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, June 09, 2012

Jazz History Locus.

Working in the French Quarter so much is giving me a different perspective on the place. For most people who live in New Orleans, "the Quarter" is not someplace you visit often, maybe for special occasions or a big splashout dinner at Antoine's.  It's seen as primarily a place for tourists and gutterpunk faux-hipster kids, and a lot of New Orleanians go for years without visiting the place. Bourbon Street especially is seen as a place to avoid. I've been working the Maison Bourbon in various capacities now for about seven months, and I've never seen anyone I know in the joint, with the exception of out of town friends visiting the city, or a couple of occasions when someone specifically came in to see me. Darlene came in for half a set once, when she was picking me up after work. And I see Tulane students I know from when I taught there, occasionally. But random New Orleanians from my social circle never wander in, because as a rule, New Orleanians don't hang much in the Quarter.

From a strictly musical perspective this doesn't make sense, because traditional jazz has made a big comeback in New Orleans and elsewhere. But the action is mostly on Frenchman Street, downriver from the Quarter in the Faubourg Marigny. Yet the music being played in places like the Maison Bourbon and Fritzels on Bourbon Street is absolutely of as high a standard as anything offered on Frenchman. Problem is, Frenchman Street is hip. The raucous, carny atmosphere of Bourbon is not.

Last winter my visiting Vancouver buddy Adam Rohrlick and I were walking down Frenchmen and ran into bassist James Singleton, standing outside the Spotted Cat eating a pear. He was playing inside with some young trad jazz cats, and related as how when he first came to New Orleans as a young musician in the 70s, there were five or six places on Bourbon Street that featured traditional jazz bands, and those bands were staffed, for the most part, by young men like himself who really wanted to play straight-ahead stuff, but trad was where the work was. The difference now, he said (glancing back into the club at the crowd of twenty-something cats assembling on the bandstand for the next set) was that young guys come to New Orleans now specifically to play traditional jazz. But they would never play Bourbon Street, nor would their audiences go to hear them there, because Bourbon Street is too square.

And that's a shame, because there's a lot of musicians working in and around Bourbon Street who've got some deep history and knowlege to impart, as well as some younger players with serious chops. Down the street from my gig, at Fritzel's, I often poke my head in to hear a few minutes of Tim Laughlin, Tom Fischer, or Charlie Fardella on my set breaks.  A lot of the guys I work with in Jamil Sharif's and Dwayne Burns bands at the MB go back decades. Bassist Tommy Slidell played there with Wallace Davenport back in the 70s, when there were three shifts of bands starting at ten in the morning and working straight through to 4:00a.m., and there was no air conditioning. Tommy told me he once saw reed man Otis Bazoon pass out from the heat and do a face-plant into the ringside tables.

The 60s and 70s were really the last of the stormin times for jazz on Bourbon. Pianist Lawrence cotton (who's still playing strong at age 85) told me that club owners in those days were often jazz fans themselves. The Famous Door, now a smelly, raucous rock and roll cover band bar, was owned by a guy named Hyp Guinle and was the classiest place on the street. Santo Pecora, Sharkey Bonanno, and George Lewis all worked the street. Jack Teagarden played there the night before he died.  For R&B you had Clarence "Frogman" Henry at the Sho Bar. Later, the Meters featuring Art Neville played there.

That's almost all gone now. There's some very good musicians working the street, but mostly they're in R&B, rock, or zydeco cover bands. The few places that feature traditional jazz are patronized almost entirely by tourists, many of whom tell me how shocked they are at the lack of actual jazz on Bourbon Street. Over and over again, I hear variants of, "I've wanted to come to New Orleans all my life, and now I'm here, and we walked all up and down Bourbon Street and couldn't find any jazz."

It is what it is. I'm finding I quite enjoy being in the Quarter now that I'm working there. The locals know and recognize me. Instead of a come-on from the army of freaks and hustlers that populate the strip, I get a wave and a hello. Just last night, leaving work, I ran into a typical example of the breed, a guy who earns his living by letting people kick him in the ass for a dollar. Seriously. He's got a hand lettered sign that says "kick me in the ass. One $." He was looking rough, and had two black eyes. "How's business," I said. "Shitty," he said. "The only way I can turn a buck tonight is by letting people punch me in the face."

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