The 2022 French Quarter Festival in New Orleans happened and all was pretty much back to normal with maybe a few more people than years past – it was packed. It is a great festival and the music of New Orleans and Louisiana shines. So many bands. So many acts. So many restaurants. So much amazing food. It is one of those events that will bring back meaning to your life. Every time I have gone to New Orleans, I discover a musician who simply knocks my socks off. This year it was John Boutté.
John Boutté is a New Orleans native. His set at the GE Stage in Jackson Square had me spellbound. He combines a beautiful soulful voice with phasing that makes your hair stand on edge. His ability to speak from the heart in an honest, heartfelt way completes the experience. During the set he made a plea for non-violence. He wondered why war and guns have not been made illegal. He made a pledge for peace. Then later on in the set he cut his finger on his tambourine, and pointed out how we are all part of the human race and the color of our blood is all the same red. A stage hand handed him a towel. A beautiful, poignant moment in the city of music – New Orleans.
Below is a John Boutté WWOZ video during the pandemic. Enjoy.
I wanted to post this video back a while back and found it in my files. It is a trumpet section practicing in a neighborhood near Frenchman’s Street in New Orleans around jazz fest this past April. Unlike most of the world, I often like hearing musicians practice more than the actual performance. You can learn a lot just from how they go about breaking down the music and get a real sense of the amount of work it takes to play well. I do not know what this tune is but I was walking and heard this trumpet section practicing. A guy came up to me and started trying to bum some money off of me. I asked him to just give me a few minutes to listen to the horns. He explained to me that they were running the scales and that you get a better sound if you tighten your lips. We converse for a bit and I spotted him a few Washington’s for keeping the block safe.
The scale they were playing is what sometimes is called the diatonic bebop scale. I remember hearing that David Baker coined the term but it does not really matter, as I call it the New Orleans scale.
What I love about it is the tension of the I to VII to flat VII. How about the “Welcome to America” scale.
At the New Orleans’s Jazz Fest you can buy tickets at the gate. We never had to wait more than a few minutes. The price per day was $75 and we paid no service fee. One day, my cousin Ben had one to give away. Thanks Ben! This simple information was not easy to find. I would rather give a few more bucks to the festival than Ticketron. Just saying.
First, I need to give a disclaimer that this essay is absolutely ridiculous. There is no way to give awards out at this festival. Every day at the New Orleans Jazz Fest there are at least 60 bands on all kinds of stages. To possibly cast judgement and give out an award, besides being absurd, you would have to literally be six places at once. Instead, in the interest of confessional writing so prevalent today, I will simply highlight the journey and give out a few awards , the most accurate being the one at the end – MOST OUTSTANDING MUSICIAN IN NEW ORLEANS.
Below are the groups that I heard. Many were planned. Others just sort of happened based on the bathroom lines and meal breaks. By the end of the day the portapotties look like they were ready to tumble over but never did. In the concessions, the trout with crab on top was excellent. All the food was really good.
Friday, April 22
New Orleans Classic Recording Divas featuring The Dixie Cups, Wanda Rouzan and Jean Knight
Real Untouchable Brass Band
Saturday, April 23
Big Sams Funky Nation
Keith Frank and the Soliel Zydeco Band
DeJonnette, Coltrane and Garrison
Night at a Club
George Clinton and Parlament
Sunday, April 24
The New Orleans Suspects
Henry Butler and Jambalaya
Leroy Jones and the New Orleans Finest
The Zion Harmonizers
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter
Other Shows of Note
Treme Brass Band at DBA
Harmonica Marathon at Frenchman Theater
Every time I go to New Orleans I cry. In fact, I remember the exact moment that I cried every day of the festival. It often happens unexpectedly. It is similar to what happened to me the first and only time I got acupuncture. I am not sure modern medicine has researched it but crying, especially for joy is a good thing and the therapy is all that sometimes works to get you through the ups and downs of life. It is cathartic and surely the great balancer of the soul.
The first day we had a very rough plan and were a little disoriented as we entered the gates. To get our bearings we walked into the Gospel Tent and heard Alexis Spight. We sat in the front row, as it was an early show and there I was overcome with emotion. Her voice was strong and clear and you could hear decades of gospel tradition in her voice. The band seemed a bit under rehearsed but the spirit was there and it seemed like the entire group just went with it. And as it does often with the first show, the tears came streaming down my cheeks. Probably not the first person to wail in the Gospel Tent.
The second day it was listening to Keith Frank and the Soliel Zydeco Band. Many times I heard people in New Orleans area say that Zydeco songs “sound all the same.” To me this makes no sense. Sure the accordion can be irritating, in the same way as say the banjo, but the songs do not sound all the same. One of the grooves from Keith Frank sounded like James Brown or perhaps something James Brown appropriated. The next like we were on the Bayou in a cowboy hat. Somewhere, during that James Brown groove it hit me again. Keith Frank with his two kids under ten, one on accordion and the other on cowbell by his side, it just got me again. Tears of joy.
Which brings me to an award.
BEST TROMBONE SOLO IN A SECOND LINE BAND
The Real Untouchables Brass Band… the guy on the far right – stage left. I was unable to figure out his name and apologies about that, but if you show up and San Francisco I will buy you dinner. His solos combined the street sound, the grit and dirt with great pitch and rhythm. I can never get enough of second line brass bands. The reason why I liked this guy’s playing so much is his sound. Full of dirt and smears and all in a very organic, lyric way.
Later that day I heard Steely Dan with the very fine trombonist Jim Pugh who’s long career even includes writing the theme that still runs for NPR’s Morning Edition. But Pugh’s playing, when he finds himself in a bit of improvisational jam, relies on his squeaky high chops and lots of notes. In New Orleans, trombones usually just go with growls and smears. The Untouchables trombone player had that and much more.
But I have become distracted. On the third day I broke down listening to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The crowd was building up for this one. Big names in jazz. Not a seat in the Jazz Tent. Standing room only. I thought – do people really know what they are getting into here? Herbie and Wayne are some of the most expert improvisers on the planet and the show was just that. Herbie played both acoustic and electric and his synth work brought to mind some of Wayne’s work with Joe Zawinul and Weather Report. Too much music for many folks ears which for the rest of us meant a good seat as people left. The last tune they played was something I would have never expected. A modern, sort of loosely constructed version of “Now’s the Time” in a boogaloo groove. This was not a 12 bar blues but more of a free-flowing thing and was a great vehicle for Wayne’s sparse but thematic solos. He played all soprano throughout the entire set.
BEST TENOR SAXOPHONIST I HAD NO IDEA WAS SO DARN GOOD
Ravi Cotrane. What an excellent player. Period. Not sure how you follow in the footsteps of his father John but Ravi does it well.
ODDS AND ENDS
Some notable experiences while in New Orleans were crashing a Crawfish Boil party in the Garden District and finally learning how to propery eat these bugs. We left that party a bit too early only to be packed like sardines into Frenchman Street clubs and hear some of the locals sweat it out with the tourist crowds.
After the second day, eating another crawfish boil in the garage of a house next to the festival and then heading off to catch George Clinton and Parliament at a club in the Wearhouse District. Now that was about as funky as it gets. 15 member band. George sitting on a stool in the middle of it all directing traffic. I have a feeling there is not a conductor on the planet that could pull that off with such effortlessness. Everyone got a moment to shine and band was dynamic. George is still going strong.
MY PARTNERS IN CRIME
Special awards go to Ben my nephew and Natalie who put me up and Steve my buddy from high school who was an amazing partner on this adventure in New Orleans. Steve still has the ability to scope out a situation, make friends, avoid getting mugged and still brush his teeth when he gets back to the crib at 2 am.
THE WEEKDAYS BETWEEN
Steve caught a plane back home on Monday. I stuck around New Oreans until Thursday riding around on Ben’s bike and exploring New Orleans and taking photos. One day Ben took me to the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and the Barataria Preserve. We hung out in the swamps with the snakes and alligators for a few hours. Tuesday night I caught The Treme Brass Band at DBA with Ben. It was a great to hear them on their home turf. Shamarr Allen on trumpet sounded to me of tradition and essence of New Orleans. Cities get their signature sounds and in New Orleans that sound is the sound of the trumpet. Shamarr was playing what looked like a cornet looking pocket trumpet – tarnished brass, with a sound and skill that would make Louis Armstrong smile. Shamarr’s playing reaches back a hundred years but makes a clear statement about the present. His sound and chops will just blow your mind. Beyond that his singing and rapport with the audience was simply awesome. Everyone was having a great time.
MOST OUTSTANDING MUSICIAN IN NEW ORLEANS
Shamarr Allen… need to say more.
For a few days I probably did not cry. That will happen after you experience about 30 bands over three days. You are all cried out. But, leaving New Orleans, heading to a wedding in Austin and seeing that Megabus in the distance, with Houston on the front, it happened again and I got all choked up. New Orleans. I wouldn’t want to live there but a great place to visit and hear some great American music.
I am not sure that many Americans know the name Allen Toussaint. I surely did not until I was well into my twenties. Like so many really important things, Mr. Toussaint was not a part of the standard core curriculum. I think Allen Toussaint should be on a stamp! He was an incredible musician and force in 20th Century American music. Period. But unfortunately, Mr. Allen Toussaint has left the building and passed away November 10, 2015.
January 14, 1938 – November 10, 2015
Harry Shearer’s radio show, Le Show, this week plays an interview with Allen Toussaint from a few years back. It is about ten minutes in, just past the “apologies of the the week.” http://wwno.org/post/le-show-week-nov-15-2015
I am not qualified to write about this man. I heard Allen Toussaint play live just one time. It was at the San Francisco Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in about 2012. It was at the Star Stage and I was simply amazed that there were not more people in attendance. Allen Toussaint, on the stage, with a grand piano, for free!!! He was there with a quintet. I remembering seeing him back stage, impeccably dressed, smoking a cigarette, by himself. He seemed to be going over the lyrics in his head. His gaze was far off and he seemed to be talking to himself. He was about to go out and sing about twelve tunes in a row, probably a few he had not played in a while. His band seemed in a bit of disarray. But then they hit and all was good. I distinctly remembering him sing a beautiful rendition City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman. Like the absolute pro he was, he nailed every verse.
Night time on the City Of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis Tennessee
Halfway home – we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness, rolling down to the sea