May 2007 Archives
Hi, my name is Larry, and I'm a technophobe. But I'm working on it. Here's a column for Jazziz that hints at my progress:
That's what they say about New Orleans -- it gets all up in ya. And it does, in ways that can't be anticipated. I'm back here to conduct a few final interviews, pack up, and return the keys to this wonderful apartment I've been renting in the Marigny, just a block or so from the strip of Frenchmen Street that has become an essential music thoroughfare -- hosting everything from national acts and local icons at the jazz club/restaurant Snug Harbor to no-cover gigs by John Boutté and low-cover gigs by the likes of Bob French and Walter "Wolfman" Washington at a bar called dba to weekly gigs-cum-swing dance parties at the Spotted Cat to the music of VaVaVoom or the Jazz Vipers (both worthy bands) to Saturday-night late sets with that magisterial swamp-blues warbler Coco Robicheaux at the Apple Barrel.
But more importantly, this spot has offered a great window on New Orleans here-and-now: the education and housing organizers hard at work at Cafe Rose Nicaud, alongside music producer Dan Storper holding meetings, nearby my good friends Barbara and Frank and that irrepressible poet, Chuck, taking on all matters political and social, not to mention all that coffee; the civic organizing, great music (Hot 8 Brass Band, Glen David Andrews, and others) at the Sound Café (and yet more coffee); the steady flow of valuable information from Sylvester Francis's Backstreet Cultural Museum, informing me of countless second-line parades and cultural events; the magnificent air of pride and humility pervading the jazz masses at St. Augustine Church; and the mysterious, romantic, ever-changing yet never-changing, and still smelly (new sanitation service notwithstanding) French Quarter. All of that was just a short walk away, and I haven't even mentioned the Mother-in-Law Lounge!
Lucky for me that the stories I'm tracking continue apace, so I couldn't think of staying away even if I wanted to (I don't).
then why can't it be everlasting?
Among the things I'll miss most about New Orleans are regular weekly opportunities to hear John Boutté sing anything from Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" to Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927." Lucky for me and my N.Y. friends (hint, hint) he'll perform at Joe's Pub on June 6th.
Here's a brief appreciation I wrote for this week's Village Voice.
Last fall, while working on a story about jazz saxophonist and Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison, I ran into filmmaker Jonathan Demme -- almost literally, as he was working his way around the home of Donald's mom, Herreast Harrison, with a small handheld camera and I was looking the other way. A month or so later, at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in Manhattan, I watched an early screening of some of the footage: direct and honest scenes from the lives of Ninth Ward New Orleans residents finding their ways after returning home.
Demme's "Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward" airs in five short segments this week, in the PBS time slot usually reserved for "The Tavis Smiley Show." (This New York Times piece by Felicia R. Lee offers more background.)
My recent three-month stay in New Orleans made clear to me that no single media narrative about New Orleans can suffice (as it is, most are wrong-headed caricatures anyway): The only way to grasp the ongoing story of the the aftermath of 2005's floods is to look more closely at the individual lives, their common threads and interconnections. Look we should, and the rewards may surprise. For instance, sometime midweek, Demme's series will focus on the Harrison family (Donald; his mother, Herreast, and his sister Cherice Harrison-Nelson, among others), whose creativity, strength, scholarship and resilience are wonders to behold.
Here's an excerpt from a January Jazziz cover piece I wrote about Donald, which captures one moment of a Demme shoot:
The last time I saw Harrison, in October, he was in the front yard of his childhood home. The house is uninhabitable. Harrison's mother, Herreast, lives in a trailer, temporarily stationed next to the house until repairs are complete. The filmmaker Jonathan Demme and a small crew were there, filming the Harrisons for a documentary that centers in part on the hardships they've endured since Katrina, and the family's centrality in New Orleans culture. Harrison's mother stood on the step of her trailer and recalled the day, decades ago, that Donald Harrison, Sr. came home from Werlein's Music Store, where, on a whim, he bought a saxophone for his son. Donald picked up his current alto horn and played some of "Amazing Grace" -- and swung it hard, as he might have played it in a brass band, while in his teens.
A few minutes later, Harrison grabbed a tambourine and, with his sister, Cara, and a nephew, Kiel, by his side singing along, underscored the Mardi Gras Indian traditional "Two-Way-Pocky-Way" with that same rhythm. His mother stood proudly, watching the scene unfold on a block lined with empty houses of undetermined fate. When he finished singing, Harrison put down his tambourine and looked into Demme's camera.
"I'm going to continue to be a Mardi Gras Indian," he said. "I'm going to play my saxophone. If enough people do their part, everything will endure. But that's the question: Will people be allowed to do their part?"
(my complete Harrison story is below:)
I am back on my block -- President Street, in Brooklyn. But just for a few days. Then it's back to New Orleans, where I spent most of the past three months, to pack up and give up the sublet. And the rush of images, quotes, and information, I've been gathering -- some of which has filtered into reporting in the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, Jazziz, and elsewhere, and all of which I thought I'd be blogging about with regularity -- will now begin to spill out, both reflectively as I unfurl my notes, and in real-time as I continue tracking the people, places, and things that have occupied my time: I am back on the blogging block.
The first, which follows, is a reflection on clarinetist and educator Alvin Batiste, who died on the eve of his jazz-fest concert.
But I'm wishing myself back to NOLA today, where the annual Downtown Super Sunday parade provides one of the best windows into the splendor of Mardi Gras Indian masking tradition. To see what you, and I, are missing, and to get some truly insightful background, check out Katy Reckdahl's piece in today Times-Picayune.
Tearful hugs filled the trailers that served as dressing rooms at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was near time for what would have been a celebratory double-bill concert on the event's closing day: Clarinetist Alvin Batiste and drummer Bob French, beloved local heroes, each with a new CD on saxophonist Branford Marsalis's label. But 13 hours earlier, Batiste's wife, Edith, had checked on her husband as he sat in front of a television in their Uptown New Orleans home. He didn't stir. He had died of an apparent heart attack at age 74.
"I can't even remember when I first met Alvin," said Branford Marsalis, who had been informed of Batiste's passing by a four-a.m. text message from his father Ellis. "He was like a big oak tree in the backyard, always there, always ready for you to lean on him."
Born in New Orleans in 1932, the son of a railroad worker and avocational musician, Alvin Batiste got his first clarinet from his father.