For the past 21 years, I have visited New Orleans annually; it feels somewhat like a second home to me. For my friends, here's a brief report on my recent trip.
This year I made the trip during the second full week of September; the 17 months since my last visit represents my longest spell away from the city since 1990. It was the kind of New Orleans visit I have every once in awhile - things didn't quite "click," at least until my last night.
On my way across Mississippi, I turned south off of I-10 at Biloxi and drove the rest of the way to New Orleans on U.S. 90, along the coast. I was a little shocked at how much destruction Katrina had caused in this area, and how little has been rebuilt. I made a few stops to do some geocaching, notably in the Bayou Saugave Wildlife Preserve, where I had a nice, very hot, hike.
I hit the city on Wednesday afternoon and went to Preservation Hall that night. I was disappointed to see trumpeter William Smith walk in instead of Mark Braud, who was scheduled to be there; Smith has disappointed me at times in the past. But he played well on this occasion, and the music was very enjoyable. There was one of those nice moments when the audience sang responses to Smith’s vocal phrases on “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” That tune was the band’s response to a toddler putting some money in the kitty. The band was led by Charlie Gabriel, who played clarinet on the first two tunes and tenor on the others. Freddie Lonzo was on trombone, Rickie Monie on piano, Jeffery Hills on tuba, and Joe Lastie on drums. “Dinah” was short, with no solos, to fill out the set. It was all the stronger for that, and had some nice collective improvising. The set I heard was:
Caravan (drum feature)
St. Louis Blues (Lonzo vocal)
Yes Sir, That’s My Baby (Smith vocal)
From there I walked to Mimi’s, at the edge of the Bywater neighborhood (the other side of the street would be Marigny) to hear a set by Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses. They were an impressive young group. Nealand played soprano sax most of the night, but did a tune or two on clarinet. They played:
Shake It and Break It
Everybody Loves My Baby
The Old Rugged Cross
and one other tune which I don’t remember. “Old Rugged Cross” went pretty far afield, starting with the guitar solo – trad free jazz, or something like that. Aurora is a really fabulous saxophonist - and pretty good on clarinet, too.
Nealand was scheduled to appear at Buffa’s with Tom McDermott, my favorite New Orleans pianist, on Thursday, but she posted on Facebook that McDermott wouldn’t be there that night, so I stayed in. But I did take a walk through Marigny and Bywater and found a couple of of interesting sites – the spot where Homer Plessy boarded a segregated train car, leading to the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and Jack “Papa” Laine’s house on St. Ferdinand Street. Laine was the patriarch of the white jazz scene around the turn of the 20th century.
On Friday I went back to Preservation Hall to hear Leroy Jones, whom I’ve always liked. It was kind of a mixed bag. I’m pretty sure that the Finnish trombonist Katja Toivola was Jones’ wife or girlfriend; I found her playing to be of borderline competency. It was nice to hear Daniel Farrow on tenor sax again, though. And I've always like Mari Watanabe's piano playing. Mitchell Player was on bass, and the drummer was introduced as “Jerry Barbarin Anderson” – I didn’t know he was part of that famous family. The set I heard consisted of:
Muskrat Ramble (Jones vocal)
Baby, Won't You Please Come Home
Come Down to New Orleans
I was in a somewhat unsettled frame of mind, though, until Saturday night, when I went to the Spotted Cat to hear (and sit in with) the Panorama Jazz Band. That event brought the whole trip into focus and made it all worthwhile. At the beginning of their second set, I played “Dolgo Hora” and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home" - I had always wanted to play the latter tune with a New Orleans band. Aurora Nealand sat out the two tunes I played, but when she came back to replace me, she really bore down and played hard. I took that as a compliment. Ben Schenck and the rest of the band sounded better than ever.
Sunday morning I took one last walk around the French Quarter. Although it was not the best visit I’ve ever had, in the end I really didn’t want it to end. Even when a New Orleans trip is slightly disappointing, it still hurts to leave.