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, September 20, 2008

The Spanish Tinge Redux

I've held forth here previously about the Latin American influences in New Orleans culture. Jelly Roll Morton's assertion that without "tinges of Spanish" in the music, one will never achieve "the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz" is one that has been unpacked by a scholar or two (most adroitly, in my opinion, by Lawrence Gushee). To musicians, these influences are readily apparent. If one interprets Morton's use of the term "Spanish" to mean "Afro-Cuban" (and again Gushee and others, myself among them, argue strongly that this is the case) then New Orleans music, from early jazz to R&B to Funk to Hip Hop, is littered with the phraseology and rhythmic organizing principles associated with 'Latin' music. Some of the most spirited between-sets discussions I've had with other musicians on gigs have been about the similarities between 'second line' grooves and Afro-Cuban clave figures. Drummers in particular like to hold forth on this subject; I remember a particularly spirited discussion with Julian Garcia in front of Sweet Lorraine's club, where the leader had to practically drag us back inside for the second set.

This stuff gets short shrift in the tourist brochures, where it's all about the French. The French Quarter, the French influence on cuisine and dance, the rapidly disappearing French speaking population (even though that population is 'rapidly disappearing' from rural Acadia; French as a spoken language has been gone from the city of New Orleans since the beginning of the 20th century, and in any case the two populations are quite dissimilar. Rural 'Cajun' French is a product of Acadiana. Urban New Orleans French came from France and St. Domingue). But the Spanish period of New Orleans' history (roughly 1762 to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803) is of tremendous importance culturally.

I bring this up because I'm in the process of teaching (in a TIDES course at Tulane) a new book by Ned Sublette called "The World That Made New Orleans." Sublette, a writer of great depth who nonetheless manages to have broad popular appeal, draws some rather nifty connections between the complex layering of cultures that made the city, then and now, such a unique place. His central thesis is that these layerings were all in place by the time the Americans took the helm. He's quick to point out the seminal role the Spanish Period played in the musical development of the city:

Brief though it was, the Spanish period in New Orleans was crucial to the creation of Afro-Louisianan culture, and constitutes a singular moment in African American history. During the years when the Spanish governor of Louisiana reported to the Spanish captain general of Cuba, the rules in New Orleans regarding slaves were much like those in Havana. There was a large population of free people of color. Slaves were treated badly, but enslaved people had some liberties-most important, they had the right to purchase their freedom. That was more than black New Orleanians had before, and more than enslaved people in the United States would have.

In Cuba, where such a regime lasted through the entire experience of slavery, there is every indication that this greater degree of freedom within slavery was good for music. The big city of Havana...took music in from all over, including Louisiana, but radiated it out even more powefully. As New Orleans grew, it would do the same, inhaling and exhaling music, up through the days of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and the town's latter day lingua franca, funk.

The phrase 'melting pot' is not really appropriate for this process, as it implies a sameness of result. Amalgam works a bit better; I personally like 'layering' of culture. Louisiana had basically three colonial eras in quick succession; French, Spanish, and Anglo-American, and each of these eras had it's own slave regime, with new laws and customs, allowing black New Orleans to develop in a different way with each successive political paradigm. In addition, all three regimes were in the habit of importing slaves directly from certain specific regions of Africa. These "fresh off the boat" Africans arrived in successive waves, Bambara, Bakongo etc. and created their own cosmopolitan layering effect within the larger Creolized culture of the city. The result of these processes is immediately apparent in the city today. It is utterly unlike anywhere else in the United States. My favorite descriptive of the city (I've forgotten where I first heard this) is that it is "a cross between Port Au Prince, Haiti and Patterson, New Jersey."

Sublette, again:

On sabath evening," wrote a visitor to New Orleans in 1819, " the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances."

Most of the United States was quiet on Sunday. In many parts of the rural, mostly Protestant nation, dancing was frowned on. But the mostly French-speaking, mostly Catholic, black-majority port city of New Orleans, proudly unassimilated into the English-speaking country that had annexed it, was rocking.

Jump forward 128 years to Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight." If I had to name the first rock and roll record, I would first say that there is no such thing, then I would pick "Good Rockin' Tonight." It was recorded at Cosimo Matassa's rudimentary studio on the edge of New Orlean's French Quarter: a microphone and a disc cutter, in the back room of a record store at Rampart and Dumaine.

Cosimo's place was catty-cornered from the legendary "green by the swamp," known in the old days as 'Place Congo,' or Congo Square.

The distance between rocking the city in 1819 and "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947 was about a block.

Preach it, brother.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Nanny State.

One of the most consistantly irritating tropes pointed our way post-Katrina has been the notion that the botched response to the Federal Flood was not an example of abysmally bad governance, but a symptom of the "culture of entitlement." In this paradigm (which seems to exist, as far as I can tell, only in the fever swamps of the neo-conservative mind) a large "underclass" of welfare recipients, accustomed through the generations to a life of leisure on the dole and deprived by the "nanny state" of the will towards self-sufficiency, simply sat on their behinds before and after Katrina and waited for "the government" to do everything, down to and including wipe their asses.

Now, there's a few things about this scenario that don't make sense, starting with the fact that "welfare," as we knew it in the past, simply no longer exists in this country since the welfare reforms of the Clinton administration in the 90s. It's very difficult to qualify to receive assistance and almost impossible to stay on it for more than two years, even if you have small children. So the idea that, say, public housing is somehow a repository of welfare bums lying around suckling at the public teat doesn't really fly. Most people in the projects, at least as they existed pre-Katrina, worked various types of minimum wage (and in the case of some service industry positions, sub-minimum wage) jobs. Viewed this way, public housing could been seen as a taxpayer subsidized labor pool for certain types of industry, mostly service and tourist oriented. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining the post-Katrina labor shortage in those areas, since 'the projects' have yet to re-open.

But on a purely anectdotal level, I got a nice little lesson in how this stuff works today as I rode my bike over to Tulane to check on my office for the first time since Gustav. Passing through the areas off Orleans Avenue in Mid-City, people were hard at work clearing brush and dealing with downed trees. In fact, when Darlene and I got back late yesterday afternoon to our pad on St. Philip, our neighbors who stayed had almost completely cleared the street and storm drains of debris. As I pedaled past Palmyra and Jeff Davis, I saw some local guys had jerry-rigged a winch with a rope and a Buick sedan, and were hauling a downed tree out of the road.

Further on towards Tulane, I saw the only really substantial damage on my route. A bar called Leroy's Place, at the corner of Audubon Court and Olive street, had suffered a total collapse of it's streetside wall, filling the road with brightly painted aquamarine blue bricks. But the place had never re-opened after Katrina and had been listing pretty badly of late. I wasn't too surprised to see it topple.

As I got closer to the university, the neighborhoods became more affluent and there was more crap on the street. Trees, brush, a couple of downed power lines. I saw a soccer mom type in a huge SUV drive into a street blocked by a downed tree and just stop, as if confused. After about three minutes, she backed out of the block and drove away.

Compared to the ghetto neighborhoods the streets were quite empty. It finally occurred to me (after I realized these more affluent neighborhoods had power) that everyone was inside enjoying the air-conditioning.

And waiting for someone else, 'the government,' or maybe just the hired minions the wealthy pay to do these things, to come and clean up the mess for them.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Doheny's Magic 8 Ball.

Before Katrina even hit I had a major revelation of it's long term consequences, a sort of historiological version of having your life flash before your eyes at the moment of death. I was stuck in traffic on my way to Baton Rouge for 14 hours (normally a 2 hour drive). The car was getting buffeted by the outer wind and rain bands from the storm, my average speed was around five miles an hour (considerably slower than Katrina) and I didn't stop for anything, not even a piss call. I had a bottle of water and a big bag of carrots I'd snagged from the fridge before I left, and I drove and ate carrots and listened to the doomsday prognosticators on the radio and cried. And as I did that, the post-Katrina landscape unrolled before my eyes; first the outpouring of sympathy and charity for the victims (nothing pumps up Americans sense of themselves as a righteous people more than a little "faith based" charity) but, very quickly, the ugly face of a curious phenomenen in America, a vicious hatred of the poor. The political spin would start almost immediately (as indeed it did) and blaming the victims would be the order of the day (as indeed it was).

I was planning on riding this one out, mostly because I didn't trust our 17 year old car to make it through another evac. But she came through with flying colors and we're now camped out in Vicksburg Mississippi for the duration. We are of course glued to the TV coverage of the event, which ranges from comprehensive and well researched (mostly local) to awesomely stupid (CNN). Just minutes ago I barely restrained myself from kicking in the tv screen after watching screaming diva Anderson Cooper cut away from an Army Corps of Engineers representative commenting on a major breaking story (what looks like overtopping of the floodwalls on the Industrial Canal, which seperates the upper and lower 9th Wards) to a tight shot of his little gamine head blabbering away about nothing in the French Quarter. The man really is an embarrassment.

In the days leading up to this there's been a lot of speculation about how this is going to play out politically. The general consensus seemed to be that the storm's confluence with the opening day of the Republican National Convention would reflect badly on the GOP. Some people who really should know better said some stupid and hurtful things (yes, I'm talking to you Mr. Michael "this storm shows there is a god" Moore). What I'm seeing here on the teevee seems to be spinning exactly the other way, with John McSame acting as pro-tem president ("behold my awesome leadership capabilities!") and Bush in the unlikely role of paper pushing bureaucrat back in Texas at the hurricane center. The fact that he's now too "busy" to show up in Minneapolis and stink up the place with the rotting corpse of his credibility is the best gift the Republican party could possibly have hoped for. And of course the state of Louisiana conveniently has a new Republican governor (Bobby "the Exorcist" Jindal). I think, if things continue to go well, we may even see a slight rehabilitation of Mayor Ray Nagin's tattered rep, with emphasis on his Republican backround (Nagin switched parties for his mayoral bid, because New Orleans wouldn't vote Republican for dogcatcher).

The nailbiter now for New Orleans is the floodwall system. If there are major breeches and the city floods again, it's probably game over as far as rebuilding goes. In the days before the storm, as I drove around the city laying in supplies (gas for the generator, batteries for the radio, water, food, etc.) I kept thinking, "this storm really needs to go somewhere else." I've watched too many people work like mules at two or three jobs, investing their heart, soul and live savings in rebuilding their homes and businesses. To see it all blown or flooded away again would be heartbreaking.

We're keeping our fingers crossed on those levees. Since the Army Corps of Engineers (the same bunch that screwed up the old ones) have been charged with the task of strengthening and repairing them, we're obviously very concerned. But maybe, just maybe, they'll hold.

We'll know by tomorrow for sure.