11 March 2013


While I was in New Orleans in April 2015, I had the privilege of conversations with several of the musicians I had previously seen and admired only on YouTube.

I also listened to several of the great bands playing in the bars and clubs (such as The Spotted Cat and The DBA and The Maison) and to dozens of street musicians (buskers, as we say in England).

It was a special thrill to chat with them wherever possible. Some - under pressure from their adoring public - could spare me only a few moments; but with others I managed to have quite long conversations, from which I learned a great deal about how they practise, rehearse and manage their lives.

They tend to live in rented shotgun houses just outside the French Quarter. Some of them are near enough to walk to work. But many use bicycles, often fitted with trailers, to take themselves and their kit to the spot where they will play.
They work long and hard - even on a birthday! For an illustration of this, look at this Facebook entry by guitarist Shine Delphi:
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.

You sometimes pass a band playing for tips at a certain spot and then - when you return five hours later - you find they are still there and still playing. What stamina they have! Here's the famous Doreen Ketchens, for example, playing a very long session in Royal Street.
Musical standards are so high. For example, I noticed street musicians have no problem playing terrific improvised 32-bar solo choruses even when they have a singer who chooses to sing in an 'awkward' key. Pretty well any of the musicians busking on Royal Street would be instant stars on the jazz scene here in England. But in England they would not make a living, whereas in New Orleans the tips from tourists give them just enough to live on.

There are now so many street musicians in New Orleans that competition for attention and for tips has become a problem. In Royal Street (the main location for buskers), you may be brilliantly singing songs accompanied by your own guitar, but there will be a five-piece band only 100 yards to your right and a solo classical violinist 100 yards to your left. So it's not easy to hold the attention of passers-by.

In addition, the streets are full of other 'entertainers' - the human statues, tap-dancers, the man who types instant poetry, the sword swallower, the magician, the exhibitionists (often vulgar) who expect tips just for posing in outrageous costumes, and so on.

I was told independently by two musicians (so it is surely true) that, if you want to play in a prime spot from 11a.m. (when music is allowed), you need some member of your band to man that position from 11p.m. the night before. All through the night, someone must be on the spot to hold it. Sometimes members of a band do this in 'shifts', with one arriving at 2a.m. to relieve the musician on duty since 11 p.m., and so on. How can they be fit to play after such a night? It's tough; and for this reason some who are now being offered decent gigs in the bars have decided not to play on the streets any more.

Of course there are other spots (such as on the Walk along the north bank of the Mississippi) where you could set up and play, but far fewer people pass by there.

When you talk to the musicians, it's not easy to get some of them to be serious on the subject of their talents. They constantly joke and belittle themselves.

But some of the musicians, notably Tommy Sancton, Ben Polcer, Charlie Halloran and John Dixon, were happy to chat about the technicalities of the music. What impressed me was how seriously they take it and how hard they work and practise. Often they will do two gigs (sometimes three) in a day - gigs of three hours or four hours each. On rare days when there is no gig, they still insist on the need to practise for a couple of hours. As one musician said, 'It's like being an iceberg. The public sees the little bit above the water; but there's a huge amount of hard work that goes on underneath the surface'.

I asked how important it was for trumpet, clarinet and trombone players to know the chord progression of a particular tune. To my surprise, they all considered it essential. Of course, they pointed out that - when you have played a tune many times - the chord sequence is 'in your fingers' and instinctive, so you no longer consciously think of it; but you must learn it in the first place. For an example that shows how thoroughly a trombone player knows his chord sequence, look at Barnabus Jones from twenty seconds into this video, where he is calling out the chord sequence of Dallas Rag for the benefit of other players: CLICK HERE.

Did they reach a point at which they had no need to learn any more tunes? Definitely not. The joy of mastering new tunes goes on and on. Ben Polcer - who as a young music graduate was among the first to migrate to New Orleans - is a brilliant player of both the piano and the trumpet. He has been one of the most important influential figures on the New Orleans scene since Hurricane Katrina. Yet he is still learning new tunes. He told me he can usually pick up a tune of the more 'straightforward' kind after hearing it a couple of times, especially as he will usually recognise familiar chord sequences within it. I had great pleasure hearing Ben play both instruments during my visit. You can watch his piano playing at close quarters if you click on this video of 'I Can't Escape'. And - with the same band - you can see him playing trumpet on 'The Original Dixieland One-Step' by clicking here.

One of the most exciting musicians on the current New Orleans scene is Aurora Nealand, who plays in various contrasting styles with different bands, some of which she leads.
Typical of the sort of thing Aurora does was this: her band started to play Dans Les Rues d'Antibes with its usual brisk up-tempo Introduction. Then they suddenly stopped and switched to a weird almost dirge-like bit of (what seemed to me ) free-style jazz. It was fun and went on for about a minute. Then they bounced back into Dans Les Rues and performed it in the conventional way, with some sensationally good solo choruses. Playful treatments such as that seem to be something Aurora is very keen to experiment with.

Aurora - like many of the musicians there - went to New Orleans intending to stay for about six months, mainly working at composing. But the culture soon got into her blood. Inspired by The Preservation Hall Band in her childhood, she had always loved traditional jazz. So she started to study it more deeply and soon found herself constantly playing on the streets - with various bands.

She is now one of the most brilliant and versatile reed players and band-leaders in the world. Aurora told me there is something very special about playing with bands in New Orleans. She said the technical standard of traditional jazz musicians in New York is extremely high; and yet compared with New York (where incidentally some of the New Orleans musicians spend a month or two in the summer), she found there was something more 'relaxed' and less cerebral about the music in New Orleans. This quality is hard to define; but it's there all right.