America Used to Rock

When I was a kid, I loved the series of musical cartoon vignettes called Schoolhouse Rock. The cartoons were aimed at helping children learn their lessons facilitated by music. The subset of SR aimed at History lessons was called America Rocks. Those cartoons and accompanying songs gave you such an idealistic view of America and gave me a sense of pride in what we had accomplished as a nation.

Given the current state of political affairs, the direction of our nation’s government, and the lack of leadership among our political leaders, I’ve composed a non-partisan commentary on the current state of the nation’s affairs entitled America Used to Rock.

When Clowns Were Good Guys, Bourbon St. Daiquiris, & City Soldiers in Song

dsc_0245In the late ‘80s, I tended bar at a Daiquiri place on Bourbon St. in New Orleans on weekends and during college breaks. Saturday nights were hectic as you’d image and we made good money for college students, but I really enjoyed working daytime shifts. You had more time to converse with people, find out where they are from, and generally observe the interesting cross-section of life that passes through the city on a daily basis.

Street performers add to the uniqueness of the French Quarter experience. There was a clown back then who would walk the street and offer to make little balloon animalsdsc_0252 for the kids for tips. Seems like fun, until you think about 8 hour days in the outdoors in New Orleans in the summertime in full makeup and costume. Typically temperatures reach 94-95 degrees with 90% humidity. He’d often walk into the bar to get a break from the weather and ask for a cup of ice water.

I recall watching him once as he stood at the bar exhausted, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the dripping sweat from his forehead. I could see his makeup beginning to melt away, and I could see the fatigue in his eyes. I realized under the makeup that he was of an advanced age, certainly not immune to the physical effects of his environment and of the demanding nature of his work.dsc_0271

I gained an appreciation of the sacrifices of the cast of performers and characters who roamed the area and put a smile on peoples’ faces on a daily basis. With this in mind, years later I composed a song as a tribute to the street performers of New Orleans titled “City Soldier,” including the line:

“There’s a clown with a tattered costume roamin’ through the square today. He never says a word, but he makes balloons for the children every day. It’s a long way from the big top, but he doesn’t really seem to mind. The smiles on their little faces help him forget about those dreams he left behind…”

Here’s City Soldier, featuring Romy Kaye on vocals and Tony Dagradi on saxophone.

“Bring Two Pairs of Shoes” – Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural of Buckwheat Zydeco (1947-2016)

This article originally appeared as a cover story for Where Y’at magazine in 2009 and reprinted here on the day of Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural’s passing.

buckwheatzydecodNow that zydeco music is established with the Recording Academy as an official GRAMMY category, it is only fitting to reflect back on one of its master practitioners and foremost international ambassadors. Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural, Jr. and his band Buckwheat Zydeco celebrate their 30th year as one of the most renowned artists of the genre with a new CD, Lay Your Burden Down.

Once considered a regional musical phenomenon, zydeco music has garnered international attention, thanks in large part to Buckwheat Zydeco’s ambitious schedule. The band was formed in 1979, and began touring Europe in the early 80’s.

Thirty years later, the band boasts a list of accomplishments would have been difficult to envision at the outset. Presidential inaugurations, Olympic ceremonies, national television commercial and motion picture recordings, talk show appearances, and GRAMMY nominations top the exhaustive resume. Not bad for a band leader who was reluctant to embrace the music early in his career.

Throughout his childhood, Buck was inspired by Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. “There was so much energy. It was very inspirational.”

“When I first played music, there was nothing like it,” recalled Buck. “I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. I knew that from an early age.”

Buck was always very appreciative of the opportunity to play music, and getting paid to do so was simply lagniappe.

“I’d make four or five dollars, and I thought I was the richest guy on my block,” he laughed. “A little kid making that kind of money! Just to see people dancing. It still touches me now.”

Buck’s father had an affinity for zydeco music, and encouraged him to explore the music of Clifton Chenier, one of the iconic performers of the genre. Buck remained steadfastly opposed to that notion, preferring to stay true to his early R&B influences and his Hammond B-3 organ.

“Clifton Chenier and my father were best of friends,” Buck explained. “My dad would always tell me that I needed to play accordion like Clifton Chenier. I was invited to one of his gigs to perform as an organist.”

He approached that gig convinced that he would remain stubbornly opposed to opening his eyes to the music.

“I stayed over two years with Clifton,” Buck admitted. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he added. “I had never seen a washboard like that (played by Clifton’s brother Cleveland). At the house, my dad would always play with the same washboard that we washed clothes with – the one with the wooden frame. This cat had that thing strapped around his shoulders like a bullet-proof vest. He played with bottle caps on all fingers.”

It was Chenier’s command of the accordion, his vitality, and his ability to integrate other influences that really hooked Buck on the potential of zydeco music.

“The music was of his own invention,” said Buck. “We played four hours non-stop. That’s how you play with Clifton. That was inspirational to me.”

After his run with Chenier, Buck knew that he wanted to learn to play the accordion. That transition took about nine months and was not without its challenges.

“It gave me the blues,” said Buck of the learning curve that came with his newfound instrument. “You’ve got to inhale, exhale, pull and push, pull and push – The coordination with the left hand and the 140 buttons. I flipped it over, turned it around, put it down, and got so upset.” On the verge of quitting, Buck issued an ultimatum to that accordion and threw down the gauntlet. “It’s you or me,” he said, and eventually he conquered the beast.

Buck continued to bring both instruments to his gigs but found it too easy to revert back to the Hammond B-3 organ as somewhat of a security blanket. It wasn’t until he eventually “parked” the Hammond B-3 that he began to really embrace the accordion.

The band’s commitment to tour internationally exposed their music to a broader audience. Doors began to open up for Buckwheat Zydeco, most notably a major record label deal that was a breakthrough for both the band and for the genre.

“You always keep your fingers crossed and you hope and pray that good things will happen,” said Buck. “My manager Ted Fox called and said, ‘How would you like to record for Island Records?’ I dropped the phone. I said, ‘What do you think? Man, that is great.’”

Buck was aware that Bob Marley had been discovered by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, and knew of the label’s commitment to roots music.

Buckwheat Zydeco is also known for their affinity for allowing kids to join the band on stage during live performances, a trait that only enhances their reputation for appealing to a broad audience.

“We have to give something to our children,” said Buck. “There’s so much corruption and destruction leading them the wrong way. When I [bring kids on stage], these kids always remember. My music is for all generations. Mom and dad don’t have to leave kids home. They can take their kids with them.”

While numerous generations and artists contributed to the lobbying efforts to have zydeco music recognized as a GRAMMY category, it is understandable that it’s a source of pride for Buck.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’d like to think that I had something to do with it – Taking my inspiration from Clifton Chenier and all of the older generation guys that played before me. I’ll just hand it down to the younger generation.”

The band tries to maintain a healthy balance by integrating multiple influences into a synthesis that is uniquely their own. “Everybody likes different things,” Buck explained. “That’s why I put so many different things in my repertoire. But I’m never going to get away from the roots of my music. It’s like a gumbo. You have to put all of your ingredients in.”

The band’s new album is a perfect representation. “I’m doing some cover tunes and some of the Buckwheat Zydeco repertoire,” he said. “I like to take that challenge to arrange and make sure that I do a good job with anybody’s music that I cover. Whatever you do, you can’t just be a copycat.”

Lay Your Burden Down is produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame, with guest appearances by Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, JJ Grey, Trombone Shorty, and Berlin himself.

Buck had only one thought for those coming to see the band live at Jazz Fest. “When you come to a Buckwheat Zydeco concert, bring two pairs of shoes, because you might burn one pair out.”

As for the irony that he has accomplished so much in his career by playing music that he was particularly reluctant to embrace, he closed with a universal lesson.

“I knew that I should have listened to my dad a long time ago. I’m very stubborn. I learned what you don’t understand, you don’t criticize.”

Pete Fountain (1930 – 2016): Every Note Has a Smile

In 2008 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Fountain for the cover story of Where Y’at magazine. One of the most accomplished musicians in the history of New Orleans, Pete passed away this morning at the age of 86 (Photo credits Carlton Mickle Photography).

fj2-2008_Pete-FountainIt was the mid-1970’s, and the applause from the audience was electrifying. The band members’ smiles hinted of both joy and respect for their dazzling colleague. What I remember most was the reaction of the host, iconic Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson. For the 30 years that the show ran, Carson had a distinct affinity for great comedians and great musicians. His reaction to this performance, one of roughly 60 Tonight Show invitations that Pete Fountain would ultimately oblige, was genuine. Johnny Carson, a man who you would think had seen it all, was quite simply blown away.

For more than a half century, Pete Fountain has been the face and the sound of traditional New Orleans jazz, though he has taken that genre to another level. His alluring demeanor and engaging smile give audiences an uncanny sense that Fountain is amenable and approachable, and his music has that same endearing quality. As clarinetist Tim Laughlin states it, the first time he heard Pete Fountain play, “It was like every note had a smile on it.”

I sat down with Pete Fountain and his agent/son-in-law Benny Harrell recently to reflect upon an extraordinary career, one cultivated at the “Conservatory of Bourbon Street,” as Fountain describes his music education. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of what he owned and heart bypass surgery sidelined him shortly thereafter, Fountain is living proof that the greatest fuel for resilience is the satisfaction of a life spent in the pursuit of that which you love.

Pete Fountain 0005Fountain recalled with fondness his memories of the Broad Street Carnival Club from the age of 8 or 9. The group marched every Mardi Gras and planted the seed that would inspire him to form his own Mardi Gras marching group years later, the Half-Fast Marching Club.

Fountain’s father played drums and a little violin, but leaned more toward country music. His love for music was infectious however, and he took satisfaction in Pete’s progression as a student of music. “He never did push me, but he enjoyed me playing,” said Fountain.

A testament to his rapid progression in music, Fountain was invited to play in the Warren Easton High School Band even before he was old enough to attend the school.

Fountain describes his style as a cross between New Orleanian Irving Fazola and Benny Goodman. One of his earliest breaks was his stint with Lawrence Welk’s band from 1957-59, a move that granted him the recognition that would pay dividends for years to come, especially in terms of album sales. “It was a good thing for me,” he said. “From then on it just blossomed.”

After two years in North Hollywood, however, the pull of the Big Easy began to overwhelm Fountain and his family. He had three small children, he and his wife Beverly were homesick, and the inevitable return to New Orleans followed.

Pete Fountain 0009

(L-R) Pete’s Son-in-Law/Manager Benny Harrell, Craig Cortello, Pete Fountain, and former Where Y’at editor Chris Thacker

Fountain had a live music club at 800 Bourbon St. throughout most of the ‘60s, and he played a frenzied schedule of three shows a night, six days a week. He later moved to 231 Bourbon St., a club that held nearly 300 people, allowing him to pull back to a more manageable two shows a night.

Harrell added that Fountain and trumpet player Al Hirt had a great mutual respect for each other’s talents. If Fountain finished his set first, he would often head down to Hirt’s club to join him on stage, and vice-versa.

“If they [musicians] could keep up with Al Hirt, they could keep up with anybody, because he was a player. He was a gorilla,” Fountain said with a laugh.

It was a magical time for jazz on Bourbon Street, an era of “good feelin’,” as Fountain recalled.

In 1978, Fountain moved to his club at the Hilton Hotel, a venue that seated 500 people. Throughout that era, Fountain’s guest appearances on the aforementioned Tonight Show helped increase Fountain’s visibility and drive album sales. Fountain has released an astounding 96 recordings during his career.

Now semi-retired, he plays Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, MS.

Harrell is a first hand witness to the love and admiration that Fountain’s fans share with him after each show, as he accompanies Pete.

People come up to him afterwards and say, “You brought me back to another time,” said Harrell of Fountain’s fans. “People are so gracious with their memories and what Pete’s music has meant to them.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is simply a nostalgic encounter, however. Fellow musicians affirm that Fountain still has the magic in his clarinet.

Laughlin is one of those musicians, and perhaps the person best qualified to articulate Fountain’s musical impact. Laughlin was invited to join Fountain’s band at Jazz Fest a couple of years ago, an invitation that he was honored to accept. In the same manner that Fazola influenced Fountain, jazz historians might view that Jazz Fest performance as a symbolic “passing of the torch” to Laughlin.

“There’s no better clarinet player in the country now,” said Fountain of Laughlin. “He’s all New Orleans. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to bring Tim on stage. They love to hear both of us playing.”

Laughlin’s first encounter with Pete left a lasting impression on him. “The first time I heard Pete (age 9), I knew he didn’t belong in any category like traditional jazz or any other category for that matter,” said Laughlin. “He wasn’t trying to be a ‘throw-back.’ It was such a great, unique, and swingin’ sound, but I knew he was from New Orleans.”

“The thing I do try to copy is his professionalism and class,” he added. “He comes to play… not to tell jokes and stories between songs. His charm onstage is his clarinet and the things he does with it. I simply loved hearing one great tune after another. That’s really respecting your audience. It’s what they came to hear.”

“Once you get to know him, you get the feeling it’s not all about him,” said Laughlin. “It’s about the music. Anybody that knows him feels lucky to know a legend and such a good and decent man.”

Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club is approaching 48 years together, with 200 members and a 17 piece band. “He lives for Mardi Gras,” said Harrell, adding that passing up this Fat Tuesday ritual is one bit of doctor’s advice with which Fountain simply can’t comply.

Fountain was also recently inducted into the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, LA, which focuses on the history and culture of the Louisiana-Mississippi Delta region’s music. He was honored with an exhibit dedication and a star on the museum’s “Walk of Fame,” with the induction taking place at the Seventh Annual Delta Music Festival on April 5th.

As for the upcoming Jazz Fest performance, Fountain said that Laughlin will likely join him again. In terms of what the audience can expect, the answer was simply, “A great band and happy music.”

Every note with a smile.

To the Class of 2016…Advice From a Parent


Archbishop Rummel Class of 2016

For both students and parents, High School graduation is a time of remembrance and of celebration – A backward glance at accomplishments, friendships, and a measure of innocence lost. A reflection of joy, love, and sometimes pain and sorrow, amidst the realization of a journey ahead that will leave friends and mentors behind.

$Rum057It is also a time of anticipation – of endless possibilities, of hope, and of uncertainty. The apprehension that comes when discarding the comfort of that which is familiar eventually succumbs to the promise of potential fulfilled and the discovery of new horizons.

To the Class of 2016, a few words of advice…

Follow that which provides fuel for your soul and provides a service to others. There will be a time in your life for compromises, but those moments can wait. Be relentless in pursuit of a life that yields no regrets. Your future depends upon it.

Your energy, enthusiasm, and optimism not yet diminished by life’s disappointments and the shortcomings of the human race, work diligently to resist the temptation to turn cynical and lose faith in the goodness of others. Our future depends upon it.

$RumSrProm029Think big and remember that greatness has been achieved time and time again by those who simply outwork those with more talent, intelligence, and skill. Failure is a given, but merely a speed bump on the road to success. Quitting is optional.

Yet in your pursuit of greatness, never forget that the measure of a life well lived is simply the sum of tens of thousands of small moments that might seem inconsequential in isolation, yet are monumental in aggregate. Every smile, gesture, compliment, word of advice or encouragement, and sacrifice for others has a ripple effect that becomes a wave.

In the end, the quality of your relationships will provide your most lasting satisfaction.

Know that you alo$RumGrad012ne are responsible for your happiness. Don’t live a life based on the expectations of others, even your parents. Forgive us for wanting to guide your steps. We’d like to keep you from disappointment, heartache, and harm, but we can’t. Life’s most meaningful lessons must be lived to be learned. Besides, we don’t have all of the answers. Life at any age is a work in progress.

When you take your final breath, you’ll have to answer to yourself and your creator. Simply live a life that leads to the conclusion at that moment merely one simple thought, “Well done.”
$RumSrProm009And know that you are not alone in your journey. Everyone who has achieved success owes a measure of gratitude to those who took an interest in their development along the way. We hope that we’ve lived up to your expectations and haven’t disappointed you with regard to our duty as role models. As you develop your own sense of identity you will travel your own path, but we will take pride in your footsteps.

To Michael and to the entire graduating Class of 2016 from your greatest cheerleaders, your parents – We wish you success and love, and all of the above.

Onward and upward.


Jimmy Fallon: The King of Late Night Music

I grew up as David Letterman’s career was ascending. When he began his run as a talk show host, it was a great source of pride for fans like me who had followed his career and connected with his unique brand of humor. It was as though he was poking fun at the genre, with quirky, offbeat guests and bizarre comedy skits. It was like one big inside joke that only Dave and his fans were in on. His irreverence self-deprecating approach to a TV show genre that was built on Vegas-like glitz and celebrity worship truly changed the landscape for those who followed.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0187 -- Pictured: (l-r) Singer Harry Connick, Jr. during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on January 5, 2015 -- (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC)

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON — Episode 0187 — Pictured: (l-r) Singer Harry Connick, Jr. during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on January 5, 2015 — (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC)

As Dave’s career winded down, Jimmy Fallon was a worthy newcomer to the late night talk show turf, having proven himself and honed his craft at SNL as a performer, writer, and Weekend Update desk jockey. Fallon’s affinity for music was apparent early on at SNL, as he used his guitar to deliver parody songs and impressions.

I recall watching Fallon’s first show in the “Late, Late” time slot when he first transitioned from SNL. He was clearly feeling his way and exploring the space, still looking slightly self-conscious and uneasy, though the elements of future success were clearly there. Like Letterman before him, he used that time slot where expectations are lower and experimentation is acceptable to find his groove.

As he moved into the “Early Late” time slot, taking over at NBC for Jay Leno, he came in as a confident performer with a clear vision of the format and tools he would use to conquer the new challenge.

And the key to his formula for success? MUSIC.

From the outset, Fallon chose a band that was worthy of the late night talk show platform, as Carson (Doc Severinsen Big Band), Letterman (Paul Shaffer), and Leno (Branford Marsalis and later Kevin Eubanks) had done before him. The Roots, led by Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, were an astute choice for the times. The band has hip-hop sensitivities, but with jazz undertones and the musicianship to cross genres and back performers of any style. Their versatility is critical in backing the music-based hijinks of a host who amazingly seems to straddle music generations very adeptly.

Fallon migrates seamlessly from spot-on impressions of 60’s and 70’s classic performers like Neil Young, Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and Jim Morrison to a “history of rap” medley with Justin Timberlake. And somehow Fallon seems natural and authentic in both settings, a feat that few performers could pull off. He comes across as fun and hip, with a sparkle in his eye that seems to indicate that he can’t believe he’s getting away with it all.

Like the Rat Pack shows in Vegas in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is the coolest, modern-day party that everyone wants to attend. It’s the one that they’ll be talking about the next day.

Fallon recently challenged Ellen DeGeneres to a lip-synch battle judged by Justin Timberlake, another recurring skit on the show. And the fun of music participation lures celebrities who might otherwise foster an aversion to letting their hair down to join in the silliness (see “I Got My Tight Pants On” featuring Jennifer Lopez and Fallon).

But in the context of this blog that espouses the benefits of music education, I’m particularly fond of the skits where Fallon invites a musician with a hit song to join him and his band to create a rendition of the song using only classroom toy musical instruments.

We’ve discussed in this forum the fact that so many music students abandon music when they leave school because excessive marching and drilling associated with band programs leaves them burnt out. We live in an era where the tools for illustrating joy in music have never been greater – loop pedals, vocal harmonizers, multi-track recording software (I have an app with an 8-track digital recorder on my phone) are accessible and inexpensive (or free).

Fallon understands that the importance of music is that it simply provides a universal platform for fun.

And Jimmy Fallon has become the King of late night music.

Remembrances of a New Orleans Music Community

I wrote this piece for the New Orleans Publication Where Y’at magazine 18 months after Hurricane Katrina, interviewing 3 musicians who were still displaced from the city.

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina devastated our community, many of our city’s musicians remain scattered around the world. Three of those performers reflected on the New Orleans music scene and their collective affinity for the community of artists for whom they now have an even greater appreciation.

Henry Butler

Like so many New Orleanians, Henry Butler (Basin Street Records) is monitoring the recovery from afar, hoping that if the Road Home program and insurance issues are resolved, he can be home in a matter of 1-2 years. His frustration with the lack of progress and leadership is clear.

Butler 001Butler spent ten days in Northern Louisiana as the Katrina drama unfolded, left to go on tour to stay busy, and eventually settled in Colorado. He admits that he, like so many others, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing him to immerse himself in his work for therapeutic purposes.

Perhaps the diversion that music offered was only a temporary respite from the emotion of the events that destroyed his lower ninth ward home, as evidenced by a story he candidly shared. “I did a New Year’s broadcast in Boston at Berklee School of Music. We were on National Public Radio, and the guy asked me a question about my piano. I guess it was the way he asked it, and all of a sudden I just broke into tears,” he recalled. “I turned myself around so that most of the audience couldn’t see it. The guy was smart enough to realize that it was time for us to play some more music.”

In terms of the brotherhood of New Orleans musicians, Butler adds, “New Orleans musicians are in touch with each other a lot. When [musicians] are in touch with each they know what these people offer musically. They know how they want to work with each other.”

Butler noted that camaraderie can quickly turn to competition when musicians venture outside of the Big Easy. “In the bigger cities, people are concerned that the people who replace them might keep the gigs,” he concluded. “That’s why it’s getting harder and harder for new people to break into places like New York, Los Angeles – maybe a little easier in Nashville.”

As a well-traveled performer and a New Orleans native, Butler provides a broad perspective and a qualified voice on the New Orleans music community and the lack of structure with respect to the business side of music. “You’ve got a whole poor class of people who have spent their whole lives just loving music and just loving art and not really caring much about whether they make money or not,” notes Butler. “You’ve got people in other cities who do care about making money because the cost of living is higher and they don’t have a lot of people who would want to feed them if they showed up on their doorstep. It’s a different culture. It’s a different ball game.”

Butler adds, “There’s no place like New Orleans – The passion, the enthusiasm of the musicians, the true love that the musicians have for what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s to their own detriment.”

Like so many New Orleanians, Butler is hopeful for a better city after the rebirth. “I love the city, I love what I’ve gotten from that city, and I love my foundation. It’s my hope that we’ll find a way to build a new and more resourceful New Orleans for everybody.”

Pete Alba

Pete Alba is a jazz and blues guitarist residing in Seattle post-Katrina who came to New Orleans (1993-2005) to nurture his craft. Like so many who have spent time here, the city has become a part of his musical soul. “I came to New Orleans from Pennsylvania in the early ‘90’s to find myself musically, and N.O. is a great place to do that, like no other city I’ve ever been to,” says Alba. “Music is important to some people here, but in general, I don’t think that music pours out of the veins of Seattle like it does in New Orleans.”

musicians-village 001Alba performs with his own jazz trio, and also recently joined the blues-oriented Groove Messengers. He’s starting to find his way into the music scene, but it’s been challenging.

“People are a little bit more protective of their gigs,” Alba said, echoing Butler’s sentiments. “There’s no real unity in the music scene. There’s a lot of work here, and generally the pay is more than I made in New Orleans which is a plus, it’s just getting into the inner circle is a lot more difficult. Even if you’re a player, there’s just a very protective attitude.”

Pete noted the friendship of the late Tim Guarisco, guitarist of the 1990’s funk bank Smilin’ Myron, as a shining example of the openness of the network of New Orleans musicians. “He was the person who helped me bridge the gap and really got me inside of New Orleans,” said Alba. “He knew all of the local places, all the cool music joints. He was a huge influence on me. He ran a late night jam at the Maple Leaf, and I got to meet some really cool people.”

Although Alba has established new roots in Seattle, it’s clear that he misses the opportunity to visit the city that endeared itself to him. “I’m torn. I definitely feel the call sometimes and it’s tough.”

Within his new circle of friends, he finds comfort in occasionally meeting musicians in Seattle who’ve lived in or visited New Orleans, because it’s difficult to articulate that experience to others. Beyond music, the appeal is found in “The food and just the general demeanor of the people – the vibe. You can’t explain it.”

Evan Christopher

Because he has spent so much time in airports and on airplanes post-Katrina, it’s now hard to define where is home for jazz clarinetist Evan Christopher (STR Digital Records). He completed a 12-week residency in Paris in early 2006 for a French Foundation based in New York, the French American Cultural Exchange (FACE). He’s formed a band there, and he’ll be bringing that combo to New Orleans in the spring. I spoke to him during a brief stop in New Orleans before he hit the road with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

Christopher 001Christopher is from California, but lived in New Orleans in the mid-90’s, and relocated here again in 2001 until he was displaced by the storm. “The first time I had been to New Orleans was on a bus tour with a singer-songwriter from California,” he recalled. “I’d never been to this part of the country, and I thought I was in another world. I told the band leader that I was going to move there when the tour was over, and I did.”

Christopher recalled his time in New Orleans, and particularly his regular Thursday night gig at Donna’s with great affection.

“The thing that I think I miss the most is the way the audience engages the music in New Orleans in terms of the interaction – being able to enter a musical experience on a lot of different levels,” he said. “There are people that come from Europe that are only looking at it from a historical perspective, there are some people that are coming because of their knowledge of the history of the instrument, there are some people that are just coming to have a party, there are some people that are coming because they’re looking for a cultural experience – they can enter it on any different level.

“I don’t find that in very many other places. I don’t find a willingness to engage the music as socially as the audiences do in New Orleans,” he added. “As a performer, there’s a whole new set of freedoms in what you’re able to do musically when you have a lot of different people coming to relate to the music from their different perspectives.”

“Music’s just been such a big part of the way people grow up here, musical families that go back generations, coming up through some of the schools together,” he said. “I came as an outsider. The community that I found was musicians that shared a similar set of values about how we creatively use the language of tradition, to create something new and have it be very open creatively and still have that same set of musical values. That level of community resonates internationally.”

The Future

A musician can take an instrument and a performance on the road, but you can’t just mobilize a musical community, especially one as unique as New Orleans. Music is undoubtedly our city’s greatest asset, and unless we do whatever it takes to give our musicians a fighting chance, we’ll never get back our city’s heart and soul.

Butler believes that the key is a unified voice of the people of our city demanding that we make it happen. “It would be nice for all New Orleanians to realize that there is strength in numbers. One person’s light is good, two peoples’ lights automatically give more strength, and the more you can merge other people’s lights and bring them together, the more listening power you will have. And the more you’re going to find that people in government are going to be interested.”