New Orleans Diary: Delightful Diversions

As mentioned in the recent I.E. entry which marked the first installment in our ongoing series of anecdotes from the forthcoming book African Rhythms: the Autobiography of Randy Weston, Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins, to be published by Duke University Press in ’09, I’ve been holed up in New Orleans for the month of November (concluding Thanksgiving Day) putting the finishing touches on the book manuscript.  Friend, fellow WWOZ broadcaster and intrepid real estate agent Middie O’Malley referred me to a most agreeable studio apt. rental at the Hotel Storyville on Esplanade Avenue (an ideal location for those New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival trips I might add).  As I originally suspected the Crescent City has been an ideal place to complete this work; sans motorized transportation my bicycle has sufficed in this fairly compact city, the studio has offered the necessary peace & quiet quotient with a location convenient enough to various creature comforts, and the city certainly offers enough diversionary possibilities to effectively stave off stir crazyness; not to mention the Storyville is two blocks from the French Quarter, and the Marigny is across Esplanade from the Quarter. 


    Those diversions commenced shortly after arrival.  Lacking time or inclination to stock the kitchenette after a late afternoon flight arrival, I made the short stroll over to Frenchman Street.  Navigating the usual Saturday night revelers and assorted knuckleheads in the thriving Marigny brought the convenience and familiarity of the kitchen at NOLA’s best music club Snug Harbor, arriving just in time to catch the second set.  This night it was the always rambunctious and entertaining Willem Breuker Kollektief from the Netherlands, one of the sturdy and enduring jazz unitslegacies from that part of the world.


       Certainly staying on the Treme side of Esplanade Avenue in November would yield some Sunday afternoon Second Line action.  Sure enough later that first week the good folks at the Backstreet Museum (located on St. Claude Avenue in the historic Treme community, reputedly the oldest African American community in America) posted notice of that Sunday’s parade, the 25th anniversary Second Line of the Sudan Social & Pleasure Club.  Fellow writer Larry Blumenfeld and I made it over to Villere Street for the three brass band processional down to St. Bernard Avenue, touching base at several sites in Treme including nearby Sweet Lorraines and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ joint.  Hard to beat a good Second Line for no-cost fun.


    Later that afternoon a short drive over the St. Claude Bridge to the Lower Ninth Ward’s depressing  post-Katrina ghostliness did afford an encouraging look at several of the new homes built by Brad Pitt’s admirable Make it Right project.  From this perspective the actor’s effort is no rip-off or publicity-grab; it’s the real deal).  Despite the Lower 9’s continued gap-toothed appearance (street upon street of a house here, four slabs there, another house here, three weed fields there and a thorough absence of basic human needs services… you get the picture), these homes are starkly colorful and architecturally unusual amid the previously unyielding vacant tableau.  Spotting a resident on his balcony Blumenfeld engaged the gentleman who had moved back to the Lower 9 a few months prior and pronounced himself quite pleased with his new home.  Another effect of these new homes is that unfortunately they make the wasteland effect even more profound in a peverse sort of way.  Make it a point of visiting the Lower Ninth Ward on your next trip to the Crescent City.


    Also visible in the proud yet slowly rising-from-the-muck community were several visual arts installations under the rubric of Prospect 1, an ambitious, diverse and largely quite successful citywide exhibit of 81 artists from 39 countries in approximately 25 locations scattered around the city.  Host spaces range from gallery spaces and museums to an auto repair shop and assorted street corners and vacant lots.  The Lower Ninth Ward is appropriately the scene of several Prospect 1 installations.  The first site we located on the rather byzantine map devoted to what is referred to as P1 was adjacent to that first phase of Pitt’s "Make it Right" re-housing project.  Guided by the map we drove up to one of hundreds of blank lots in the Lower 9 to our first sampling of P1 installations, the Ladder to Nowhere… which about describes its impact… nowhere; a rather uncomfortable metaphor to what the Lower 9th Ward has tragically become amidst its historic neglect.  Rounding the corner, like a wilting flower amongst the overgrown weeds sprang another of P1’s signposts, outside the ironically named Battleground Baptist Church — established in 1868 — which appeared completely shuttered, leaving us wandering aimlessly around the lot wondering ‘where’s the art’?  On second blush perhaps Battleground itself is the P1 contribution of this particular street corner, which actually might be appropos.  Or was it the metaphorical sign of the times announcing that the Battleground congregation is "now worshipping in Center City"?  Another of America’s equivalent to the ruins of Pompeii, or going even further back in time, calling to mind the civic criminality of the Nubian treasures sunken under Egypt’s Aswan Dam project.


    Two more stops on the P1 map — reading same is an exercise in artistic construct unto itself — revealed more ho-hums.  However across the street from one of the installations sat the most rewarding stop on our journey — one which didn’t appear to be part of P1 — the L9 Gallery.  This modest house/gallery was the gem of the afternoon.  Operated by the spousal photography duo Shandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, we were welcomed by the mild-mannered, informative Mr. Calhoun and thoroughly taken with the couple’s exceptional black and white photos of classic NOLA black neighborhood scenes, with a nice sampling of brilliant images of New Orleans musicians.  The eyes drifted immediately to a wonderful piece featuring the late patriarch Danny Barker and his grinning young protege Kermit Ruffins, and a raucous jam session piece with a youthful Dr. Michael White blowing clarinet.  Another part of the collection was a series of pieces that brought home the bleak realism of life inside the walls of the notorious Angola Prison and outside on the chain gang.  By contrast were several of the same images from the original pieces that were partially destroyed by the flood; the effect was not unlike the fractured-beauty experience of your first exposure to ancient ruins.  When visiting the Lower 9th Ward, which is scene to several encouraging redevelopment efforts, including a monthly farmer’s market and other hopeful social service activities, pay a visit to L9 Gallery — you’ll be all the richer for the experience.


    Mid-month Dr. Michael White, true keeper of the traditional New Orleans jazz flame as sacred trust, presented a program dealing with the African origins and connections between New Orleans music and the Motherland on a lovely late Saturday afternoon at Xavier University.  This was ably accomplished through White and an author’s opening remarks and driven home by contrasting sets of New Orleans drum and dance and a performance by drummer Seguenon Kone’s traditional African drum & dance ensemble.  Kone, who I had experienced on a prior Friday evening showcase at the Maple Leaf, has relocated to NOLA from Cote d’Ivoire via Orlando, FL.  He specializes in the three headed, tri-pitched dun-dun drum and a balaphone that he straps on and joyfully mallets.  Joining him was a countryman on djembe and a third hand drummer from Senegal.  They appear poised to take New Orleans by storm. 


    Later in the week Seguenon conducted the debut of his Africa-New Orleans connection at Snug Harbor.  He and his fellow percussionists were joined onstage by New Orleanians Jason Marsalis on vibes, reedman Rex Gregory, bassist Matt Perrine (a real 360 degree bassist equally at home on tuba, acoustic bass, and bass guitar), and Dr. White.  At first blush the traditionalist Michael White (hear his excellent latest disc  "Blue Crescent" on the Basin Street label) might seem like a fish out of water in this context, but he dove into the grooves with considerable relish.  Initially it seemed that perhaps Gregory was inviting a sonic train wreck in endeavoring to team his soprano sax with White’s keening clarinet, but they achieved remarkable synergy.  Marsalis was the glue, the bridge between these distinct traditions on vibes, gleefully dropping liberal quotes in particularly fine balance with his instrument’s African ancestor of the mallet family, Seguenon’s nimble balaphone.  Clearly this is a project that bears development, and from the outward joy of the participants and Seguenon’s growing Crescent City profile (he showed up again, this time with his folkloric unit, at that Saturday’s Rampart Street fair)… his evolution on the NOLA scene bears close watch.  He’s probably a lock to grace one of the stages on next spring’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival


November 21 brought the jazz component of The Christ Church Cathedral’s annual All The Saints "festival of healing, celebration and jazz".  That evening’s free concert for an appreciative SRO audience delivered the now-customary annual performance in the sacred space by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO).  Led by the audacious trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, one of the most tireless civic hustlers and largely positive self-promoters I’ve ever interviewed (for a JazzTimes @ Home feature several months ago), NOJO is an ambitious 501(c)(3) built along the lines of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; no surprise given that Mayfield is an avowed Wynton Marsalis acolyte and protege.  The music on this occasion, laden with the blues and Crescent City grooves, came almost exclusively from Mayfield’s pen; some of it apparently sprung at the 11th hour on the band, as announced openly by the leader as an ongoing bit of MC inside joke that grew a bit tiresome; if you’re going to perform an annual concert of this magnitude… rehearse, rehearse, rehearse…  As had been the case with their jazzfest performance last May, clearly one of the ongoing highlights of any NOJO performance is the brilliant work of clarinetist Evan Christopher, whose solos seem to transcend all that came before and lift the band to new heights.  While much of the critical buzz these days regarding the clarinet seems to center on the deserving young Anat Cohen, I’d advise you not to sleep on Evan Christopher, who is also quite an adept tenor player; seek out his records at your own reward.  Another anecdotal highlight of the evening was provided by vocalist Johnaye Kendrick, clearly the most promising of the current Thelonious Monk Institute student body. 


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