Tag Archives: New Orleans

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.

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.”

Dr. Michael E. Guillot In Memoriam (1953-2015): 10 Lessons of a Teacher’s Life Well Lived

(Note:  An education fund has been established to ensure the future education of Dr. Guillot’s 10-yr-old son, Spencer. For more information and to make a contribution, please visit:  GoFundMe.com/SpencerGuillotFund)

Thirty five years ago I wrote a dozen or so essays for my high school English teacher during my Junior year. Tonight for my friend and mentor, I’ll write one more.

Dr. Michael Guillot was a man of extraordinary talents, and the loss to the education community of New Orleans with his passing is incalculable. Educator, guidance counselor, education administrator, certified fund-raising executive, organizational development expert, non-profit advisor, education reformer, visionary, husband, father, NCAA hoops enthusiast, and friend only begin to scratch the surface.

IMG_2676What made Mike so uniquely special was that he took on all of those roles with infectious enthusiasm. The difficulty in eulogizing someone like Mike Guillot is that a simple list of accomplishments, of which he had many, doesn’t begin to convey the sense of how the people in his presence were made to feel. When you spoke to him about an organization, an idea, or you as an individual, you always walked away feeling as though greatness was not only possible – it was probable – if we were willing to push the limits of our talents. He knew that we were better and capable of more than we believed. He saw potential.

I first came to know Mike in 1980 as a junior at Archbishop Rummel High School in New Orleans, LA when he taught English composition. He was a demanding teacher. His 8 golden rules of composition were to be followed precisely, and even one violation garnered an automatic failing grade. As I recall, half of those compositions were written at home, but half were completed in class under the pressure of time constraints. I must say honestly that many a student mumbled the name Guillot under their breath in frustration when grades were distributed.

But Mike’s passion for quality of the written word and his genial demeanor helped ease the bite of his demanding approach. Also, it’s funny how the passing of time brings with it a greater appreciation in life for those who expected and demanded our best – those who understood that there were no shortcuts on a journey to excellence – and trying to convince ourselves otherwise was a terrible disservice to our higher selves, and to our creator.

A year later when Mike served as my Senior year homeroom teacher, I recall an intramural volleyball game. While other teachers sat casually in the stands and observed, I remember Mike standing by the net, clapping his hands exuberantly, urging us on, trying to rally his homeroom boys to victory. We went ahead and won game 1, lost momentum and lost game 2 in a close one, and got clobbered in game 3. I remembered thinking, “He sure does seem excited about this. It’s just an intramural volleyball game.” But for Mike, there were no mundane events, and no moments in life that didn’t matter. He was always present and engaged when he was in your presence. He always helped you understand that in life there were no dress rehearsals. Every day was the real deal.

Mike Guillot wore many hats during his career. He served as teacher, guidance counselor, and administrator at several schools in the New Orleans area. He began to develop expertise in assisting educational institutions and nonprofits in setting up their fundraising programs. In 1989 he founded Virtual Development Group, taking on the practice of fundraising consulting as a full-time endeavor. Over that 16 year period, he assisted so many education and nonprofit organizations in refining their mission, structuring their fundraising programs, and in providing guidance on board selection and management. For a time after relocating to North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he worked for nonprofit organizations there, including a stint as V.P. of Patron Services for the North Carolina Symphony. He also developed and taught a series of Nonprofit Management Program courses for Duke University’s Nonprofit CertiWk. 12 - Art class posters (1)ficate Program. He would return to New Orleans education in 2010, while continuing his work toward a Ph.D from Antioch University, work that he completed in the fall of 2014. After a brief tenure at Holy Cross High School, he accepted the position as President of De La Salle High School in New Orleans in 2012, a position he held until his death.

Mike’s impact on De La Salle H.S. in three short years was impressive, where all of the skills that he had amassed during his career came together. With an eye for innovation and excellence, he began to build classrooms of the future centered around the 4 C’s of 21st century education:  Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking, serving as a model for education reform efforts. He was a rare visionary talent inWk. 12 - C pd (1) education – someone with not only the understanding of the necessary changes needed in the classroom as the antiquated “repository of information model” of education gives way to skills and project-based learning – but also one with the skills, understanding, and drive to secure the resources and buy-in to turn ideas into reality.

It was in 1981-82 during my senior year at Rummel when Mike served as my homeroom teacher that we found the common joy that would serve as the link connecting our friendship through the years. When Mike played the annual Rummel teachers’ March Madness NCAA basketball pool in 1982, he shared his predictions and the daily standings with his students. I showed him my bracket as well, though he made it clear that the “official contest” was open only to teachers and alumni. I would later learn that some of the current students had coerced their teachers into allowing them to enter, but Mike held firm in his adherence to the rules, and I never let him forget that he was the cause of all of my office pool futility for years to come. In what I would later refer to as my March Madness “Guillot curse,” I became the “unofficial” winner of the 1982 Rummel teachers’ March Madness competition. After Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper that gave the NC Tar Heels the championship and a comparison of my bracket to the winner, Mike sheepishly proclaimed, “Wow, you would have won our pool.” I was doomed.

I joined the pool officially in 1983, my first year as an alum, but I had no chance. But each year in March, Mike and I would find one another, catch up on our careers, lives, and families, and join in whomever’s company or organization had an open competition. Some years we’d play my office pool, some years we’d play his, and some years when neither organization we were affiliated with held a March Madness competition, we’d just compete against each other for an oyster po-boy and a Barq’s root beer. One year it was me, his son Ted, and Mike – $5 bucks a head – winner take all.

But it really was just an excuse to reconnect.

I have been fortunate enough to have had a front row seat for Mike’s wonderful journey of excellence for more than 3 decades. As our friendship grew, I came to think of Mike as my compass. Whenever I came to a crossroads in life, I turned to him for guidance, encouragement, and support. Like any great guidance counselor, he didn’t give direct advice, only asked the right questions that made the choice of the appropriate path seem obvious. I have been successful in life by often choosing the more difficult path that would help challenge me and grow my skills, a “lifetime of continuous learning” model that Mike exemplified and that I tried to emulate. I will always view this brief social media exchange that Mike and I had during teacher appreciation week with great pride:

It would have been easy to lose touch after Hurricane Katrina rolled through New Orleans, but thankfully we serendipitously bumped into each other at a local bookstore shortly thereafter. We gave each other a hug, exchanged our stories, and updated contact info so that we could stay in touch.

Once when I had reached one of those crossroads in my professional career, I turned to Mike for counsel. I dropped out of corporate America for a time to pursue my passion for writing, public speaking, and consulting. And when I began to conduct research for a book espousing the life benefits of music education, I knew that I would want to get Mike’s perspective and thoughts and include them in the content for the book. You see, Mike was a great proponent of the arts in education, his own life shaped by his participation in choir as a youngster. Secondly, Mike was of a generation whose experiences were profoundly shaped by the music of their time, a “golden period” as Mike described it, where the arts provided a conduit for social change. I knew that Mike would express those thoughts in an articulate and clear manner.

When the book was completed, I sent him a note to thank him for his contribution. I confided that although I was proud of the work professionally and felt as though I was making a difference, I wasn’t sure if I could make a living. His response:

“As for making a living…I’m pretty sure that’s not the point, right? Our job is to make a life, or as you say, make a difference. The money will take care of itself. You are putting yourself out there and establishing clearly your unique contribution to the world. It is working and it will continue to work…and counting dollars is not – repeat – is not a measure of success. 

Talk to you soon,

Michael”

It was comforting to hear Mike’s words and they gave me a sense of great clarity. I knew my mission at that point. Mike made it clear that when you had a calling to make a unique contribution to the world and challenge yourself, you should trust your intuition and not let fear rule the day. And things did work out. I would return to the corporate world a much more polished, skillful, and valuable employee years later, and I owe a great deal of that success to the lessons learned from my association with Mike.

As Mike migrated back to education and began to implement his own vision for education reform, I took great pride in his accomplishments. We shared a belief that sweeping changes were needed in 21st century education. I would later invite Mike to join a panel of New Orleans professionals whose success was influenced by music education that included Sheriff Newell Normand and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. Again, Mike so eloquently shared his thoughts and experiences, as well as his vision for 21st century education:

I was privileged to serve on a peer review group near the end of his Ph.D. work, just prior to his dissertation defense. I know that even when there were professional sacrifices in the pursuit of his degree, he persevered because he believed in the work and the need for a practical model for non-profit leadership.

I once spoke to Mike about his career as a non-profit and organizational development consultant. He said, “Craig, essentially I still consider myself a teacher.”

That was his life, inside or outside of the classroom.

When we experience a death that seems so untimely, we point to our understanding of God and the fact that we don’t always understand our higher power’s plan. I would like to believe that the impact of the life well lived by a great teacher can be measured by the students who were impacted. So what lessons do we take away from Mike’s exemplary example of life? Here are a few:

1.  Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking – become the model of education that Mike envisioned – live those concepts and integrate them into your work every day. It would be a shame if the reforms that are so necessary in 21st century education that Mike had envisioned and begun to implement at De La Salle High School in New Orleans lost momentum with Mike’s death. I just saw anrainbow_081110 article in TIME magazine recently citing a survey of CEOs and once again it’s these so-called soft skills that students lack coming to the workplace. In my own experience I can say that I echo his sentiments, and we shared our like-minded thoughts on the subject often. I would implore not just the administration and teachers of De La Salle High School, but all of the educators in this city to explore 21st century skills and education reform models and to make meaningful changes to both the environment and curriculum to better prepare our young men and women for the future.

2.  Read Mike’s dissertation and share with your colleagues in the non-profit world. It’s available for download at Antioch University’s website, and Mike was uniquely qualified to complete this work. The One Less Traveled By:  A New Model for the Nonprofit Leadership outlines 10 building blocks for Nonprofit leadership, but there are life lessons for us all in this work, with Mike’s distinct voice evident throughout. He gave his heart and soul, his time, and he sacrificed in many ways to see this work through to the finish. When I think of how unfortunate it is that we lost Mike only months after he achieved this esteemed honor of education, I take solace in the fact that he DID complete the work prior to his death and that we can share his research.

Mike was intent on conducting practical research. Whether you’re involved in nonprofit leadership or not, read this work. The document is filled with great lessons of society, community, purpose, and life.

3.  Emulate Mike’s model of a commitment to a lifetime of continuous learning. If we can all become ambassadors of learning, pursuing a cycle of an insatiable thirst for education followed by a burning desire to share our knowledge and experience for the good of others, we’ll honor his memory appropriately.

school girl 3 x 4Mike’s approach to social media was an indicator of his thirst for knowledge. I had a conversation once with a mutual colleague regarding how frequently we enjoyed the material that Mike posted on his social media feeds. Thoughtful essays, music and art reflections, productivity tips, education ideas, leadership doctrines, and business case studies were commonplace if you connected with Dr. Guillot (@meguillot on Twitter). Social media like most anything, can be good or bad – a great resource of enlightenment or a breeding ground for negativity, criticism, and even hatred.

For someone with such an insatiable appetite for learning as Mike Guillot, social media and the web were simply tools for more efficiently accumulating and organizing knowledge based on your interests and professional needs (He once informed me of the newsfeed tool Zite with the enthusiasm of a child with a new Christmas toy).

Make social media an extension of the values, goals, aspirations, interests, and beliefs you hold dear in your offline existence.

4.  Live every moment with enthusiasm for the task at hand and for the people who share those experiences with you. Mike contacted me once to let me know that one of the children of the members of the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary had contacted him to discuss his sentiments regarding Music and Social Change that she’d seen in excerpts from my book. He wanted me to know that sometimes our actions can have very unexpected ripple effects in ways that we could never have envisioned, and provide affirmation for the validity of the work I’d completed.

Such is the nature of every interaction of every day. The manner in which we inspire and support each other’s efforts, ideas, and passions can have a multiplier effect on those whom they impact, and so it goes. Don’t ever lose sight of effect you can have, both positively and negatively, on those around you.

5.  Make a commitment to the arts – in education and in life. 

Mike Guillot was a believer in the importance of the arts, both for the critical role that they will play in 21st century learning and preparing our students for the creative economy for the future, but also for the role that they play in the quality of life. He shared his thoughts on both.

(I’ve included excerpts of Mike’s interview in the text below. Here’s the audio interview in its entirety:)

“I would sit in front of the stereo listening to Beatles songs, trying to figure out what they were playing. I still listen to their music and think they are as powerful an influence on art in general as anything that’s happened in the last 50 or 60 years,” he said.

Beatles Abbey RdBeing a part of that generation also opened his eyes to the power of music in terms of its potential for providing a conduit for social change.

“Art reflects life,” said Michael. “It was expressing that era of heightened change, of personal discontent, of grappling with core issues, of looking around you and not making a connection between what you saw and what you felt. Some of that had to do with justice issues, of race. Some of it had to do with equity issues – how come so and so has this and other people don’t? We claim to be the land of opportunity. Part of what we were striving for to identify in those days was how equitable was that opportunity.

“And of course, we were pressed on by a war,” he added.

“That war for me and many other Americans was not just an abstract exercise. We knew people who had lost their lives in that war and their families who had been affected. And of course I was at the age where I was eligible for the draft, so it was not an academic exercise. So to find any art form, but particularly one as accessible and as present as popular music to begin to tussle with those issues [was important]. 

“At the same time you had the Beatles; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Pete Seeger. You had the emergence of folk music becoming protest music, and popular music sort of echoing those themes. So Rock and Roll goes from just a mere expression of youthfulness to an expression of serious political and sociological issues,” he observed. “It was a profound time. Many researchers call these periods golden periods, where a convergence of things happens.

“You look at Athens, you look at Rome, you look at the Renaissance, periods where art and civic and commerce and all these things come together. The 60s and all that it meant represented that time in the world. The first time the world had to stop and look at itself since WWII, and not necessarily liking what it found. You had a lot of art trying to tussle with that.”

6.  Commit to excellence in all that you do. Don’t settle for less than your best.

Mike took an important lesson from his own experience in music that would shape his life and career. When I asked Michael to articulate the takeaways of his experience with and observations of music that he now applies to business, his thoughts first returned to the vocal ensemble and of the lessons of his influential vocal instructor, Mr. Malcolm Breda.

Seagull and sun1“In high school I got involved in a superior vocal ensemble,” he recalled. “We had a wonderful director who taught me how to read music, Malcolm Breda. He saw what we were doing, even though we were a small high school, as being at the highest level. He wanted us to see this as a pursuit of excellence.

“We rehearsed all day long, and it really became an important organization in my small school. He taught us how to read music and how to understand what the intent of the composer was. He introduced us not only to the fun music to sing, but also some challenging pieces. I really enjoyed the four years that I spent there. He saw that excellence and joy could be part of the same pursuit,” he said. “That you could work hard, demand the best of yourself and the others you were with, and that would not diminish, it only enhanced your joy.

“That was an important lesson for me to learn. And I think it is [an important lesson] for young people where they tend to associate hard work with pain. I was taught that hard work meant that you could stand in front of a group of people and perform, and they would love you.”

Having the opportunity to observe world-class musicians up close has given him a greater understanding of and appreciation for their dedication to the little details that are considerable in aggregate.

“When you look at professional musicians or artists at any level, what you rarely see is the amount of time and energy it takes to get to that level of virtuosity. As a business person you begin to appreciate that. How many scales does Leo Kottke have to perfect to get to that level of excellence on the guitar? It’s unthinkable.

“Yet that’s indeed the journey in front of you. Every day you have to be willing to do a whole compendium of little things that all add up to greatness.”

7.  Believe in the goodness of mankind. Every conversation that I can recall with Mike seemed to have a tone that would best be described as hopeful. When we spoke of the workplace of the future, he spoke of the humanity of the workplace and the idea that the workforce of the future would be driven not by technology, but by people. When we discussed education reform, he didn’t speak in cynical tones regarding the resistance to change that he might encounter, but rather about the excitement that could be created by the innovations that he envisioned.

It’s much easier to go through life with a positive attitude when you’re an optimist rather than a pessimist. And you’re more likely to inspire those around you.

8.  Enjoy life’s simple pleasures. I once wrote in this forum that if you can’t find joy in the simple thinStL-Cath-8x10gs in life, the joy you find in fancy, expensive things won’t last. Mike’s life exemplified those sentiments. His sharp, sarcastic yet playful wit, his love of college basketball and sports in general, his joy in strumming the guitar or singing a favorite song, and the beauty of stroll through the streets of New Orleans were some of Mike’s favorite things that I knew from our friendship. His family and friends echoed those themes in my conversations with them and in their written thoughts as well.

9.  Courage is a virtue. In the best-selling book Good to Great, author Jim Collins discusses a principle that great companies exhibit known as the Stockdale paradox. The concept was derived from his conversations with Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war of the POW camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

Quoting Admiral Stockdale, Collins writes, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

While Mike was an optimist with a wonderful attitude and great enthusiasm for his work, he understood that leadership carried with it a responsibility to confront and acknowledge realities of your situation and organization, and to make difficult decisions. Great leaders and great organizations understand that problems ignored and not addressed head on don’t simply fix themselves. They have the potential to drain your organization (or yourself) of its resources and sap employee or stakeholder morale.

10.  Live a life of purpose. And finally, I’ll go back to the words that Mike shared at a time when I needed them most on mission and purpose:  “As for making a living…I’m pretty sure that’s not the point, right? Our job is to make a life, or as you say, make a difference. The money will take care of itself. You are putting yourself out there and establishing clearly your unique contribution to the world. It is working and it will continue to work…and counting dollars is not – repeat – is not a measure of success.”

Similarly, Mike referenced this quote in his dissertation work:

Purpose.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to
be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and
lived well.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Threnody

In his nonprofit consulting work, Mike guided his clients toward focusing on a mission that would inspire their team, their current and future board members, and that donors would enthusiastically get behind and support. Once again, focus on purpose, resources will follow.

In the book Man in the Mirror:  Solving the 24 Problems Men Face, author Patrick Morley discusses the difference between goals and purpose:

“Goals are what we do, purposes are why we do what we do…One of the most perplexing problems men face is that met goals tend to become an unrelated string of hollow victories…you have to keep setting new ones, because achieving them doesn’t provide any lasting satisfaction.

Silhouette father & sonTo be satisfying, our goals need to reflect our examination of life’s larger meaning. The plain truth is that most men either don’t know their purpose in life, or their purpose is too small. A man can do nothing more important than to wrestle with the purpose of his life.”

So my final suggestion is to encourage our youth to follow the pursuits that feed their soul and have an impact on others. We are great at celebrating those who exit the doors of our educational institutions and become well paid engineers and lawyers, and no harm in that. But let’s celebrate those who pursue educating impoverished children in 3rd world countries or inner cities. The struggling artist who believes they have a gift to share with the world and perseveres in the face of commercial obstacles. Or the social worker who helps victims of domestic abuse for only a shade above minimum wage. Let’s celebrate the honor in those pursuits with equal fervor.

Pursue a life well lived, in honor of the teacher who showed us how.

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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.

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.”

Alicia Keys Super Bowl 47 National Anthem – Thoughts & Observations

Jazz singer/songwriter Dave Frishberg once recorded a song entitled “You Would Rather Have the Blues,” a tongue-in-cheek narrative poking fun at people who are always looking for reasons to be unhappy. Though the song was written long before the social media revolution, one might surmise that the tune is aimed directly at the Twitter nation.

Alicia Keys performed the Star Spangled Banner kicking off tonight’s Super Bowl in the New Orleans between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Fancisco 49ers. It’s a role that has come under considerable scrutiny in recent years. Some artists lip-synch the song to a pre-recorded track, some sing live and get criticized for not sounding great, some have forgotten the lyrics. Some are blasted for taking too many liberties with the melody.

The version that Ms. Keys performed this evening was simply spectacular. The combination of her restrained piano accompaniment to her extraordinary vocals, both of which were performed live, was wonderfully simplistic and appropriately poignant. The chordal arrangement was thoughtful and reserved. Many vocalists prefer the safety blanket of a large orchestral backup, yet the honest emotion of piano and voice was consistent with the style of the artist and daunting to pull off in such a setting. And you never had the sense that she believed that she or her performance were bigger or more important than the song itself, a trait becoming rarer and rarer in the day of Megastars and Super Bowl production overkill.

Yet the initial response on the social media outlets focused on the length of the song, a whopping 2 minutes 30 seconds preceding a game that exceeded 4 hours. Amazing. It should be noted that most of the early reviews that focused on the performance itself have been very positive, some concurring with me that it ranked as one of the all time best at this event. If you didn’t care for Alicia’s performance, let me know who has done a better job performing the song LIVE in the history of the Super Bowl – a short list I’m sure.

By the way, Kudos to local New Orleans Piano Showroom, Lafargue Pianos. Technicians from the local Yamaha Piano dealer were summoned to give Ms. Keys’ Grand Piano some prep work, and the look and sound were outstanding.

Here’s a video of tonight’s performance…

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-super-bowl/0ap2000000136099/Alicia-Keys-wows-singing-national-anthem

 

New Orleans Street Performers: Let the Music Play

Tanya & Dorise (photo credit/copyright Michael Cortello)

The New Orleans street performers add ambiance to the French Quarter area and draw visitors to the area. Those visitors support restaurants and businesses. And if you’ve ever been in New Orleans this time of year, you know that being outdoors in the heat and humidity for 6-8 hours is no picnic. All of the residents of the New Orleans metro area benefit from their hard work and dedication.

When I was in college, I tended bar on Bourbon St. on weekends and holidays. Occasionally, some of the performers that included musicians, dancers, and mimes, clowns would come in for a glass of water. While they were all smiles for the crowds, I could see how grueling that heat could be by the expressions on their faces when they came in for a little relief from the hot weather.

The city is considering enforcing an ordinance limiting the hours that these performers can play. While I understand that there are concerns from French Quarter residents, they should proceed with caution. I don’t think it’s appropriate to limit music in the city that is defined by it. The prudent approach would be to simply handle compaints on a case-by-case basis rather than enforcing indiscrimanantly.

Doreen's Jazz New Orleans (photo credit/copyright Michael Cortello)

The New Orleans French Quarter is a unique and wonderful place. Some say it’s the only real Bohemian society in America. Let’s not let the beaurocracy ruin a good thing.

Link to the website of Tanya & Dorise

Link to the website of Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans

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

Complete CD preview New Orleans is the One I Love by SONOMA (Craig Cortello and Romy Kaye)

Photos courtesy of my 12 year-old son and photography buff, Michael Cortello.

Saving Louisiana & the Gulf Coast: Easy tools to get involved

Photo credit/copyright Michael Cortello

In 2006, Congress passed long overdue legislation to guarantee that Gulf Coast states would receive fair royalties as compensation for oil leases in the Gulf. Those dollars are essential to adequately invest in projects that will turn back the tide of coastal erosion and fund the preservation of our coast. Those revenues are not scheduled to kick in until 2016.

Given the events of the last 5 weeks, it is clear that this schedule must be accelerated to deal with the unexpected acute dangers affecting our coast. Sen. Landrieu has introduced legislation to speed up the distribution of those funds, providing resources as early as 2011.

Not only is New Orleans the birthplace of jazz and one of the most culturally unique cities in America, it is also a vital American economic resource in terms of seafood, oil and gas, and transportation of agricultural products and raw materials.

With e-mail and Twitter, letting our political leaders know how you feel has never been easier. Whether you live in the affected area or not, you have a stake in this issue. Please take a moment to contact your legislators and demand that they support this legislation.

To write, e-mail, or even tweet your congressional representatives, here’s the link.

I’ve also included a couple of brief templates for e-mail or twitter:

E-mail letter:

“It is clear that given recent events in the Gulf of Mexico, affected areas are in dire need of significant economic resources, not only to deal with the ongoing immediate crisis of the oil spill in the Gulf, but also to fund long-term projects that will turn back the tide of coastal erosion and fund the preservation of the coast.

Please support legislation accelerating the distribution of oil revenue royalties to Gulf Coast states from the year 2016 to the year 2011. These funds would provide a significant return on investment, given the economic impact that the Gulf Coast region has on the entire U.S. in terms of seafood, oil and gas, transportation of agricultural products and raw materials, and cultural resources.”

Twitter message

Pls support legislation accelerating distribution of oil revenue royalties to G.C. states necessary for clean-up and infrastructure projects