Friday, August 28, 2015

A Visitor's Post-Katrina Story: RIP Vera

Ten years after Katrina, here's an odd little vignette from a frequent visitor to New Orleans. I'm a pretty down-to-earth guy, I think, in my view of how the world and universe works. I'm not superstitious or mystical at all, except concerning music. But I told this story recently, and it's still, well, interesting to me.

I have visited New Orleans once or twice a year since 1990; for years, when I was teaching public school music, my trip was during my school system's spring break - the first week of April. So I hit the city in April, 2006 - seven months after Katrina.  I didn't know quite what to expect, but what I found was a shell of the city I had visited a year earlier. There were no street lights, very little music to be found, and the space underneath the interstate overpass was a car graveyard. At one point I was checking out the Bywater neighborhood, and thought, "Okay, this isn't too bad." Then I realized that the Lower Ninth Ward was just across the bridge. I drove over, but didn't stay long - seeing the devastation there was like getting punched in the gut. 

I had heard of an interesting Katrina memorial that I wanted to see. As I had heard the story, a young man who lived near the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street had a neighbor named Vera - a middle-aged woman.  In the aftermath of Katrina, before the National Guard moved in, he found Vera's body. In the chaos of that time, there was no one to call. So he built a brick tomb to protect the body until it could be removed, and put a sign on it: "RIP Vera."

Vera's body had, of course, been taken away long before my visit. But the makeshift tomb and the sign were still there, seven months later. I found the story and the memorial to be very moving, and decided that I wanted to take a picture of Vera's temporary resting place. I parked nearby and made about ten attempts to take a picture, but something went wrong every time - my camera malfunctioned, or turned off before I could hit the shutter button, or a car blocked my view, etc. I was getting frustrated, when it hit me - oh, I'm not supposed to be taking a picture of this.

I'm still a down-to-earth, non-mystical guy. Objectively, I believe that my failure to take a picture of Vera's tomb was due to a series of coincidences. But whether or not the universe was giving me a message, I got it. This was a sacred spot, not a tourist attraction.

RIP, Vera. And long live New Orleans.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Braxton in Alabama; February, 2015

Anthony Braxton  spent February 6 to 27 of this year in, of all places, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he was in residency at the University of Alabama. The last eight nights of his residency featured concerts of his music - different ensembles every night. Tuscaloosa is just over three hours from my house by car, and I hadn't heard/seen him in person for about 20 years. Attending at least some of the concerts was an easy decision, and since the first two, on February 18 and 19, appealed to me musically and fit into my schedule, I made sure to be there.
The Percussion Ensemble plays Composition 174; Taylor Ho Bynum at the laptop.

My Alabama trip was incredibly rewarding. Actually, "free-jazz pilgrimage" is a more apt description than "trip." Wednesday night's concert was a solo performance at the Bama Theater in downtown Tuscaloosa, and Braxton performed exclusively on alto saxophone, as is usual for his solo concerts. The audience seemed to be composed of music majors there for their concert quotas, curious newcomers to Braxton's world, and genuine Braxton enthusiasts. Wisely, probably, Braxton opened with a a lyrical, relatively accessible piece, followed by an overtly impressive virtuoso offering.. Only then did he venture into the more challenging elements of his sound world - multiphonics, vocalizing through his horn, extreme register changes, etc.
University of Alabama big band

Thursday night's concert featured the University of Alabama percussion ensemble and big band. I could have let myself be disappointed by the fact that Braxton didn't play a more active role, either as instrumentalist or conductor, but I wasn't disappointed at all, because the music was excellent. Taylor Ho Bynum, the trumpeter who has worked closely with Braxton for several years, was the main conductor; was joined by a second conductor on one piece and two others on another. The first piece was Braxton's Composition 174, for percussion ensemble and recorded voices. This was the piece I was least looking forward to, and the one that surprised me the most. The recorded narration could be interpreted as a dramatized  visit to another planet, a commentary on the music, or both. The total effect was magical, much to my surprise. This is not the kind of thing I thought I would like, but I loved it.
Noffsinger and Braxton

The big band then played a long collage piece that started out as Composition 134, and had large chunks of Composition 100 and bits of other pieces. It was long, complex, and kaleidoscopic, and the students played with energy and enthusiasm. But the final piece of the program just floored me: a glorious rendition of Composition 58, the twisted march which appeared on the Creative Orchestra Music 1976 album, by the big band, the percussion ensemble, and three saxophone soloists. Braxton making his first appearance of the evening, soloed on sopranino sax, U of A saxophone professor Jonathan Noffsinger played alto, and Andrew Raffo Dewar soloed on soprano. Dewar, who has collaborated with Braxton in the past, is also on the faculty at Alabama, and he largely made Braxton's residency happen.
Braxton solos

Anyway, it was a stunning ten minutes or so. The large percussion section, on all manner of marching percussion instrument (including vintage field drums), gave the piece an impact that the recording just couldn't match. I was giddy, and when I wandered through the halls of the music building looking for a bathroom, it was clear that the students were just as exhilarated.

Composition 58. Bynum conducting; Dewar, Noffsinger, and Braxton seated on left.
But there was one more incident that turned my trip into a real free-jazz pilgrimage. On Thursday afternoon I was exploring an old cemetery in Vance, Alabama, halfway between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. I was floored when I came across the grave of Sun Ra trumpeter and bassist Jothan Callins, out there in the middle of nowhere. It was an amazing and touching accidental discovery.