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."

Monday, May 28, 2007

Thugged in. Thugged out.

I was practising my horn yesterday at about 4p.m. and heard shots. It turns out some 17 year old kid was murdered in the 800 block North Dupre.

I use the word 'murdered' quite deliberately. It is far too easy to fall into using a jaded and denial-based nomenclature when discussing these things here, because it is such a common occurance. That kid was homicide number 74 so far this year, and keep in mind that the estimated returned population of Orleans Parish is still well under 300,000.

His name was Anthony Placide. He was a junior at Frederick A. Douglas Senior High School. He died close to the corner where his 19 year old cousin was fatally shot in a drive-by in 2002, and an aunt was shot in a second drive-by four months later and paralyzed from the waist down.

Darlene and I have been living in the 13th and 6th wards long enough now to see a whole bumper crop of young boys reach manhood and enter the combined meat grinder that is criminal street culture and the Orleans Parish prison system. It is an absolutely horrifying and depressing process to watch up close and personal. And sooner or later (usually sooner. These kids generally have about 3 or 4 good years before going down in flames) it ends up in one of those 'jazz funerals' that tourists get so excited about. I actually saw a bumper sticker the other day that said "New Orleans: we put the 'fun' in 'funeral."

Of course Anthony Placide's last party on earth is unlikely to attract too many tourists. I have no idea if he was a 'G' or not, but if he was, his 'memory shirts' (commemorative t-shirts worn by mourners, decorated with a photo of the deceased) will likely have his dates of birth and death rendered as "thugged in" and "thugged out." If not, they will be simply "sunrise" and "sunset." His band will probably be a 'new school' outfit like the Hot 8 or the New Birth, that, unlike the bands at Alvin Batiste's recent ceremonies, will eschew the traditional dirges at the beginning of the procession and jump straight to the funk. And it will likely be here in the 6th ward, where most tourists are afraid to go.

When I speak to people outside New Orleans, and the subject of the city's hellacious homicide rate comes up, my response tends to creep them out. I tell them I think we're doing better than can be expected, considering the circumstances. I mean, think about that for a minute. Use your imagination. Put yourself in the shoes of any typical young African-American male in my neighborhood. Pre-Katrina, your neighborhood was kind of raggedy, and it sure as hell wasn't safe. But your parents owned their own house. Maybe they inherited it from their parents, or maybe they bought it themselves back when prices were low and there were still good paying jobs in town, before the oil boom went bust in the 80s, and container-freight technology took most of the work on the docks. Now, though, there isn't any money to maintain the place. If you're really unlucky the electric's been cut off,and the folks don't have the money to bring the place up to code and get it hooked up again.

If you're lucky, ambitious and hard working, and by some miracle stay away from drugs and gangs and finagle a scholarship and make it through college, you'll almost certainly have to leave town to find opportunity. If not, and you stay put, your options are demeaning, low paying service industry jobs with no health benefits, or selling drugs. Don't even think about welfare. Since the 90s, 'welfare' no longer exists in any real way in America, and the spectre of 'welfare bums' freeloading on tax dollars is just a stick white politicians use to beat on poor people.

Then a big wave comes along, drowns the whole neighborhood, and transports everybody back to the 19th century.

You think I'm bullshitting? Take a drive over behind the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club sometime. Better yet, take a walk. Talk to some people. You don't have to worry about getting jacked if you treat people with respect and don't talk down to them. There are folks living back in there in circumstances that would have White America up in arms. At least, they would be if it was a bunch of adorable puppies living like that. Since it's black folks, nobody gives a fuck.

And that's how we get to this low pass. Young, Black and Don't Give a Fuck. The miracle is that there aren't more shootings, that people aren't totally descended into savagery. I remember reading somewhere, shortly after Katrina, some idiot opining that if only the superdome had been filled with white yuppies it would have been a bastion of peace and sanity. Sweet Jesus, has this guy ever worked in the service industry? White yuppies have a nervous breakdown if their goddam dinner reservations get screwed up. You do not want to be stuck in a catastrophe like the Dome with people who are used to getting everything they want right away. It's a cruel thing to say I know, but I think I might take a kind of shabby pleasure in watching, say, Dennis Hastert, or Karl Rove, endure such deprivations.

Meanwhile, back here in the 6th ward, word spread through the neighborhood that Anthony Placide was shot, and his 14 year old brother went to the scene on North Dupre. He touched his brother, calling his name, and then rode home on his bicycle to tell his family that Anthony was dead.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Goodbye Mr. Bat.

Whenever I hear a radio station play an extended block of a jazz musician's music it always scares the hell out of me. I just assume the guy died. This happened to me up in Canada a few years ago when CBC radio did a P.J. Perry retrospective. I drove around listening to the car radio in a dead funk for half an hour until the announcer came on and started rattling off a few of P.J.'s upcoming gigs.

So, this last Sunday when I went across the street to visit with my neighbor Miss Vera (out selling jazzfest parking in her driveway for $20 a pop, as many do in this neighborhood at jazzfest time) I was caught totally offguard by the sound of Mr. Bat playing on her boom box.

"Say, that's Alvin Batiste," I said.

"Yes, he died last night. The lady down the street told me."


I just spoke to Alvin two weeks ago. We were going to try to get together for lunch.

Here's his obit in the Times-Picayune.

I first hooked up with Alvin back in 1999. My friend Alan Matheson had given me his number. I was in New Orleans to do an article on jazzfest for Planet Jazz magazine, and Alvin was one of a number of people I spoke to. Just interviewing him was an educational experience in itself (it mainly taught me that doing a good interview is not nearly as easy as it looks) and knowing him has been a life changing experience for many, many people. I've watched him get incredibly complex, nuanced performances out of concert bands staffed with hardscrabble, inner-city kids. I've seen him do things on the clarinet that I didn't think were possible. And in conversation, he's taken huge, longstanding systemic issues in my life and music and broken them down into just a few sentences, tight and clear as a diamond.
He never stopped learning, and he never stopped teaching.
When people like Alvin pass, it leaves a very big hole.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My Students At Jazzfest.

Things started getting a little tense the week before the gig. The students began pressuring me to add extra rehearsals to "make sure nothing goes wrong." My response was to assure them that I could pretty much guarantee that something would. Something always goes wrong at a performance, the trick is to roll with it and be in the moment. It really is possible to over-rehearse stuff. But I went with it, because I wanted them to have a good feeling about the gig; to feel like they were really prepared.

I also didn't want them to make too big a deal out of it. Yes, it was an exciting, important opportunity,but, at the end of the day, it's just another gig. Life is not appreciably different pre and post-jazzfest debut. The Rocket to Stardom does not leave April 27th from the Sheridan New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage. And, since it's an outdoor gig, the sound will probably suck.

On this last count, thankfully, I was wrong. Thanks to stage manager Chuck Blamphin, production manager Clarence Reginald Toussaint, and the rest of the sound guys, the stage and front end sound was thoroughly decent, although our drummer Max Behrens (who'd never played a big outdoor stage before) was amazed at how loud it was up there. My students, god bless em, rose to the occasion and delivered what might be their best performance ever. Truly, the thought of embarrassing yourself in front of a festival-sized audience focusses the mind wonderfully.

They opened up with Alan Matheson's composition "Jackson Square," which we'd positioned first in the set because we felt that the funky, second-line style drum opening would be the perfect way to introduce the group to the crowd. After that came another Matheson original, "Cypress," and then Alan's arrangement of "Parker's Mood."

I could sense some nerves in these first three performances, but when the guys broke out their own head chart of Tad Dameron's "Lady Bird" things really started to loosen up, with good solos all around. Tenor saxophonist Caleb Dance offered up a particularly intelligent, harmonically organized series of choruses, filled with quotes and pleasant little surprises. Then came the Miles Davis arrangement of "Oleo," with trombonist Jamie Holcomb playing slash-and-burn on the outchorus, playing the line a tri-tone away from the other two horns.

My original plan had been to play alto on the two things that needed a fourth horn ("Jackson Square" and the closer, Matheson's arrangement of Cedar Walton's "Ugetsu") and then stay out of the way, but trumpeter Joel Greco, who'd also been acting as MC, insisted that I come out and play tenor on a beautiful trumpet-tenor duet called "Pas De Deux" that Matheson (yes, we do play an awful lot of Al's music) had written in 1992 for Clarke Terry's wedding. So, the old guy got his turn in the spotlight after all, as well as a real "Goodbye Mr. Chips" moment when Joel said a bunch of nice things about me and my efforts on behalf of the jazz performance studies program at Tulane.

My sincere thanks to Will Buckingham, bass, Max Behrens, drums, Jon Cohen, piano, Joel Greco, trumpet, Caleb Dance, saxophone, Jamie Cohen, trombone and saxophone, and Pat Boyle, guitar. Several of these young men are graduating, and I'm going to miss their talents in the band room. Working with all these young men has been a pleasure and a privilege.

And just to prove what a small world it is, as I was leaving the stage, a woman from Vancouver came up to say hello. If you're reading this, I'm sorry, but I've forgotten your name. But, hopefully, I'll see you at the jazzfest up there this summer.