Category Archives: Jazz

The Freedom of Musical Expression

I picked up a copy of local New Orleans entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine recently. There’s a “Where Y’at Chat” feature page where locals from a cross-section of professions are asked 5 random questions and their responses are shared.page_1

In this edition, respondents were asked the question, “Happy Independence Day! When do you feel most free and independent?” I was struck by how many of the responses turned to musical expression and freedom:

“When I play the horn (Euphonium – baritone horn). It’s moving and freeing.”

~ Norman Robinson, Award-winning Radio/TV Broadcaster

“On the stage.”

~ Johnny Sansone, Award-Winning Blues Guitarist

“Singing a song with my guitar in front of an audience.”

~ Greg DiLeo, Trial Attorney

“Blaring the radio with the windows down.”

~ Mavis Larrimer, Respiratory Therapist

For Love or CountrySometimes it’s hard to imagine and therefore important to remember that there are places and there have been times where such freedoms of expression are not a way of life. Music/artistic expression and free speech are as precious as any rights we afford our citizens, and must be protected even when, or perhaps especially when, those perspectives, expressions, and points of view are counter to those of the majority.

The movie For Love or Country documented the plight of jazz trumpet player Arturo Sandoval whose homeland of Cuba prohibited jazz. Swing Kids is the story of teen aged jazz/swing aficionados of the early days of Nazi Germany who used music and dance as a vehicle of defiance. In both cases the narrow allowances of only state-sponsored music served as a way to repress dissonant thought among the citizenry.

Swing Kids 002Tennis player and 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic who grew up in war-torn Serbia articulated those sentiments in his book Serve to Win… 

“Growing up in wartime taught me another crucial lesson:  the importance of keeping an open mind and never ceasing to search for new ways of doing things. As a people, we were controlled by a government that kept information from us. The consequences of that continue to this day. Even though we have recovered from the war, we haven’t recovered from the mindset that communism instilled:  that there is only one way to think, one way to live, one way to eat. Tennis, and my studies with Jelena (Jelena Gencic, Novak’s youth tennis/life coach and mentor) opened my mind, and I was determined to keep it open.”

DjokerDjokovic has ascended to the top of the men’s tennis game in large part because of his insatiable appetite for methods that will give him the mental, physical, and nutritional edge to compete at the highest level in the most competitive era his sport has ever seen.

So if you’re a musician, professional or recreational, or a music enthusiast, take a moment this week to appreciate the freedoms of expression of all kinds that we often take for granted.

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7 Tips for Overcoming Songwriter’s Block

The brilliant jazz composer/pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg once wrote a song titled “My Swan Song” in which he ruminates about the challenge of continuing to come up with new song ideas. Frishberg sings, “It’s the final cry of a dry imagination.”

If you’ve ever put pencil to staff paper or simply tried to hum along a new melody to a few chords on your acoustic guitar, I’m sure you know the feeling. I broke out of a personal songwriter’s slump late last year and pumped out a few tunes. Here are a few things I learned that might help you if you’re struggling with composition:

Rewriting is Easier than Writing

Beatles Abbey RdPaul McCartney woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the song “Yesterday.” But as he tells the story, he used the title “Scrambled Eggs” instead. He was simply trying to pen lyrics to match the song so he wouldn’t forget the idea, knowing he’d rewrite later. Don’t get hung up on the song trying to find the perfect lyrics. Write something with roughly the appropriate number of syllables and go back and rewrite later.

I’ve written and published 2 books and probably 60-70 songs. In both cases, I’ve found that it’s easier to get ideas out and edit later than to try to make them perfect from the outset.

Capture Every Idea

I have a voice memo function on my smartphone, and I’d imagine most of you do as well. Every time you have an idea, even a couple of lines or a few chords with a melody, capture it. You never know which one can blossom into a full song, but if you plant enough seeds, one will grow into something beautiful.

Walk Away and Come Back

Sometimes a little time away can recharge your batteries or help you look at a song or an idea differently. I’ve had songs that I walked away from because I wasn’t pleased with them. After some time away, I had new ideas – change the tempo, change a few chords, or reverse the order of the verses.

There’s a Reason They Call it the “Creative Process”

In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, he speaks of how the artist doesn’t take criticism too personally. They understand that they aren’t defined by any particular piece of art, but rather each work is part of a creative process. They’ll wake up tomorrow and go to work again. Some days/works will be better than others, but each is a step forward.

Write Some Bad Songs

Don’t be deterred because something you wrote doesn’t necessarily live up to your standard. Go ahead and see the work through to completion. Maybe you’ll revisit and improve the song later, but maybe not. You’ll feel better about yourself and your creative abilities if you see ideas through to completion every once in a while, even if you’re not completely happy with the song, rather than just a collection of half-finished songs that leave you frustrated.

Change Your Routine

I typically start composing by strumming chords on the guitar (or piano), then I’ll try to find melodies that fit, and finally lyrics to match the song after the chords and melodies are complete. But I was in a rut using that technique for a long time. So I just started writing lyrics one day. It unlocked my muse, so to speak. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my usual methodology, but changing my routine got me back in a rhythm again, and the ideas started to flow again.

Learn Something New/ Listen to Something Different

Paul McCartney speaks of a Minor 7th chord at the start of the Bridge of the song “From Me to You” as a real breakthrough. Remember that many of the early songs of the Beatles like “Love Me Do” were very simplistic musically and the band was influenced by many of the 3-chord songs of early rockers like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. McCartney also suggested to Producer George Martin that they try a piccolo trumpet solo in the song “Penny Lane” after seeing a BBC performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.

When you consider how far the Beatles took popular music from the late 50’s and early 60’s to albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Abby Road, it really puts their accomplishments into perspective. If you’re a rock or pop songwriter, listening to new genres might not turn you into a jazz or classical musician, but it might make you better at what you do.

Expand your music vocabulary to give you a broader foundation of ideas to draw from.

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.

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.”

Why Jazz Sales Are Tanking…And Why Every Music Educator Should be Concerned

According to recent Nielsen data, sales of jazz music dipped below classical, essentially solidifying it as the bottom feeder in the music genre commercial success pool. There’s a lot of speculation regarding the reasons behind this continuing and disturbing trend. Theories include jazz purists’ inability to embrace the evolution of the genre, the marginalization of jazz crossover artists who infuse elements of pop, rock, funk into their music, and the suffering artist syndrome where the musician rationalizes that commercial success is invariably inversely proportional to artistic integrity, and therefore uses meager sales as confirmation of distinction.

Here’s another theory. How many Olympic sprinters go straight from the crib to the track without learning to crawl, stumble, and walk first? Obviously, those interim steps helps prepare the runner for their ultimate achievements. But they also provide a foundation that comes with it an appreciation for the talents and dedication of the world-class sprinter.

In my interview with Dave Wish, CEO/Founder of the Music Education non-profit Little Kids Rock (audio below), Dave discusses how children who learn even the most basic fundamentals of playing guitar (a few basic chords for instance) will never again listen to music the same way. As Dave says, “Just because I read Dr. Seuss to a child doesn’t mean I’ve confined them to a lifetime of reading rhyming books. It teaches them a love of literature at an early age.”

Exposing the wonder of music participation to children in great numbers virtually ensures a healthy pool of future candidates from which a consumer base with an appreciation for higher levels of accomplishment will emerge. As we continue to gut music education programs, we lower the baseline of music awareness, erode the pool of likely appreciators, and drive the masses of music consumers to the most primitive levels of melodic and harmonic sophistication.

In my own experience as a guitarist, it was only after I realized the limitations of the minor pentatonic scale when venturing outside of the basic 3-chords structures of rock/blues guitar that I came to explore the theory of music with greater harmonic variety. Had I never played an instrument and reached that level of frustration that prompted me to delve deeper, it’s not likely that I would have developed such a level of appreciation for the virtuosos I admire like Dave Frishberg, Joe Pass, Donald Fagen, and the like. While I’m sure that there are devout fans of jazz who never picked up an instrument or glanced at music notation, it’s safe to say that a lion’s share of jazz aficionados are those who appreciate the mastery of the artist through their own journey of musical expression. As Dave says…

 

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: Climbing the Wall Together

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at the GRAMMYS (courtesy Billboard.com)

I read a business book once that said (paraphrasing) that increasingly in the 21st century, rather than competing against each other to see who can climb the wall of success first, businesses will join hands and scale the wall together (I apologize for omitting the reference, but now that I’m AARP eligible as of last week, I suppose instances of memory loss will become more frequent). The metaphor essentially emphasizes the importance of collaboration in our economy, for a number of reasons – ease of purchase from the customer’s perspective when multiple businesses offer a wider array of services, project teams with a broader perspective generating ideas, greater geographic reach, cross-training, etc.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of collaboration is the ability to reach out to new customers by sharing customer and contact lists. The introduction to new customers through your business collaborators brings a sense of credibility.

Take the case of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

The duo’s collaborative effort, the recently released Cheek to Cheek album has hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. According to USA Today, the joint jazz album sold 131,000 copies in the week ending Sept. 28 (Nielsen SoundScan), making Bennett, 88, the oldest living act to earn a No. 1 album.

Lady Gaga’s youthful fan base and her pop success might have given older generations pause when she crossed over to jazz standards, categorizing her as simply the next passing trend in the pop world. But Bennett’s seal of approval provides a reason for mature fans to take a closer look and listen with an objective ear. Conquering different genres can be a key to longevity for many in the music industry (Elvis Costello, Christina Aguilera, Elvis, Sting, Pat Benatar, to name a few).

Likewise, Lady Gaga’s participation brings a continued sense of “hipness” to jazz standards, and exposes Tony to a new generation of potential fans.

Have you thought about collaborative partners for your business or artistic endeavor?

 

Jazz Guitar Picking and Fingering Technique Survey: Players Weigh In

I posed a question of some of the greatest guitar players living in/emanating from/or with ties to New Orleans recently regarding picking/fingering technique that some guitar players grapple with, particularly jazz guitarists:

Q:  Alright guitarists, question. I often prefer using thumb and fingers to pluck chords, especially when omitting a string, but prefer the pick when soloing. I’ve seen some with a “slip” pick that’s attached to a thumb or finger that you can slide around as needed. Have you found an off the shelf solution, and if you’ve developed your own gizmo, what do you use?

Steve Olsen:

“I slip the pick between my index and middle while comping chords or chord melody playing…when I need to solo the pick is handy”

Steve’s website

Davy Mooney:

“I always use pick and fingers, and keep my nails kinda long, so they sound kinda like picks. I wrestled with various solutions for years before settling on this one….”

Davy’s Website

 

Jimmy Robinson:

“I make a pick with a plastic electrical clamp and a little screwpost. It fits on my index finger. When using my fingers, or thumb, the pick is completely out of the way. It does require re learning technique a bit, but it works for me. Cranston Clements is the other person on earth who uses it. You can see it in this clip”


Jimmy’s website

Bill Solley:

“I play finger style completely using classical guitar technique along with a few of my own!!!”

Bill’s (and vocalist Kim Prevost’s) Website

 

The One Thing Every Musician Needs to Earn a Living

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I took my family to a local restaurant in New Orleans called Felipe’s in the area known as Mid-City recently. Local guitarist Chip Wilson was playing on the patio. Most venues that have music are drinking establishments with age limits, so I’m always pleased to find a rare gem of a venue with live music where I can bring my family.

Chip is one of the good guys of New Orleans music, and a talented, versatile musician. A former luthier who transitioned to mastering the instruments he once produced, Chip is a bluesy, rootsy, jazzy, singer-songwriter with such tremendous command of the instrument. His playing evokes a cycle of inspiration and frustration for six-string layperson wannabes like myself, but I’m mesmerized by the way he engulfs the guitar with his finger-picking style.

When we were ready to leave, I walked back into the restaurant’s bar area and asked for a manager on duty. When he nervously approached, I said, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m always looking for place that I can bring my family to hear live music. I really appreciate you hiring great live musicians.” He thanked me for the feedback.

It’s easy to blame the venues for dwindling support of musicians, and there’s plenty we can criticize. I’m reminded of a viral ad that a restaurant posted for musicians to play for exposure in their restaurant and a musician’s comical reply. There are plenty of musician exploitation stories out there. But for the most part, restaurants and clubs are weighing a business decision – will the money I fork out for live music in my establishment be a good investment?

The truth is that if you don’t let the owner or manager know that you specifically sought out their venue because there was music, they’ll never know. So when there’s a slow season or there’s a downturn in the economy, it’s easy to cut back live music. If it drives more business than the musician’s fee, then not cutting music is a no-brainer.

The one thing every musician needs – supporters who are willing to take action.

So when you appreciate live music, let them know it. Somebody’s living depends on it.

The Good Guys (& Gals) of New Orleans Music

If you’re not from New Orleans or haven’t lived here for an extended period, it’s hard to articulate how wonderful the environment is among musicians here, particularly the fellowship and the way they nurture young artists and share the message of the joy of music education.

But let me try.

Several years ago I noticed in the newspaper one Saturday morning that Delfeayo Marsalis (trombonist of the famous Marsalis family) was holding “Cool School,” a session for young kids explaining and illustrating what jazz was all about through story and performance. I entered the small daycare facility and found myself in the presence of about 15 children, a dozen or so parents, and six world-class musicians. I couldn’t help but think that people in New York would line up in droves to watch a program like this. It’s both a blessing and a curse that our expectations of accessibility to great music is so high that we don’t even bat an eye that such a performance is available in such an intimate setting.

A few years later I visited the iconic music club Tipitina’s in New Orleans for the Tipitina’s Foundation Sunday music workshop. Again, 3 world-class musicians – Tony Dagradi (sax), Johnny Vidacovich (drums), and Roland Guerin (bass) played, and this time they mentored young musicians.  The format of the workshop is that the trio performs a couple of tunes as an intro, and then invite children onto the stage to join them.  About 15-20 kids joined the kids with various instruments in hand joined in. The musicians provided a brief tutorial on a simple 3-chord blues, and off they went.

As Sales and Marketing Rep. at LAFARGUE PIANOS, I hear over and over stories of parents who bring in their children for music lessons because they themselves weren’t fortunate enough to play an instrument. Either their parents didn’t believe it was important, they couldn’t afford lessons, the school they went to didn’t have a program or considered it non-essential, they tried but didn’t take music lessons seriously and later regretted it, or they simply never took the initiative. In any case, they make great sacrifices of both time and money to open the door to music for their children.

As we struggle with diminishing resources allocated to music education, kudos to all of the musicians, non-profits, and parents who are helping to fill in the gaps.

Bobby Lonero (1943-2013)

bobby & craigI’ve written several dozen music articles and reviews for local publications and jazz websites as a sideline over the past 7 years. I write mostly for the satisfaction of shedding light on musicians whom I believe have had a level of publicity or recognition that pales in comparison to their considerable accomplishments.

My friend and musical colleague Bobby Lonero passed away recently. Bobby was best known for his spot-on renditions of Louis Prima’s Greatest Hits, making him a favorite of the considerable Italian-Sicilian-American community in New Orleans. Italian-American Marching Club events, St. Joseph’s Day festivities, parades, weddings, banquets – Bobby was a fixture and brought immense joy to all of those events for roughly 50+ years as a professional musician.

Bobby Lonero was not widely known beyond the metropolitan New Orleans area. He had an original song or two that received airplay and charted in the late fifties, but nothing that would be highly recognizable beyond the most devout music historians. Bobby’s greatest legacy will be the thousands of glasses of red wine raised in celebration, wedding dances of Fathers and daughters named Angelina, Marie, or Giovanna, music accompanying St. Joseph’s Day parades, and Tarantella’s danced on overcrowded New Orleans dance floors.

Bobby Lonero was not perfect. His financial difficulties sometimes strained relationships with fellow musicians. He could be forgetful and disorganized. He sometimes embellished the truth. But as is the case with most accomplished musicians, when the final tally is completed by the only accountant who matters, the smiles and the joy and the memories he created for others will far outweigh his faults. And it’s not even a close call.

So as I find proper epitaphs difficult to come by and very little fanfare on display as I reflect on Bobby’s life and career, 5 1/2 decades of a working musician’s life at least seems worthy of a simple blog post.

bobbyloneroBobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago. From late 2002-2004, I played several dozen jobs with Bobby’s band, so in some small way I guess my association with Bobby affords me a sense of music immortality.

I couldn’t attempt to compile a complete chronicle Bobby’s career. The formal documentation of his career is minimal, and most events would have to be pieced together from the recollections of the thousands of musicians who shared the stage with Bobby. Everyone has their own personal version, and this is mine.

My earliest memories of Bobby were of my parents going out to see Bobby’s band at local music/dance clubs in the early 70’s when dancing, drinking, mingling, and leisure suits were the order of the day. The culture was different then, before DJ’s, karaoke, and synthesized 1-man bands took over the night club scene. As a teen I took up the guitar and joined a garage rock band, with plans to conquer the world with our original songs. My dad once asked upon hearing one of those original songs why we didn’t focus more on cover songs. “Bobby Lonero plays other people’s songs, and he makes money playing music,” he would say.

Perhaps that was Bobby’s greatest strength and shortcoming. As time moved on, Bobby’s repertoire gravitated increasingly toward Louis Prima hits to satisfy his Italian-American following. Though he recorded and pursued original songs early in his career, he never quite caught the break that would give him a defining “signature” song that so many other New Orleans artists used to propel their careers. When we had conversations about songs that he had recorded and written, there were also stories of deals gone bad and promises not kept that doomed some of those songs and recordings to obscurity.

For decades I knew Bobby only casually as the musician I’d see at Italian events, parades, and celebrations. In 2002 our musical paths would cross serendipitously. My Uncle Walton “Duke” Duplantis was known to many in New Orleans as the host of Franky & Johnny’s restaurant who would sing Sinatra hits on the P.A. system along with the jukebox that still spun vinyl 45’s. When friends and extended family decided to give Duke one “Big Night,” a first class Black Tie events where the charismatic, yet perhaps unpolished vocalist could realize his musical aspirations, we all knew there was only one backup band who could fill the bill – Bobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express.

I had written charts for many of the Sinatra tunes that Duke was familiar with, and for several months Bobby, Duke and I worked out the kinks and honed in on the songlist, later bringing in the full band. The fruits of those efforts came to fruition in November of 2002 at a sold out Rosy’s Jazz Hall on Tchoupitoulas St., a night that will be remembered fondly by all who knew these 2 musicians, the background story, or both.

There would be annual “Duke’s Big Night” shows again in 2003 and 2004. We would play smaller clubs with a scaled down band in the months in between. After the 2004 show, I began to pursue some of my original music with other musicians, and Bobby and I lost touch musically. On occasion we would cross paths, and I’d help him out with transportation or a favor, or I’d buy him lunch.

I guess what I’ll always remember is how happy Bobby would be when things went well musically. The instrumental song “Europa” became somewhat of a signature song for me, as the saxophone player and I would trade off verses and licks throughout. Bobby always laughed and smiled at me when we tore that one up. We once worked out harmonized licks at the end of the bridge in the song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and we were both in musical heaven when our two guitars plucked in unison.

We played an Italian Festival in Kenner years ago, and I’ll never forget one song in particular. I took a break for a couple of songs and walked the audience, and one of those songs was a crowd pleaser known as “Eh Gumbari.” He had a number of parents line up with young children along the front of the stage, each participating as the kids shouted out the various instrument names and the band echoed the sounds. It’s a wonder anyone would have the patience to pull off such a feat. But Bobby’s defining quality was that he so desperately wanted everyone to enjoy the music and that he wanted everyone involved. And rarely did Bobby fail to get such a reaction and participation from his audience.

I surprised him once in 2005 when my wife and I took a weekend getaway to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where, to our surprise, he was playing at one of the hotel lounges. He lit up with an ear to ear grin when we walked in and told the audience that a great musician and great guitarist with whom he had played many, many shows had just entered the bar. Bobby had such respect for fellow musicians. I don’t think I can ever recall an instance where he denied a request of a fellow musician to sit in when we were playing together.

He asked if I had any requests, and he obliged with “Banana Split for My Baby,” another real crowd pleaser.

I had the above photo of Bobby & I framed, and I brought it to him one day to sign. He wrote simply, “To a great player and a great friend. Your forever friend, Bobby.”

Here’s one final musical memory of Bobby – a poignant Christmas song I had the pleasure of performing with him live entitled “Christmas for Two.”