Let the Good Times Roll (Away)

22 04 2011

April 22 Friday, Trussville, Ala. We’re rolling home in triumph. New Orleans doesn’t do “success” – or failure – as other cities do. Everything’s just ok, man, just living, even post-Katrina. Still, we feel great about how things worked out for us, having achieved Big Peter’s non-stop whirlwind tour and diverse gigs all over the place, without a hitch. The Big Easy says thanks in a lot of little ways. One of these, like a cheap gold doubloon thrown from a Mardi Gras float: David Krantz and I were waiting for a streetcar on St. Charles downtown when one of the outbound cars waiting at the traffic light showed the face of the driver leaning over to the passenger side window to say something to us. “Y’all played great at the French Quarter yesserday!” he says.

That last gig, at the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park near the French Market, was the peak, at least for alto sax cats Jack Burks and Spencer Moore. Jack’s solos in the first three numbers got the crowd jiving,  and closing with “In the Mood” was transcendental (especially since the 50 or so souls packed in that performance space were mostly middle aged tourist – not counting the four lovely ladies who were W&L seniors on their spring break and Hammer’s cousin Britney Holland the charter school teacher and her boyfriend all in the front row). Jack and Spencer were so on, for “Soul Man” they were choreographing their horns from side to side together, and high for high notes, low for low notes, Motown style.

Another peak was Tchefuncte Middle School in Mandeville on Monday. We put the funk in Tchefuncte. This is where Professor Del Vecchio (Ital., “of the old man”) showed his public school teacher chops. He got these well behaved students (first, 700 from Pontchartrain Elementary, housed in the same building, then 900 from the middle school) in their uniforms cheering and swaying. His lesson in improvisation for a small music class that stayed after was classy. He summoned Marshall Olsewski, without warning, to come out from the t-bone section and demonstrate how you could just “make up” stuff. After trading a few licks of a cappella skat singing, dubee-dubee-dat-dat, Marshall in his ultra suave way ad libbed this: “Saying random words is what I like to do.” And then, without breaking his cool: “It’s called improvisation, and you should try it, too.”

We’ve had a couple of star trumpet players sitting in on our performances. On Sunday and Monday shows, it was Joe Messina, a droll cat who has taught generations of younger jazz players. On Tuesday, in the Quarter, it was Joe’s son-in-law Barney Floyd. Both of them hit the stratosphere with their their solos, cool and modest hanging in the background, but making music that just sailed to Byzantium. Barney, it turns out, plays the trumpet parts dubbed into the HBO show Treme. He also plays in a jazz brass band called the New Orleans Nightcrawlers. And he’s playing in something like 13 bands scheduled for the upcoming Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Meals, of course, have been lavish and decadent, in the best sense. While Nicolas Cage was getting arrested in the French Quarter, we were eating at places there like Muriel’s on Jackson and the Riverside. But some of the best times were meals with parents of the band members – last night, at an Applebee’s near our Holiday Inn here north of Birmingham, we were joined by Hobie King’s cool parents. And on Wednesday night, law student-drumstick-hurling Daniel Montgomery hosted us at his family’s home in Mandeville. Or I should say his parents Mr. and Mrs. Warren Montgomery, hosted us most graciously, serving mountains of pepper-boiled crawfish, barbecue and donuts.

Yesterday morning, we had time for wandering around Magazine Street in the Garden District for breakfast and shopping (although David is the only one who could really appreciate the funky items in the antique stores, being a collector of post-war oddities). No more time for this, since we’re trying to get back on the road by 7 a.m.


Digging it all

20 04 2011

First Gig
Click on this link for audio file of our whole show Sunday afternoon in Abita Springs

April 20, Wednesday morning. The day spreads before us like a picnic, a Swamp Tour by covered boat somewhere across the Mississippi this morning, and the Aquarium of the Americas at Riverwalk in the afternoon. Then we’ll galumph across the 24-mile Pontchartrain Causeway again to gather at the home of our drummer from Mandeville, Daniel “Whutz Dat” Montgomery, for a jammin’ party. After being a jazz band in the land where jazz was born, walking around in our blue knit shirts and khaki pants, now we can be tourists, of the frisky collegian variety.

We’ve been consumers of jazz too, lapping up amazing music at clubs in the French Quarter the last two nights, and digging WWOZ-FM in van #2. (If you want a soundtrack to this blog, just listen on your computer to this station. . . http://www.wwoz.org/programs/streams) .On Monday night, after hiding our vans behind the Central Fire Station on Decatur Street in the Vieux Carre (we have our connections, thanks Hammer), and a profligate dinner at Star’s Steak and Lobster restaurant (did I mention the lunch at Bear’s Po-Boy in Mandeville earlier?), we traipsed down garish Bourbon Street to Fritzel’s, a “European style” jazz club, where connections again paid off. A group of us ended up squeezed onto the front two benches in front of one of the finest little Dixieland quartets in the Quarter. Tim “the Breeze” Laughlin plays a clarinet with the polished ease and joyous swing of the best of the tradition, a touch of Sidney Bechet and the technique of Pete Fountain, Laughlin’s teacher. (He and Pete Fountain are featured on this year’s poster of the JazzFest, which starts this weekend.) Laughlin’s quartet featured some interesting younger cats on piano, trap set drums and stand-up bass, mystically present in the old Dixieland style, living still. The guest cornet player is Connie Jones, 77.

As we were driving up Esplanade in van #2 yesterday (after our final hit performance, to a packed little stage-room at the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, and an afternoon in the Quarter. . .and did I mention the coffee and beignets that morning at Café du Monde?), we were listening to a kind of baroque-sufi two-sax jazz on WWOZ. I was thinking it might be too weird for my young passengers, but I noticed Jack Burks, our lede alto guy, seemed mesmerized by it. So we took note of the name of the group – the Blue Cranes. It turned out that they were in the studio at that moment (less than a mile from where we were driving), and were playing that night at a place called Royal Street Deli, at 9. So that’s where we returned, for supper and more great jazz. This quintet was from Portland, Oregon, touring the country by train, sponsored in part by the National Association of Railroad Passengers).  Hard to categorize their music, but it’s serious full-bodied stuff. A woman videographer is following them on the tour, making a DVD.

The day rolls on.

W and L Swing, the university’s big jazz band, hits Louisiana

19 04 2011

Little Brown Jug pre-trip

Click on the audio link above, for one of our practice numbers, the night before we left Lexington. More to come. . . Meanwhile, a post written 4/17 . . .

Palm Sunday, and our band of pilgrims in two rented Ford E-350 vans must skedaddle, leaving at 8 a.m. from Vestavia Hills just outside Birmingham for our sweet destination, New Orleans. We need to get to the Abita Springs Trailhead Arts & Music Festival in time to enjoy and hear the other acts before we close down the event with our hot numbers – from “Jump” to “What is Hip?”

For the first leg of the drive down, Peter “Big Daddy” DelVecchio and your humble servant drove all 570 miles with  stops in Fincastle for breakfast at a Country Cookin’, White Pine, Tenn., and a few other backwaters. The storms that wracked Lexington that day became for us just a few hundred miles of rain on our windshields, with gusts catching our blank vans like white mizzenmasts across the rivers.

In van #2, we listened to jazz CDs that Bob DeMaria put together, a good mix of saxophone moods. The deeper you go in the South, the more the memories pile up, if you’re Southern. Somehow, the eating options out in Vestavia Hills didn’t seem to offer much sense of place – all homogenous chains. So we drove into town. Highlands – Five Points – was quiet, but  not very accommodating for our big vans and squad of 16. Parking at St. Mary’s Episcopal wasn’t a good idea, we were told by Robert Wason’s parents, who came in to meet him (and are members of the church). And Mellow Mushroom told us we’d have to wait 30 minutes. So we drove down the hill a couple of blocks to 10th street, and at a funky hole in the wall called the Purple Onion.

As we cross the state line into Louisiana, the spirit of this trip seems to take hold. Our two New Orleans natives undergo a kind of transformation. One is the drummer, first year W&L Law student Daniel Montgomery. All the way down, he’s been the model Jesuit-school boy, a little glum about his disappointment with the moral-emptiness of law school, having decided he’d had enough, but not sure what he would do next. When we hit Pearl River, La., suddenly all his existential angst was gone, and he gave out a whoop – Pearl River! Sliddell. This is the place, boys!!! Meanwhile, Armond Augustin “Hammer” Falgoust,  the t-bone player who is from Algiers on the West Bank across from New Orleans, but moved with his family early on to a hog farm, thoroughbred horse farm and collard-green truck farm near Picayune, Miss., is looking loose and flushed. He speaks to the staff at the Welcome Center like they are cousins. Maybe they are. They tell us we just won a lottery to be featured as the star visitors to Louisiana, took our picture, gave us gold lapel pins, maps, and a couple of CDs of great Louisiana music. Playing that CD as we drove under the braided live oaks up to the Abita Springs festival was the right thing to set the mood. Bone-a-Rama, Henry Butler, the blind piano man banging out his Prof. Longhair style boogie woogies. . .oh, man. The day is perfect, people lovely and at ease around the bandstand where we’ll be playing at 6.

Later, man. . .

the zeitgeist

19 04 2011

Commons jazz

An initial blog-testing rumination, from the launcher of this blog and lede tenor sax man, Prof. Doug Cumming (at left). .

The Germans have a word for that invisible thing that moves a particular time in history. They call it die ZeitgeistDie Zeit . . . “The Times” – like their newspaper – and geist, ghost, Time-Ghost, or the spirit of the age. Tom Wolfe is one of our great ghost-busters for zeitgeists, or at least the little hobgoblins that haunted our recent decades – The Me Decade, the Purple Decades. When he gave one of his annual pep talks in Lee Chapel a year or two ago, he said the word zeitgeist came from a work of Hegel’s in 1807. (Let’s see, Google, that would be in The Phenomenology of Mind, yes, 1807, for Hegel also thought of geist as Mind, or Idea, or in his Germanic-romantic way, The Idea of God).

The zeitgeist for the times we’re living in is finally clear. It’s “Information.” A new book by a guy named James Gleick argues that information is everything, as it was, is now and will be forever, amen. Take those robins hopping around in front of me as I walk across the field. Their songs are information transactions with one another. Their appearance in April is coded in the information of the seasons and the earth’s rotation (or maybe it’s just the information of pop songs that mention robins in April). In any case, every feather and muscle, every cell and every molecule in their bodies is nothing but an expression of the information carried inside each particular unit of information. The original theory of this came from a Bell Labs mathematician in 1947, but now it’s understood, vaguely, by everybody as the “digital” revolution. That’s what I gather from reviews of this book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.

But maybe “information” is not so much the grand theory of everything. Rather, it’s our zeitgeist, a temporary mood we’re in right now. It is the spirit of the Verizon store we visited yesterday afternoon, checking out G-3 and G-4 (4th Generation) smart phones, ‘droids. It’s the ghost that spooks our politics, which is bogged down in budget negotiations over numbers and economic theories. All music, literature, entertainment. . . it all seems packed into bits of information, little icons on iPhone screens that can be puffed into existence by the touch of our forefinger, like the finger of God touching Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. We say, “That’s amazing,” and it is. But somehow, we’re not moved in a really warm-blooded way by all this amazing information, hooked up and processed at amazing speeds across amazing distances with amazing numbers of connections. Friends, and almost everybody and every book and cranny across the globe, seems connected now, interactive. Ho hum.

I remember when things seemed more vivid and alive. We were younger then, of course. But there was also something different about the zeitgeist. The word we had for it was Energy. A nerdy radical who knew how to talk about energy in a new way in the 1970s was Amory Lovins. I remember interviewing him at Brown University, for a profile in the Providence Journal-Bulletin. He seemed to have brilliant answers for the crisis we were having in energy in those years – oil embargoes in 1974 and 1979, but we sensed these were merely part of a larger problem we called the Energy Crisis. His answers came out of an embracing of “soft path” energy – decentralized, efficient, organized around the work and life we needed to sustain and grow the best of everything, not around supplies of fossil fuels and heavily subsidized nuclear power. In an offhand comment, he noted that “energy” is a great concept for this generation, and he smiled. I knew what he meant was “Woodstock,” the civil rights movement, the whole explosion of youth in the sixties.

Yes. That was energy. It exploded from inside us, and changed everything. It was the drum solo at Woodstock for Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” and the volcanic jazz of Cecil Taylor or Coltrane’s “Impressions” at the Village Vanguard. Even old “modernist” literature like Finnegan’s Wake and “The Wasteland” we read with new eyes, feeling the enormous energy emanating from the breaking up of language, the release of dreams and love. Yes, love was the ultimate Energy.

Where did that energy go? It died in our SUVs, dissipated in waste and more imported oil from the Middle East, and from the Gulf of Mexico now rimmed with BP’s p.r. information problem. It turned into greenhouse gases, which we now assess as impossibly complex, lifeless information, and a new crisis – global warming.  That’s the zeitgeist of Information, after the death of its predecessor, Energy.