted from the rooftops even by allegedly well meaning sob-sisters like Anderson Cooper, is that New Orleans was "destroyed by a hurricane." We were not "hit by Katrina." We were missed by Katrina.

Repeat after me. New Orleans was destroyed by flooding resulting from incompetently designed and faultily constructed levees which failed well below their design specs.

Designed and constructed by the Army Corps Of Engineers.

Federal. Agency.

You can rattle on all you want about corrupt Louisiana politics (no argument there) and lazy negroes on welfare in the projects (even though the vast majority of project dwellers were employed, at minimum wage service industry jobs) but the failure of the levees belongs to the feds. It's their baby. They broke it. They should fix it.

Here's a letter that appeared in the Hartford Courant. The author puts it all in a nutshell, including a particularly pithy jab in the last 'graph, which I've taken the liberty of italicizing.

" I take issue with the statement that "Katrina was proof that the levee system is unable to withstand the strongest hurricanes" [editorial, Jan. 11, "New Orleans Needs Leadership"].The Army Corps of Engineers built the 17th Street canal to hold a column of 14 feet of water. According to its own report, mistakes in design caused the concrete structure to unzip from its foundation under a load of only 4 to 5 feet of water. The identical design at the London Avenue canal performed nearly identically in its failure.

This acknowledged engineering failure was responsible for flooding tens of thousands of homes, including mine.It means the Army killed more U.S. citizens on American soil than at any time since 1865.Had these levees not failed, political incompetence at the federal, state and local level wouldn't be an issue.

To those who would ask "Why would you build a city below sea level?" the answer is the same as why I would snack on peanuts in an aluminum tube five miles above the Earth: It was engineered to be safe. Had the Army Corps of Engineers built the last Boeing I flew in, the wings would have come off halfway down the runway. And the spin would be all about the race and class of the people aboard at the time of the crash.

Mike MoserOrlando, Fla.
The writer is a former resident of the Lakeview section of New Orleans.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Housing Crisis

This is a bit of a dry read, but it's important to understand what's happening with public housing in New Orleans at the moment. Market housing has been priced out of reach of most service industry workers. Consequently, retail businesses of all kinds, as well as bars and restaurants, have tremendous staffing problems. Musicians (most of whom survive on pretty marginal pay) are having great difficulty finding places to live. Many are living in shacks, or on friends couches. Even people with more middle-class incomes, like postal workers, can't find affordable accomodation. That's why there are no mailboxes in New Orleans post-Katrina. There's not enough posties to empty them. If you want to mail a letter, you've got to take it to the post office.

Save NOLA Affordable Housing Fact Sheetfrom: http://www.dollarsandsense.org/blog/2006/12/save-nola-affordable-housing-fact.htmlThe following fact sheet came via an email from Bill Quigley. It has also been posted on justiceforneworleans.org, a website maintained by the Loyola University of New Orleans Law Clinic, which Quigley directs.

1. New Orleans is in the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War. The US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that the city is 100% rented as tens of thousands of homes remain wrecked. There was a waiting list of 18,000 people for public and section 8 housing pre-Katrina. When the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) opened list for Section 8 in 2001, 19 thousand people applied.

2. Despite this, HUD has announced plans to demolish 4,534 apartments of public housing garden-style apartments:* 1546 in BW Cooper* 723 in C.J. Peete* 1400 in St. Bernard* 865 in Lafitte

3. John Fernandez, Associate Professor of Architecture at MIT, has inspected 140 of these apartments and has concluded “no structural or nonstructural damage was found that could reasonably warrant any cost-effective building demolition…Therefore, the general conclusions are: demolition of any of the buildings of these four projects is not supported by the evidence of the survey; replacement of these buildings with contemporary construction would yield buildings of lower quality and shorter lifetime duration; the original construction methods and materials of these projects are far superior in their resistance to hurricane conditions than typical new construction and, with renovation and regular maintenance, the lifetimes of the buildings in all four projects promise decades of continued service that may be extended indefinitely.”

4. HANO's own documents show that:* Lafitte could be repaired for $20million, even completely overhauled for $85 million, yet estimate for demolition and rebuilding many fewer units will cost $100m;* St. Bernard could be repaired for $41m, substantially modernized for $130m, demolition and rebuilding LESS UNITS will cost $197m;* BW Cooper could be substantially renovated for $135 million compared to $221m to demolish and rebuild LESS UNITS;* HANOs own insurance company reported that it would take less than $5000 each to repair CJ Peete apartments.

5.* St. Bernard will go from 1400 units to 595 apartments – of which 145 will be market rate – leaving 160 low-income public housing units and 160 tax credit (mixed income) units.* CJ Peete will go from 723 units to 410 units – 154 public housing; 133 tax credit (mixed income) and 123 market.* BW Cooper will go from 1546 units to 410 units – 154 public housing, 133 tax credit (mixed income) and 123 market.* Lafitte will go from 865 to only a fraction as well.

6. The developers of these properties will get federal assistance to demolish habitable affordable housing in the following amounts:* $12.8m in Go Zone tax credits for Lafitte, plus $16.3m in CDBG funds* $7.4m in Go Zone tax credits for St. Bernard plus $27m in CDBG funds* $6.9m in Go Zone tax credits for BW Cooper plus $27m in CDBG funds* $7.3m in Go Zone tax credits for CJ Peete plus $27m in CDBG funds

7. New York Times Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, criticized this demolition saying on November 19, 2006: “Modestly scaled, they include some of the best public housing built in the United States….Solidly built, the buildings’ detailed brickwork, tile roofs and wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public housing complex.”

Interestingly enough, HANO (Housing Authority of New Orleans) was taken over by HUD (a federal agency) about three years ago.

Pre-Katrina, Orleans Parish voted overwhelmingly for democratic candidates in municipal, state, and federal elections. Much of this support came from the African-American community, and from residents of public housing.

If I were a real paranoid, I might think there was some sort of connection here.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Random Shutterbuggery.

I've got a bunch of photos that I had Jeff, the guy who manages my website (www.johndoheny.com) load up a while back, and since I've never publicly posted them anywhere I thought I'd put them on here. They were all taken by my wife Darlene.

The three color shots are all from 2005 Mardi Gras Day. The float is from the Zulu parade. The pantheon of Zulu personalities are all spoofs of pretentious white officialdom found in other old line Krewes (and caucasian society in general), in this case, the "Big Shot." The band on the truck bed was taken about 7:30 a.m. Carnival Day behind our old place in the 13th ward. The Jefferson City Buzzards social aid and pleasure club was right over our back fence, and this band was part of the ructions they were perpetrating that morning. The Buzzards are currently in some kind of Old Europe phase (they used to parade in drag), which offers the early morning hallucinatory spectacle of a bunch of beefy Irish and Italian guys marching around dressed up like Henry the VIII, while passing out doubloons and paper flowers to women in exchange for a kiss on the cheek. Darlene commented later that she'd heard two bands and been kissed by three strange man, all before eight o'clock in the morning.

The guys in the grass skirts are Zulus. Although it's hard to tell I think those are all black men behind the black-face, which would make them black guys pretending to be white guys pretending to be black guys. There is no such thing as cognitive dissonance in New Orleans.

The black and white shot is the only one not taken on Fat Tuesday 2005. It's from about a month later. Darlene and I were sitting around eating dinner, when we suddenly heard a band. After you've lived in New Orleans a while your nervous system becomes hard-wired to this kind of thing, so we immediately jumped up and ran outside to try and find the parade.

It turned out it was our neighbor, Miss Barbara, throwing a party in honor of her birthday. That's her in the forground with the paper money pinned to her t-shirt, walking towards the camera. She's saying "y'all come on in and get something to eat." Behind her, up on the porch, is the Stooges Brass Band.

I love this town.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Down These Mean Streets, Such Beauty Comes...

This whole day has felt like a dirge.

This morning I drove my wife Darlene to the airport. She's headed up to Vancouver for a month; a little business, and she's opening a solo print show at Dundarave Gallery on Granville Island. On my way back in to town, instead of taking the I-10 freeway I took the old Jefferson Highway through Rivertown in Kenner and on through Harrahan. It's sounds like a picturesque drive, and parts of it are. But most of it is straight out of the noir-est parts of a James Lee Burke novel, an endless stretch of used muffler shops and hot-pillow, rooms-by-the-hour motels. Pickles Bar and Grill. Crabby Jack's Seafood. Batman's Snowball Cave.

A colleague in the music department, Baty Landis, had organized a march today on City Hall, protesting the recent spike in violence. Baty's significant other manages the Hot 8 brass band, so she knew Dinerral Shavers. She was also close to Dr. Paul Gailiunas and his murdered wife Helen Hill. After getting off the freeway at City Park avenue and turning onto Orleans avenue towards my house, I impulsively stayed on Orleans toward the Central Business District. I figured I could at least catch the last part of the march.

Things were just breaking up as I got there. I didn't see anyone I recognized, except for a few members of the Hot 8. I was told that about three thousand people had turned up, but what was left when I got there didn't seem like much of a crowd. Maybe the argument I overheard as I walked back to my car took a bit of the wind out of my sails.

It was between a black man and a white man. A thirty-ish, hard looking black guy who was holding a sign saying "News Flash: White Woman Killed In New Orleans" was getting into it with a bohemian-looking twenty-something white cat who kept saying "but it's really not just about these two people." Well, maybe not, bruh. But doesn't it just make you feel tired to see how black folks get shot here almost literally every day, but it takes a white death to make the national news? I mean, no disrespect to Helen and Doctor Paul, but Dick Shavers was a good guy too. He was a teacher, a father, a musician, a leader in his community. But I don't see his face on fuckin CNN.

I could have said those things, but I didn't. What's the point? Why is it so hard for white people, even well meaning, liberal white people, to admit they've got a big edge in this world?

I'd parked my car in front of St. Joseph's church on Tulane Avenue, and on the walk back the sun suddenly burst through the cloud cover, bathing the vista before me in orange, mid-afternoon sunlight. It was a view you're never going to see in a tourist brochure. On my left was the rotting hulk of Charity Hospital, a huge, Dickensian pile of a building. Pre-Katrina it was the main repository of uninsured and indigent patients in Orleans Parish, scene of farcical happenings like the guy who went in for treatment of a hernia and wound up getting killed when a piece of the ceiling fell on his head. It flooded badly, and there are no plans to re-open it. The smell of mold is overpowering as I walk by.

In front of the church I walk through numerous homeless black men, some of whom are so socially disconnected they fail to acknowlege my greeting, a generic "how ya doin" (this is a serious breach of etiquitte in this city, where failure to greet a stranger on the street marks you immediately as a tourist). Others respond with "fucked up, bruh."

As I put my key in the lock I look further up the street at the giant pile of the Dixie Brewery, rumoured to be re-opening even as looters continue to make off with it's equipment, sometimes brazenly constructing ramps to do so. On the other side of the Avenue, in the shadow of the Orleans Parish Prison, for Christ-sakes! some raving optimist is redeveloping the old abandoned Falstaff brewery into luxury condominiums. It'll be interesting to see where the residents shop, since virtually every business within a two block radius is either a bail-bondsman or a criminal attorney (Turn-Em-Loose-Bruce, Easy Credit Terms! Dial 1-800-Not-Guilty!).

The realization smacks me in the face, as it has so many times before. I love this place, man! What, am I fucking crazy? It's like a Tom Waits tune with real bullets, it's no joke, my friends. It's for keepsies. I love every square inch of ground, it's all I can do to keep from falling to my knees and kissing it. This place is like a sickness in the blood. I can't help myself.

Louis Armstrong saw all this, and understood it. You gotta love people, you really do. Good, bad, or indifferent, we're all we've got. I look around me at all the sad-ass, fucked up motherfuckers on this street, and I could hug every one of them.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Told My Mama I Told My Wife, I'm Gon' Mask That Morning It Cost My Life.

One of the major reasons Darlene and I like to catch the Zulu parade in Central City is that we almost always manage to find some Indians afterwards. I've written extensively on the Indians before (see my two archived columns from Mardi Gras 2005) but as a quick thumbnail sketch for those not familiar with the tradition, Mardi Gras Indian tribes (or gangs, as their members call them) are groups of (usually) working class African-American men who spend all year sewing elaborate costumes to parade in on Carnival Day (they also make appearances on St. Joseph's Eve and 'Super Sunday,' the first Sunday after St. Joseph's day). Their processions are marked by elaborate rituals, coded gestures, challenges between tribes over who is 'prettiest,' and chanted, call-and-response songs which sometimes date back for over a century, yet are constantly referrenced in local contemporary jazz, funk, and hip-hop music.

Since the Indians regard themselves as an outlaw, warrior culture, their processions are not scheduled, and they do not purchase police permits. Subsequently, there is a certain surrepititous nature to these events (the Spyboy, who is generally a block or two ahead of the procession, can spot police and, through a series of whistles and hand-gestures, make the whole event disappear) although sometimes the Big Chief will get in an 'in-your-face' mood and take his tribe right out into traffic, or, on at least one occasion that I have witnessed, across the Rex parade route, bringing it to a halt. But usually these things happen on the down-low.

Uptown tribes have traditionally gathered in the area of Shakespeare Park (officially known as A.L. Davis playground) at the corner of Washington and LaSalle near the old Dew Drop Inn. Even though the park is now filled with FEMA trailers, we had good luck there last year. The really great thing about spotting these processions at or near their origins is that they have yet to attract huge crowds, so you can really get right up in there and participate. The Indians are all about beauty and respect. Neighborhood folks will often join in on the chorus of the songs they sing.

"I'm a little bitty boy and I do not fight.

Shoo fly, don't bother me

My axe don't get 'cha my pistol might.

Shoo fly, don't bother me."

There is a truly magical aspect to these things. The costumes seem to create a persona much larger than the people inside them, who are of course just ordinary men. In their 'suits,' they take on an aura of mythical beasts, or the Lwa spirits which inhabit the voodoo pantheon. These things, and so many others in New Orleans culture, have a sense of being part of a much larger whole, where the Indians, their songs, the voodooists and their rituals, the food, music, musicians, dancers, unique languages and cultures all work together to create an overarching vibe that really is like no place I've ever been before.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Chickie La Pas. Mardi Gras.

Darlene Bigus-Doheny, Zulu parade, 2005.

Everywhere else, the period after christmas and new years is down time, the time where you get back to work and start thinking about dieting and excersize techiques to lose that 'holiday five' you've put on. Here, it's the start of Carnival Season.

"Mardi Gras" is not just a one day thing. It's a series of parties, balls, parades and other events that starts (fairly quietly) at '12th night," twelve days after Christmas. This past Saturday, two parades rolled over in the suburbs on the West Bank (the Krewe of Allah, and another one I can't remember the name of) and the Phunny Phorty Phellows, an alliance of local business and chamber of commerce types, staged their event, which consists of renting a streetcar and running it up and down the Saint Charles Avenue line and throwing beads at people and sloshing beer out the windows. This year, because the St. Charles line is still out of service, they ran their car on the Canal line, which terminates near my house. So I got a really, really early preview of the coming parade-related traffic tie-ups to come, on my way home from a rehearsal.

Last year, for obvious reasons, there was some national debate over whether Mardi Gras would happen at all. There was even some rather mean-spirited discourse about the desirability of 'wasting tax dollars' on such 'frivolous' events, or of running parades along routes where 'people had drowned not months before." This sort of talk showed a stunning unfamiliarity with local geography in the latter case (most parade routes were along St. Charles Avenue, which didn't flood) and complete misunderstanding of local culture and tradition.

First of all, contrary to what you may have seen on "Girls Gone Wild" videos, a large part of Mardi Gras (or "Carnival" as it's known by many locals) is an event staged for the benefit of children. Really. In the weeks before Fat Tuesday, local hardware stores do a land-office business in 'Mardi Gras Ladders,' step-ladders with a box attached to the top, in which people place their toddlers in order to bring them up to the level of float-riders and give them a sporting chance at catching some 'throws'(beads, but also toys, stuffed animals, tiny frisbees, rubber spears, and aluminum coins or 'doubloons' emblazoned with the Krewe's emblem). There's a joke among native New Orleanians that the first words they learned how to say were "throw me sumpin, mistah!"

Second, Mardi Gras does not involve any 'tax dollars,' at least beyond the extra fire and police protection supplied by the city. There is also no corporate sponsorship. The entire event is paid for by the members of the carnival organizations, or Krewe's, who stage the various parades. Some of these Krewe's, like Rex, consist of the business and social elite of the city and trace their origins back a century of more. Othere's like Zulu, have their origins among working class folks, in Zulu's case, primarily African-American.

Zulu was, in fact, started as a spoof of Rex. Whereas Rex was (and still is) a deadly serious set of psuedo-European pomposities (including debutant balls, meetings of various 'royals', and a King complete with crown, orb and scepter) the first Zulu float ( in 1916) was a garbage scow, bearing a 'king' wearing a lard-can crown and holding a banana-stalk scepter. Subsequent reinery has also included basketball orbs and toilet-plunger scepters. In defiance of 'political correctness,' float riders wear black-face (even though most are black) and wear grass skirts and ridiculous wooly wigs. Ironically the club has grown from it's working-class roots into an organization boasting some of the most prominent people in the African-American community (mayor C. Ray Nagin is an honorary member) yet the clubhouse, gift shop and lounge are still at the decidedly down-market address of Orleans and Broad, just six blocks from my house.

Darlene and I like to catch Zulu from a spot at the corner of Lasalle and Jackson, in the notorious Central City ghetto. In that neighborhood, it's rare to see any tourists, and the vibe is totally different than along other, more caucasian-frequented parts of the route. Things are down home and rowdy up there. Everybody knows everybody (and they're starting to recognize us year-to-year now too, though I guess we do stand out a bit) and they often know the riders on the floats and the folks in the bands too.

This year, since we're easy walking distance from the Zulu Clubhouse (where their parade ends up) I think we'll try to catch both ends of it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Death Don't Have No Mercy In This Land.

My first day back in the office, and I'm informed that my friend Tad Jones, jazz historian, freelance writer, 'discoverer' of Louis Armstrong's 'true' birthdate, and all-round good egg, died new years eve in a freak accident. From what I can gather, he was coming home through his courtyard, which had a mal-functioning fountain in it that had created a huge pool of water on the ground. He slipped in it, cracked his head, and drowned in six inches of water.

Tad was a good cat. He was kind enough to book me at Satchmo Summerfest last year (the bread came in real handy) and was always forthcoming with advice when I needed it. When I first arrived at Tulane as a grad student, he was a guest speaker at one of my graduate seminars run by the curator of the Tulane Jazz Archive, Bruce Raeburn. When I started frothing all over him about what an honor it was to meet the man who had 'discovered' Armstrong's actual birthdate (which even two of his biographers had erroneously reported as July 4th, 1900) he fluffed it off. "It wasn't rocket science, man," he said. "I just walked into the church and said 'where da baptismal records at?'"

The lack of an official birth certificate (which few black people had in those days, since most were born at home) or a notation in a family bible (Armstrong's home environment in early life was unstable to the point of living on the street part of the time) didn't stump Tad, who figured that, since Armstrong's mother was Catholic, the church would be a good place to look for an official record. He also pointed out to me that the baptismal records DOB (August 4th 1901) was not necessarily accurate either. But at least he was smart enough to know that researching Armstrong's early life, which was spent in New Orleans up to about age 20, might possibly involve actually leaving New York or Chicago and journeying down here to our provincial little backwater for a spell. Tad, who was born and raised here, spent the last years of his life doing extensive research on Armstrong's early life and musical development. That manuscript will likely go to the jazz archive now, and many of us are hoping that it can be assembled into some kind of publishable form, perhaps along the lines of Bill Russell's "Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook."

Meanwhile, the city continues to fester. A recent 18 hour period saw 6 homicides, including a well liked local filmaker who was shot in the neck in her home on North Rampart. Her husband, a doctor, was found with three bullet wounds, cradling their unharmed toddler on the front steps. He's in stable condition in hospital. My money is on an attempted drug robbery, since he was a well known physician who had worked at the Little Doctors Clinic on Esplanade pre-Katrina.

Most of the mayhem seems to be the usual drug-related shooting and cutting, though. Wednesday night, for instance, a victim was found shot in the head in the 2700 block of St. Ann Street (about 5 blocks from my place) with a vial of crack still clutched in his hand. This does not surprise me one little bit since I've had a guy attempt to sell me drugs in that very block about a month ago. I'd been driving home from work one night and had attempted to make my usual three right turns behind the Zulu Social Aid And Pleasure Club at Orleans and North Broad (you can't turn left up Orleans, so I go around) but the police waved me off. There'd been a shooting. One cop told me that they'd been attempting to move some drug dealers out from behind the Zulu Clubhouse, but that there were so many ruined, abandoned houses in the neighborhood that the drug dealers soon set up shop elsewhere.

Sure enough, as soon as I turned up the side-street (St. Ann) there was that 'little guy' coming up on my window. "Got that rock."

In the interests of Chamber of Commerce style tourist pimping I should probably point out that none of the neighborhoods I'm talking about here are anywhere near 'tourist' areas. But all this 70s-South-Bronx type abondoned housing is really causing problems, which are being exacerbated by the capture-and-release nature of the deeply damaged and dysfunctional criminal justice system, not to mention the stress level inherent in a population with large numbers of people who have lost abso-fucking-lutely everything and often don't know from one day to the next what the future will bring. The admittedly small percentage of that population which is criminally inclined are just as stressed as everybody else, and they're a lot closer to the edge. This is what happens when a bunch of them jump off it into the black night of the soul.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Drummer Down.

As Tom Piazza states in his excellent book, "Why New Orleans Matters," sooner or later New Orleans will test any love you bring to it. I don't think of myself as a particularly naive person, and as for being 'tested,' I figure choosing to return after a catastrophic flood that damaged or destroyed 80% of the city ought to earn me some props. But I'd be lying if I said there weren't days when my faith is tested.

If you've seen Spike Lee's documentary "When The Levee Broke" you've seen the Hot 8 Brass Band. In addition to performing in the film, Hot 8 members, particularly bass drummer Bennie Peete and sousaphonist Harry "Swamp Thang" Cooke, figure prominently as interview subjects. The 8 have done clinics up at Tulane, and the member that particularly stands out in my mind is their young snare drummer Dinerral "Dick" Shavers. It came up in conversation that I had once worked as a substitute band teacher in public schools. Dick was really juiced about his gig as a band teacher at L.E. Rabouin High School. He was in the process of starting up a marching band there and was excited that they'd be marching in some Mardi Gras parades this year. He was also concerned about his 15 year old step-son. Post Katrina, they'd had to put him in a new school in a new neighborhood, and some local thugs were giving the kid grief over turf issues.

Last Thursday, Dick was shot dead while driving with his family after playing a second-line parade in the Treme. The shooting itself took place in the 2200 block of Dumaine street, but Shavers, though mortally wounded, continued to drive his family away from danger before collapsing behind the wheel in the 2600 block of Dumaine, about six blocks from my house.

Police arrested a suspect, 17 year old David Bonds, the very next day. Bonds' official statement was "I ain't did it," though possession of the murder weapon and numerous eye witnesses make a successfull defense at trial unlikely. My initial thought was that he shot the wrong guy and this indeed turned out to be the case. Tragically, it was Shaver's stepson he was gunning for.


When you talk to these knuckleheads about this kind of thing, their usual defense is something along the lines of "there's a war on out there, dog. People get hurt in a war."

Oh yeah, boo. You're a warrior. Black Hawk would be proud.

The Hot 8 is shaping up to be the Kennedy Clan of Brass Bands, having lost 4 members since 1997, three of them to street violence. The most recent of these was the 2004 shooting by police of trombonist (and grandson of legendary 9th ward drummer and patriarch "Deacon" Frank Lastie) Joseph "Shotgun" Williams. He supposedly attempted to ram NOPD members who tried to pull him over in a stolen pickup, but numerous eyewitness accounts contradict the police version of events. It's one of those stinks-to-high-heavens NOPD scuffles that never has been satisfactorily resolved. The current "Danziger Bridge" trial looks to be another of these.

I've had a number of friends and aquaintances die by violence over the course of my life. Since moving to mid-city last summer, I'd guess that about half a dozen people have been shot dead within a ten block radius of where I'm sitting right now. But there's something about Dick's death that seems extra depressing to me. Maybe I'm just tired.

There's a saying in the great Black Gospel tradition that is at the center of so much here, "No cross, no crown." If we refuse to accept the tragedy of our own and others mortality, we are incapable of receiving the rewards that are our birthright as the tremblingly vulnerable creatures we are. I'm put in mind of another great New Orleanian, the gospel genius Raymond Miles. He was a Christian. A gay Black man. A middle school teacher in the bombed out hulk of the Orleans Parish public school system. He was tacky and tasteless and sang like a bird and wore outfits that would have made Liberace blush. A carjacker shot him three times and dumped his body near Elysian Fields. He deserved so much better than that.

Our neighbor Miss Vera is cooking up a big pot of gumbo out in front of her house, and I can hear people laughing and talking outside. I'm going to go join them.

"The people keep a comin, and the train done gone."