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, August 25, 2008

Why I'm here, continued...

I've had several readers point out that I never did get to the point of my last screed, which is, essentially, why would someone with options choose to live in a place like post-Katrina New Orleans.

The short answer, that this place, even in it's damaged state, is like no other isn't quite enough. Contrarians always argue that every place on earth is unique unto itself, and this is of course true. Evanston Illinois, or Port Coquitlam British Columbia are both unique in their own way. They even have their own distinct cultures. Sterile, barren, mass-produced post-modern cultures, but culture nontheless.

I've spoken at some length previously about the pre-modern agrarian-cycle nature of New Orleans culture. It is also a participatory culture in that being a New Orleanian is something you do as well as an identity you carry. All the cornball, "What is New Orleans" litanies, red-beans and rice on Mondays, Creole Gumbo for lunch at L'il Dizzy's, shrimp po'boy (dressed) at the Parkway, Kermit Ruffins at Vaughn's Lounge on Thursdays, Rebirth at the Maple Leaf on Thursdays, St. Joseph's altars, three pennies at the crossroads for Papa Legba, Indians on Super Sunday...all present and accounted for. Food, music, ritual. Things both the native-born and the newcomer can participate in without hesitation or embarrassment, if one simply comes with a open heart. And while there is sometimes a touristy element to some of these things that tempts cynicism, if you've ever seen, say, a real neighborhood second-line (as opposed to the fake ones at jazzfest, or at rich people's weddings or corporate functions) or seen the Indians come out on Carnival Day, your deepest instincts will tell you you're in the presence of some serious, hardcore shit. The kind that doesn't come around too much anymore in our smart-ass, been-there-done-that 'ironic' world.

So really, bottom line (as the been-there-done-that smartasses like to say) am I coming out ahead by staying here? In the area of straight-up money, no. Even by the luke-warm standard of arts faculty salaries, I could probably do better in Dallas, or Los Angeles, or Chicago. New York City too, but the insane cost of living would more than cancel out any salary bump. And New Orleans, while it has plenty of places to play, is not immune from the kind of cliquey-ness that makes getting a gig a rough slide in other cities, and straight-ahead jazz is as tough a sell here as anywhere. The real action is in more commercial genres; funk, for the college kids, trad jazz for the tourists. And post-Katrina booking policies have gotten tight, with some rooms shutting down and some pushing play-for-the-door policies.

Then there's the crime, the weather, and the ever present possibility of getting flooded out again.

So, am I crazy? Maybe. But I'm inclined to think that my decision to make my life here has less to do with any big-picture laundry list of "quality of life" items than a profound appreciation of the moment, or more properly the continuing string of moments that are the actual stuff of life. Money is a fine thing, and I think we should all have scads of it, but as Redd Fox used to say, you ain't never going to see a Brink's truck following a hearse. And when the sum of any individual life is totalled, it's got squat to do with how many CDs you played on or who you gigged with. What counts is the connection you made with the people in your life.

There comes a time when you reach a certain age...you start thinking about death in a different way. Not the tragically romantic but nevertheless abstract way that young people do, but as a conceivable certainty. You develop a bone-deep understanding of the inevitability of that D.W. Rhodes funeral carriage, the one that, literally or figuratively, waits for us all. No exceptions will be made. No you can't cut some kind of deal. You, yourself, your physical person, will get stuck in a box and buried underground, or roasted in an oven. And who has "the most toys" does not mean shit.

We're all going to be dead someday. New Orleanians understand this better than any other people in America. The time we have on earth should be spent with each other in ways that matter.

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