30 April 2013


I live about 5000 miles from New Orleans and have managed to visit the great City only four times in my life. The most recent visit was for ten days in April 2015, to coincide with The French Quarter Festival. Before that, my previous visit had been in the 1990s, when Preservation Hall was the obvious place to go for top-quality traditional jazz. At that time, there was some good jazz to be heard in several bars and restaurants; and there were quite a few decent busking groups on the streets. The musicians were mainly black and many of them were elderly (and alas have since died: think of Narvin Kimball, Percy and Willie Humphrey, Milton Batiste, Lionel Ferbos, Pud Brown, Danny Barker, Harold Dejan and James Prevost - all of whom I had the pleasure of hearing). But in the 1990s nobody would have thought of Frenchmen Street (at the eastern edge of the French Quarter) as the best place to look for outstanding traditional jazz. 

In 2015, I found the situation had changed dramatically. For example, Frenchmen Street had now become the place to base yourself in the evenings if you wanted the choice of a wide range of top-quality bands playing in various bars and clubs.
The Spotted Cat, Frenchmen Street
April 2015
Big developments had occurred since Hurricane Katrina. Maybe the hurricane was the catalyst for change.
You will recall that the hurricane struck in August 2005. A huge area was flooded by up to fifteen feet of water. 80% of New Orleans and large tracts of neighbouring parishes were covered; and the flood waters lingered for weeks. About 2000 people lost their lives, half of them in and around New Orleans.

It could have marked the end of jazz in New Orleans; and indeed the homes of many musicians were destroyed and they had to leave.

But from 2006, as the City started to rebuild, a new young generation began to migrate to New Orleans. They came from all parts of America, as well as a few from Canada and Europe. They were mostly young white musicians - some of them straight out of music colleges - and they started to settle in New Orleans in the hope of making a career in music. Surprisingly, many of them wanted to play the old tunes (of 1910 - 1940) in the old styles. Learning from 78 rpm records, and CD reissues and increasingly from the internet (especially YouTube) they mastered music that had rarely been played in the previous 70 years.

Todd Burdick is best known as the tuba player and founder member of Tuba Skinny. He told me he came to New Orleans from Chicago and at the time you could find a pal and jointly rent a shotgun house near the French Quarter for just 400 dollars a month. (The price by 2015 had risen to 900 dollars a month.)

It was a hard life and I guess some of them soon gave up. But many settled. They made just enough money to survive by playing for tips on the streets. They started to find like-minded musicians who became their friends and formed themselves into bands. A good example was The Loose Marbles - a band in which founder members were Ben Polcer (a graduate of the Univeristy of Michigan) and Michael Magro. They encouraged promising newcomers to pass through the band's ranks and hone their skills. Many of the musicians who developed their talents in Loose Marbles have gone on to form bands of their own: think of Tom Saunders and the Tom Cats, Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, Tuba Skinny, and The Orleans Six, for example.

Shaye Cohn of Tuba Skinny has said: 'One thing really important to The Loose Marbles was ensemble playing. When I first started with them, I was playing second trumpet. So I had to work to find a voice where I could fit in. It taught me to play very simply, and to listen'.

The Loose Marbles still exists and is attracting plenty of gigs. As the sixty or so musicians who have played in Loose Marbles all still feel part of the family, it is easy enough for Ben and Michael to put together half a dozen of them to play at a gig.

To see a video of great historical interest - The Loose Marbles playing in the street in 2007, CLICK HERE. And to see them playing indoors in those early post-Katrina days, CLICK HERE.

The great banjo player John Dixon told me that with the musicians came some great dancers - people such as Amy Johnson and Chance Bushman; and they in turn attracted more dancers..... and so more musicians.

In the hottest months, it became customary to decamp to the cooler regions in the north, so you might find some of these bands in August busking in New York's Washington Square, for example. Some of the musicians head north in August to work as tutors in residential Jazz Camps. More recently, some of the bands have even been able to tour overseas during the summer.

As part of their learning and development, some players, after arriving in New Orleans, decided to take up a second or even a third instrument. They taught themselves and - in just a few years - reached the highest levels on these instruments. Think of Barnabus Jones. He arrived in New Orleans as a violinist. He then mastered the banjo. And finally he bought an old trombone and mastered that. Now he is regarded as one of the finest traditional jazz trombonists in the history of jazz. Then there is Shaye Cohn. She arrived as an outstanding pianist and accomplished violinist. She obtained a very old cornet (which she still plays - she told me it is the only horn she possesses), taught herself the fingering, and just a few years later has surely become the most creative traditional jazz cornet player in the world.
Shaye kindly allowed me to take
a photo of her world-famous cornet.
Todd Burdick arrived in New Orleans as a banjo and guitar player. He is now one of the best jazz tuba players. And that isn't enough. He told me he is now trying to learn the string bass to add to his armoury. Todd said with some regret he hardly ever gets invited to play a gig on banjo these days because 'people seem to have forgotten that I play the instrument'!
It was an enormous pleasure
for me to meet Todd Burdick.
Todd on guitar -
a few years ago.
As the years have gone by, bands have emerged and developed - all with distinctive styles. Hundreds of hours spent making music on the streets and later playing at gigs in bars and clubs have brought the standard of traditional jazz performance in New Orleans to a musical level at least equal to that of the 1920s.

The boom in tourism and the world-wide appreciation of their music (fostered by YouTube, internet-streamed performances and CDs) has meant that the best bands no longer need to play on the streets to make a living. They can survive on the income from gigs mainly in the bars and clubs on Frenchmen Street. Indeed, Frenchmen Street is the place to be - though the great tradition still continues at Preservation Hall: every night, while I was in town, there was a long queue in St. Peter's Street waiting for the Hall to open.
A performance in Preservation Hall
April 2015
Some of the best bands to emerge since Katrina have practically given up busking in the streets, because it is such hard work and it has become so difficult to secure a prime spot. But others (such as Tuba Skinny) still choose to play in the streets at least once a week because they see this as a chance to try out new ideas and to spread the music to the people. They say it is good to play what you like when you like, without any pressures from a promoter. 

Meanwhile, more young musicians have arrived in New Orleans to try their luck. The most outstanding (such as James Evans from Wales and Haruka Kikuchi from Japan) have rapidly been recruited into established bands.

On the streets the musicians playing for tips have continued to multiply. In my view, there are now too many for their own good, because competition has made it hard to earn a living. Even so, I have to report the standards of the music to be heard on Royal Street are so high that those bands are much better and more exciting than the typical band that we find in pubs and jazz clubs here in England.

This Facebook entry by guitarist Shine Delphi shows just how hard they work - even on a birthday:
Thank y'all for the birthday love. If you're in New Orleans come give me a hug. I'll be busking with Yes Ma'am  11 - 2, then Goorin Bros hat shop 3 - 5 and I'll finish the evening over at Buffa's 11 - 1.

While I was in New Orleans I had the privilege of conversations with several of the musicians I had previously seen and admired only on YouTube. It was a special thrill to meet them. I learned a great deal about their approach to the music, and how they practise, rehearse and manage their lives. But that will be a subject to write about later.smile emoticon

Meeting the great Japanese trombonist
Haruka Kikuchi was a special thrill.
See her in full flight


The Book Enjoying Traditional Jazz, written  by Pops Coffee, is available from Amazon.