Category Archives: Music History

John Lennon Knew the Source of the World’s Troubles

lennon-001“One thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside.”  ~ John Lennon

Every day I watch the news and I’m saddened by the fact that we as a society spend most of our time dealing with symptoms and not the problem. Crime, war, abusive behavior, addiction, appetite for power, depression – they’re just symptoms. Inability to deal with one’s human emotions is almost always at the heart of these issues.

We’ve made incredible advances in medicine, technology, our universe. And yet as a society, have we had any success reducing violence, divorce, suicide, or increasing our levels of happiness or meaning in our lives? We have an intense curiosity when it comes to exploring the world outside of us – and a paralyzing fear when it comes to exploring the world within.

And until we make the same advances in addressing human emotions in a constructive manner, we can never build enough jails, pop enough pills, conquer enough kingdoms, or fill our lives with enough gadgets and creature comforts to make our problems go away.

There’s a saying that emotions will always find an outlet. If you don’t find a constructive one, they’ll find a destructive one for you. And we see it on the news or in our lives every day.

…And John Lennon knew it.

With that thought in mind, my latest original composition, “Tales of the Emotionally Blind.”

“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.”

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.”

Singin’ in the Rain & Regrets of the Dying

https://i0.wp.com/kellimarshall.net/genekellyfans/wp-content/uploads/Gene-Kelly-Singin_l-300x225.jpgOne of my Dad’s favorite movies was Singing in the Rain, and in particular, the famous scene where Gene Kelly does just that. I was reminded of that movie recently when I read an article by Bonnie Ware a hospice worker. The title of the article is “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” and it’s one of those items that stay with you long after you’ve read it.

Here’s an excerpt from the article regarding Regret #5:

“Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.”

How many times do we drive down the street and see someone singing or dancing or doing something we think is odd, and we classify them as a nut, goofball, crazy, etc. Maybe they are the most sane individuals in our society.

Life is a choice, and it’s too short to have regrets. Sing in the rain every once in a while.

Hugh Laurie and his Musical Visit to New Orleans – “Let Them Talk”

Actor Hugh Laurie, star of the hit TV show House, is quite an accomplished musician. For years he admired and emulated New Orleans pianists and their sound – Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint to name a few. He recently traveled to our great city for the first time to see and hear the sights and sounds of the Crescent City first hand, a pilgrimage that culminated in a PBS special/concert and his first album. Laurie collaborated with Vocalist Irma Thomas (The Soul Queen of New Orleans) and the aforementioned Allen Toussaint).

Here’s a brief excerpt that includes a few kind thoughts regarding New Orleans.   

“I feel like this is a city that doesn’t fear death. It’s looked death in the eye. Los Angeles on the other hand – everybody’s absolutely terrified. Terrified of getting old, terrified of wrinkles, terrified of dying.

“Music fills the streets and clubs of New Orleans like nowhere else. It’s a city that sings itself to sleep at night, and sings itself up in the morning. I’ve never known a place or people who so massively exceeded my expectations. It is more than I hoped it ever could be, and I hoped for quite a lot. This has been my Jerusalem.”

Link to the PBS Special/Concert Let Them Talk

Lost in Music of the 80’s: The Buggles, Madness, and Mood

I have a certain affinity for the music of the early 80’s and the dawn of the music video era. The new wave era on balance will not be remembered for the virtuosity of the musicians nor the sophistication of the music, though it’s noteworthy to mention that The Police, Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Pretenders, and The Tubes were born of that time. Yet there was an energy and excitement that captivated the music world back then.

The disco age was dead. Punk rock had shaken the music world out of its doldrums, but had faded as brilliantly as it had emerged. More importantly, music has the ability to connect us to other times in our lives.

I’ve also had the privilege of speaking to music therapists regarding the connection between music and mood. In the simplest sense, even a non-trained musical ear knows that certain (major) chords or sounds seem “happy,” while others (minor chords) evoke sadness or are more appropriate for horror movies. Of course, their science goes well beyond those basic theories, allowing breakthroughs with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, Down Syndrome, and Autism.

That brings me to yesterday.

I was having a bad day – No particular tragedies, just a series of life’s little aggravations. Then, while strolling through the grocery store, a tune played from the speakers above. The recognizable intro to “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. It was the 1st video ever played on MTV back in the day, and the video production levels were so primitive that there was an innocence that permeated the music videos of that era. The song “Our House” by Madness followed. From what moment forward, my day and my attitude changed for the better.

What music changes your mood?

New Orleans Blues in the Night

Copyright Michael Cortello Photography
 

It is said that truly great musicians give the same inspired performance whether the audience numbers 5 or 5,000. I was reminded of that fact when we traveled down to the French Quarter last Saturday night to let my son Michael capture a few late night photos. On the “Moonwalk” that borders the Mississippi River, we came across this New Orleans Street Musician with nothing but a harmonica, a microphone, and a small amplifier. We encountered him, alternatively blowing his instrument and wailing bluesy lines for a handful of late night strollers around 11:00 p.m.

For more great New Orleans photos, visit Michael Cortello Photography .

Free download: My song “City Soldier” (Ms. Romy Kaye on vocals) that is a tribute to the street performers of New Orleans.

Hidden Music Gems from the iPod

Here’s a suggestion if you’re an iPod or .mp3 player owner. Rather than playing your favorite albums and songs, set your player to randomly select songs. You’ll find great tunes you’d forgotten about – what I like to call hiden gems. Here are a quick 5 that I found on my iPod recently:

All That I Need is Love by Melody Gardot

Express by Marilyn Harris

Eternal Love by Utopia

Skylark by Kim Prevost and Bill Solley

Esplanade by Tim Laughlin and Hank Mackie

Phoebe Snow (1950 -2011)

Phoebe Snow was one of the most distinctive and versatile vocalists of the last half century. Though she is best known for the hit song “Poetry Man,” her career was so much more diverse, spanning decades and crossing genres. She was most revered by fellow musicians, and the artists with whom she has worked over the last 40 years reads like a “Who’s Who” of the recording industry.

Here’s Phoebe performing her signature song:

The Continuum of Jazz: Article/Profile of Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield, Jr.

This week my cover story for local entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine’s  New Orleans Jazz Fest issue: Interview/profile of legendary jazz musicians/educators Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield.

Read “The Continuum of Jazz” from Where Y’at magazine

Thanks again to Laura Tennyson, Communications Strategist for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for arranging this interview and to Josh Danzig and the staff at Where Y’at magazine for the assignment. Photo credits: Romney Photography

(From left to right: Ed Petersen (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Harold Battiste), Harold Battiste, Irvin Mayfield, Jr., Victor Atkins (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Ellis Marsalis, Jr.), and Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

My profile of Irvin Mayfield, A Golden Trumpet and a Midas Touch (2010)
My profile of Ellis Marsalis Encouragement, Support, & Exposure: The Lessons of Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (2007)