The first few notes
When I first fell in love with jazz in the mid-1950s I knew that New Orleans was the place to go to. I also knew that I had left it far too late if jazz history was to be believed, which it sometimes is. Most of the best musicians had left the Crescent City by about 1920 to go on and make their names in Chicago, New York and the world. All that was left in New Orleans was a few old men barely keeping the tradition alive.
And now quite unexpectedly I have got to New Orleans at last, only to find that there is a great deal of jazz here, probably much more than there was in the 1950s. It isn’t so much that it has revived here as that it has been brought back, mostly by young white players from America, Britain and Scandinavia, players who have so fallen in love with the music that they are prepared to lug their trumpets and clarinets half-way across the world to set up home here. Even in the traditional marching bands you will spot eager young white faces among the older black ones.
This is about as extraordinary a thing as it would be if London were rediscovered as the home of music hall, with pilgrims coming to London to search out the old singers and comedians, or if young Americans flocked to London to sing traditional music hall songs in East End pubs. What makes it odder still is that jazz is not central to the lives of most people in New Orleans.
It certainly doesn’t play a central part in the life of the black community, from whence it came all those years ago. I had lunch yesterday at Buster Holmes, a small eating house on the edge of the French Quarter, which features red beans and rice, the dish beloved of Louis Armstrong. There were one or two jazz relics on the walls along with boxing posters and pictures of black celebrities but among the hundreds of records in the juke box there was only one by a jazz artist, Louis himself. All the rest were a rhythm ‘n’ blues, soul, modern rock, and even a few singles by British groups.
If you wander at night down Bourbon Street, the tourist strip of the French Quarter, you will hear – just as the guidebook says – music coming out of almost every doorway. A lot of it is young white jazz, but a lot of it is other stuff – country music, rock ‘n’ roll, strip club backing tracks and, at the 500 Club, some very good all-black rhythm ‘n’ blues bands. On the corner of St Peter’s Street you come at last to a really classy black jazz artist, trumpeter Wallace Davenport. But ironically he isn’t elderly and traditional enough to get a good crowd; the spectators are all round the corner at Preservation Hall.
This stark room, looking rather like a National Trust property before renovation has started, has been devoted for the last twenty years to giving the old guys a place to play. Impossible to tell how old some of them are, but over seventy and eighty is not uncommon. You pay a dollar to get in and you may not smoke, drink, eat or even sit – only listen in reverence to the survivors doing their thing, and doing it rather well, especially in the case of clarinettist Willie Humphrey. After forty minutes we give them a standing ovation, no other kind of ovation being possible, and we are ushered out in time for the next shift.
Authenticity is not just a key word, it is now a gimmick. It suddenly occurred to me, as I stood wedged between German students and a group from Wisconsin, that by dispensing with all tourist gimmicks these old guys had packed in more visitors than any of the clip joints on Bourbon Street. Two hundred of us at a dollar a head, a fresh house every sixty minutes. That is a lot of money. I certainly hope that most of it is going to the boys in the band. After a lifetime of being left behind by jazz history they deserve it.
Have a nice day in New Orleans
It’s difficult to know where conversation stops in America and where slogans begin. Does ‘Have a nice day’ count as part of an exchange of ideas or just as a way of signing off a conversation? Even when it takes on a southern tinge and comes out as ‘Y’all have a nice day’ or ‘Have a nice day, now, you hear?’ you can’t help feeling that it’s a kind of recorded message. When my American visa was stamped into my passport, I was half disappointed they hadn’t printed ‘Have a nice trip’ at the bottom.
It’s now bigger than having a nice day. When I was queuing in the post office in Iberville Street, the clerk said to the woman in front of me: ‘Have a nice day,’ and the woman, instead of letting well alone, said: ‘Thank you for serving me.’ The clerk then said it was nice to do business with her, and I was seized with terror lest the woman said she would tell all her friends to come here, and the clerk said to do that very thing and I would never get to buy stamps. When I bought some typing paper ten minutes later at Woolworth’s and the cashier said: ‘Thank you for shopping at Woolworth’s’, I’m afraid I fled without replying.
Even inanimate objects sloganise at you. Trash cans in New Orleans sport a jocular sign saying: ‘Throw something at me, Mister.’ The museum which is preparing an exhibition on Louis XIV art objects has a banner which says: ‘We’re waiting for you, Louis!’, which used to be said only by Louis Armstrong’s English jazz fans. Even the New Orleans police cars have a quiet slogan on their back doors: ‘To protect you and to serve you.’ I know they don’t really mean it, but if they ever throw me against a wall and frisk me, I feel sure I shall turn round and say: ‘Thank you for protecting and serving me’, and that this, somehow, is going to make things worse.
Another area rapidly being developed by Americans for graffiti is their left shoulder, or what we would call a lapel. The TWA air steward on the way over had inscribed very clearly on his shoulder the word ‘Steve’. It was his name. Furthermore he invited us to call him Steve whenever we wanted something. We all felt vaguely inferior because we had forgotten to print our own names on our persons.
In New Orleans the art of writing on shoulders is well advanced. Waiters in big restaurants, employees of big stores, all have their names written on. But the most written-on people are those in hotel lifts, who have things like ‘Georgia Board of Education’ or ‘American Trucking Association’ inscribed on their shoulders. These are people going to or from conventions, which is what works outings are called when they involve more than one firm and more than four hundred people. Open any hotel door in New Orleans and you will find a convention going on behind it. Go into any lift and you will find silent people reading each other.
Things have not yet reached the state where you can be stopped by the police for not wearing something on your lapel but these are early days.
Yesterday, to escape from conventions, we went out into Audubon Park, a swathe of green occupied only by overweight joggers and bicyclists with headphones, and there mingled with a delightful picnic being held by two hundred people and children, complete with barbecue and Cajun band. Most of them had T-shirts reading ‘Latter & Blum’, which I took to be the name of the school holding a fund-raising event. Not so. It’s the name of a big local real estate firm, who were holding their annual outdoor shindig. It was merely a convention in rolled up shirtsleeves. So we plunged on further into the park.
‘Look at the squirrels!’ said my companion. I wanted to but didn’t. I wasn’t prepared to take the risk of seeing a squirrel with a badge reading: ‘Welcome to our park!’
Dans le quartier
The French Quarter of New Orleans is everything the name suggests; it’s about one-quarter French. The rest is Spanish, American and Creole, and it adds up to the sort of place where you can wander through all day long without getting bored or repeating yourself.
I wasn’t expecting this. I was expecting a few quaint street corners with a few quaint balconies, the whole scene set to music by a few quaint jazz bands – not an extensive township. The reason for this, I now realize, is that whereas some landmarks, such as the Giants’ Causeway, look bigger and better in photographs than in real life, places like the French Quarter which depend on accidental town planning and a quiet scale never look very good in detail, just as it’s impossible to photograph the back streets of Venice or Greenwich Village.
The balconies, for instance. They’re different from other balconies not just because they’re more ornate – although they are – but because they’re bigger and therefore can actually be used for doing things on.
Most balconies on old houses in London are not for human occupancy – they’re just about big enough for a couple of geraniums holding their breath – but you have to crunch your way around New Orleans for a while until you realize that people have on their balconies tropical plantations, barbecues, restaurant overflows, sun-bathing areas, storage places and reading rooms.
They are also useful for sheltering under during New Orleans rainstorms, which fall by the inch rather than the raindrop. I always used to wonder why the men in New Orleans brass band parades were shown waving umbrellas as they danced crazily down the street. I now realize that lugging my oversize umbrella across the Atlantic, bringing strained smiles to the TWA stewardesses’ faces, was the best thing I could have done.
The worst downpour we encountered defeated even the umbrella and we were blown indoors into a small bar called The Clinic, where a nurse was in attendance ready to pour healing liquids out of hundreds of different bottles.
‘I’d like to try a typical New Orleans drink which isn’t sweet,’ I said. They have a fiendishly sweet tooth here. The Hurricane, the local cocktail, is as syrupy as tinned fruit salad, their Beignets are showered in icing sugar and the Ramos gin fizz is like shaving foam in texture and taste.
‘Give him a Sazarec,’ said a man at the counter.
‘Honey,’ said the nurse, ‘I ain’t never made a Sazarec. Whenever I’m asked for one I say I’m fresh out of the ingredients.’
‘I’ll show you,’ said the man. ‘Take some crushed ice …’
Between them they took ten minutes having fun working up a Sazarec. Then we all tasted it. Mmm. A bit liquoricey, but not bad. They spent another ten minutes telling us which restaurants to go to, another ten which restaurants not to go to, then the rain stopped and we set off into the steaming streets, crunching onwards. This was way off the beaten track, or, to put it another way, more than five minutes from Bourbon Street. The tourists don’t like to venture very far from Bourbon Street, which leaves a lot of French Quarter for discerning people like you and me. There’s a lot of Chelsea which isn’t on the King’s Road.
Today it’s as hot and blue as a prize English summer day, and we’ve been using the balconies to get some shade, as we crunch our way into the deepest, unexplored French Quarter. I say crunch, because the infill they use for the roads here is not gravel or sand, it’s seashells; piles of tiny white seashells like the outflow from an enormous fish restaurant. With oysters at 25p each and shrimps as common as dirt, you might be forgiven for thinking that New Orleans was an enormous fish restaurant. When asked to sum up life in New Orleans, one famous novelist and native of the city said she thought it was most like drowning very slowly under water. Well, perhaps it is, but what a way to go.
Alligators and Annie Miller
Before I ever left London, I was told to make sure I went on Annie Miller’s swamp tour. In New Orleans they said I shouldn’t miss Annie Miller’s swamp tour. Now, in Houma, I’ve been on Annie Miller’s swamp tour and I’m here to tell you not to miss it. Or, in the words of the man from Oklahoma sitting next to me in the boat: ‘I’ve driven all round the States and this is the best thirty dollars’ worth I’ve had anywhere, yes, sir.’
First, though, you have to get it into your head that Terrebonne parish, this last bit of America before you fall into the Gulf of Mexico, is wet, very wet indeed. Twenty-five per cent of the parish (elsewhere it would be called a county) is land. Seventy-five per cent is water: swampland, floating marshes, lakes, bogs. Through it all run the bayous, slow-moving rivers that flow down to the sea and which for a long time provided more reliable local highways than any road. Annie Miller, a veteran trapper, hunter, character, even commercial pilot, has two fast boats moored alongside her bayou home and makes a living showing people the recesses of the swamps that she knows better than anyone. Even the alligators come when they hear her voice, it’s said, though this seems unlikely.
What makes Annie special as a guide is that she loves showing people her world, and gets excited each time she goes out. Late afternoon is the best time, when the birds are coming back from their feeding grounds – long-legged snowy egrets, spindly herons, hawks, exotic ibises – but she never knows quite what will turn up. Today she thinks it’s just possible we might see a pair of bald eagles, more likely we’ll spot a nutria. ‘Nutria is a South American animal. A man near here brought seven back as pets, but they broke free during a hurricane and multiplied in the swamps. Everyone said they were a pest as they love eating the roots of sugar cane, but then they found they made good fur and now they’re not a pest any more. There’s a nest right up here that I know of.’
We glide past the nest. It’s empty. But in the first tall trees back of the swamp we see bald eagles, enormous even a hundred yards away, sitting motionless like king and queen of the bayou beside their tree-top nest which looks as big as an exploded raft. You feel they haven’t begun to recognize the arrival of man in their land.
‘Although it’s the national bird of America it’s pretty rare now. They have a wingspan of about eight feet. They live about thirty years and once they choose a mate they keep together for life.’
‘That makes it a mighty strange bird to choose as an American symbol,’ says the cynical cameraman. We have a film crew on board, doing a last day’s shooting on a swamp opera called The Horror from Boogalusa Bayou or some such. What they’re looking for is shots of animals fleeing in terror. They’d like to fire a gun in the air to get the eagles going. Annie puts her foot firmly on that idea. Next, we pass some marsh birds very close to. The producer claps his hands while the camera turns, ready for the flight.
‘Never saw those birds fly in my life,’ Annie mutters to herself.
We shoot out from under the Spanish moss and past the beautiful lilac water hyacinths (‘brought here in 1884 by a kindly Japanese visitor to the New Orleans World Cotton Fair,’ says Annie, ‘and been multiplying ever since – now their roots are a pest’), into an enormous canal about 300 ft across. It’s the Intracoastal Waterway, taking ships of any size from Texas to New Jersey if that’s where you want to go. We overtake a cortège of rusty barges, and plunge again into a small bayou, but then turn right into a forgotten lake, where to our surprise Annie stands up and starts calling: ‘Baby! Baby!’
Several large alligators immediately swim up to the boat and, if they weren’t such fierce creatures, you’d swear they were gambolling round it. Annie feeds them bits of raw chicken off a long stick, and they jump for it. The eyes of the film crew shine.
‘Hey, Annie, could you get one to land and then have it run off in terror?’
‘Sure, why not?’
We land on a soggy island. A six-foot alligator follows us, and the raw chicken, up the shore. It turns and goes in the water, but not terrified enough for the film crew.
The film crew give up and we go off to watch the return of the birds, who sure enough come wheeling in, white and mysterious, over the waste wetlands of the bayou. The sun goes down like a huge pumpkin, and dusk rolls in. You suddenly feel a million miles from anywhere, and a million years from today.
Me and Alvin Alcorn
‘I see Count Basie is coming to town next week,’ says Alvin Alcorn. ‘I know the Count from way back. I knew him before he led his own band.’
Basie has been leading a band since about 1935, so that’s quite a boast. Alvin Alcorn doesn’t look old enough to have been playing trumpet since 1930 but he has; as New Orleans old-timers go, he’s a young old-timer. He’s small and dark and wears thick specs that don’t hide mischievous eyes.
‘Of course, Count is in a wheelchair now, and plays very sparingly. Leads in numbers, leads out numbers and shouts “One more time” in April in Paris, and that’s about it. Jerry Adams here, he’s our oldest member. Jerry, how about you get a wheelchair, too? Maybe have a wheelchair battle with Count next week, eh?’
Jerry Adams, laughing uproariously, fans his stubby fingers across his double bass as if they were as light as feathers. Jerry has been playing bass in New Orleans for close on a half-century. Thirty-five years ago he gave Clarence Ford, clarinettist and third and last member of the group, his first job. These guys have been playing at least 140 years between them and they are beyond a doubt the best group I have heard in New Orleans. They play every day from 4 to 7 p.m. in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel. A strange place to find them? Alcorn doesn’t see why.
‘Well, you won’t find me playing down Bourbon Street any time. You won’t find anyone good playing down there,’ says Alcorn. ‘All the bar owners and club managers think they know best and tell the bands to play tourist music, you know, fast all the time with a back beat. Got a request?’
Anything but ‘Basin Street’. Anything but ‘The Saints’. I name ‘Fine and Dandy’ for no good reason. I haven’t thought about it for twenty years. They go straight into it, Clarence Ford playing long supple lines on the clarinet, Alcorn’s trumpet so far behind the beat you wonder if he’ll ever get back and Adams’s bass dancing easily along. Some of the crowd at the lobby cocktail bar listen; some don’t even know the music is there. When a pretty waitress passes by, Ford blows a dirty note on the clarinet and winks.
The Marriott is part of a huge American chain of hotels. In every bedroom you will find three books: a Gideon Bible, a Book of Mormon and the life of the founder, Mr Marriott. It still seems an unlikely place to find jazz, until you realize that the hotels in New Orleans compete to buy the best jazz talent. The Hilton even has a floor named after the resident Pete Fountain.
‘Haven’t played “Fine and Dandy” in thirty years,’ says Jerry Adams. ‘Still remember it, though. Got any other challenges?’
‘Jerry’s brother, Placide, leads a band at the Hilton,’ says Alcorn. ‘My son, Sam, plays for the jazz brunch at Arnaud’s Restaurant, very smart place. Yes, we’ve got relations all over. Stay here six months and you can be a relation.’
Although a New Orleans musician, Alcorn played in big bands most of his life and has no very fond memories of those days. One-night stands, hotels, buses, fatigue and not much money. Not much chance to make himself heard either, which may be why he has gone to the other extreme and relapsed into a trio, with no piano, drums or guitar.
‘Don’t need them. I can hear them all in my head. Funny thing is, when I play with drums now they sound too loud. I have been playing with this trio here at the Marriott for six years and I really like it – we play for the ones that listen, and the ones that don’t listen, that doesn’t bother me. Got any more requests?’
‘ “Some of These Days”?’
‘OK,’ says Jerry. ‘We only played it three times already today. One more won’t hurt any. And after that, seeing as you play bass, you can sit in for a couple of numbers.’
And I do, scared to death, and I survive the experience, and Alvin Alcorn says to be sure to carry his compliments to his old friends Chris Barber and Acker Bilk, and to come back to the Marriott next time I’m in Louisiana.
‘Sure you’ll be back in Louisiana. Everyone comes back to Louisiana.’
The Times, 1983
Moreover. Too… 1985