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."

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.

Comments on "Down These Mean Streets, Such Beauty Comes..."


Blogger Steve Bagnell said ... (10:54 AM) : 

It's easy for us up here to think it can't all be about race. Wrapped in our Canadian multicultural security blanket, we want to think the so-called civilized world is no longer that way. We don't have it thrust in our faces on a daily basis.

I have lived in Vancouver for over 25 years with a beautiful and intelligent black wife and now a 9-year-old daughter and I can honestly say that I have never seen or experienced overt racism towards my family in that time.

The worst we used to get were the genteel questions, usually in plummy British tones, "What island are you from, dear?" 5th-generation Canadian if you must know - when did you get off the boat from Felixstowe?

That is not to say that sort of shit is not here. We just don't travel in the circles where this would come up. The ugly truth about Vancouver is that there are lots of larger groups of minorities towards which that small group of pinheads can direct their impotent hatred. Certainly there would be many, many people here whose personal experiences would be vastly different from our own.

It's the prime reason why we've never travelled as a couple to the South. We went to Montana once and did hit a couple of towns that got the old spidey-sense tingling. Maybe the piss-stinking cowboy bar that advertised prarie oyster eating contests was not the best place to stop for a bite. Maybe.


Blogger John Doheny said ... (12:57 PM) : 

Wow. You and Dave Say are both married to black women, and both play in the same sax section in the Douglas College rehearsal band. Considering there's about 25 black people in all of Canada, what are the chances? :-)

New Orleans is actually about the most integrated American city I've ever seen, at least in terms of it's housing patterns. There's a lot of 'mixed' neighborhoods, and it's very unusual to encounter a black neighborhood without a few token honkies, or a white one without the occasional black resident (even the snooty Garden District has Terence Blanchard). But the area also has a long, brutal history of suppression and violence against people of color. The integration of the public school system in the 1960s was accomplished in the clumsiest manner possible, with resistance from both white residents and elected officials. When the Catholic school system jumped the gun and decided to integrate before the public one, the infamous Judge Leander Perez made it clear that anyone employed by the Parish who sent their child to an integrated Catholic school would be out of a job. One of his more famous rants included the words, "don't let our daughters be raped by these Congolese."

But like everything else down here, it ain't quite that simple.Prior the the Civil War, Louisiana had a large population of Free People of Color or Gens de Coleurs Libre who had never been slaves (and often owned slaves themselves) and who prospered in commerce and various trades. After reconstruction, the descendants of these people were represented in large numbers among early jazzmen. Creoles of Color today tend to dominate civic government in New Orleans, and they are notorious snobs. No white bigot can match a Creole for ranting on about those lazy negroes in the projects.

The thing is,most white folks who had 'issues' about living on equal terms with African Americans fled to the suburbs after integration of the public school system (those were the folks the Gretna Sherrif's Dept. were 'protecting' when they turned back the Katrina evacuees at gunpoint on the Crescent City Connection bridge). Those who stayed tend to be cool about living in a majority black city, for the most part.


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