New Orleans is a homing beacon to musicians worldwide

If Taylor Smith was a moth, New Orleans would be the light.

Double Bass Player Taylor Smith found his bliss playing music in New Orleans.
Double Bass Player Taylor Smith found his bliss playing music in New Orleans.

And that light is shining bright for a lot of musicians, young and old, who have found their muse in New Orleans. The Roamin’ Jasmine‘s bandleader initially visited New Orleans as part of the ancient college ritual, Spring Break.

But fortunately, the music major managed to wander beyond the beer-chugging Bourbon Street scene to where the real magic happens. As a University of Miami senior, he had yet to find his musical niche in Florida so, as it has for generations before him, New Orleans proved to be both eye and ear opening.

Captivated by the scene, he and his roommate moved to New Orleans after graduation in 2010. He stayed for a year but then went looking for greener pastures, doing a couple of tours with bands and ending up in his hometown Boston.

“But I realized I wasn’t playing music that much. I came back to visit one time while I was living in Boston and thought why did I ever leave this. Every minute I was here, I was going to jam sessions, going to people’s houses and they’re having a campfire and playing tunes.  I even played on the streets a few times.”

The Roamin' Jasmine performing at Bacchanal. Taylor is on bass (left).
The Roamin’ Jasmine performing at Bacchanal. Taylor is on bass (left).

Smith returned to New Orleans in 2012 and soon after formed The Roamin’ Jasmine which plays regularly in New Orleans and is currently doing a tour in Alaska. Smith’s experience is not unique.

Throughout the years, musicians have been finding their way to the birthplace of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Fats Domino and The Meters. Jon Cleary, who has mastered a wide range of New Orleans piano styles, was raised in England but took a one-way trip to the city as a young musician.

In 1995, Japanese blues guitar sensation June Yamagishi abandoned an established career to immigrate to New Orleans — much to the benefit of the Wild Magnolias and Papa Grows Funk. Matt Perrine, whose sousaphone and bass anchor countless New Orleans recordings, migrated from California to the city in 1992. Others, like guitarist/songwriter Alex McMurray and the founding members of Galactic, were college students (Tulane and Loyola respectively) who decided to stick around after graduation. University of New Orleans jazz program also has contributed a number of new residents as well.

Sisters Leah Song (left) and Chloe Smith of Rising Appalachia lived and performed in New Orleans for seven years.
Sisters Leah Song (left) and Chloe Smith of Rising Appalachia lived and performed in New Orleans for seven years.

The magnetic force of New Orleans seems to have only gotten stronger since Hurricane Katrina. Last week, I attended a Rising Appalachia concert where the two sisters that fronted the band referred often to the enriching years they spent in New Orleans following Katrina.

In my last visit to New Orleans, every musician I talked with (and most are delighted to chat) was from some other place. Pianist Bart Ramsay (Zazou City) has lived in the city a long time but hails from Chicago.  Another pianist was from New Jersey.  A saxophone player was from the Midwest. Everyone had a story about how they came to New Orleans and found their bliss.

Josh Wilson, whose Seattle-based band Tubaluba is heavily influenced by the New Orleans brass sound, did a pilgrimage to New Orleans specifically to improve his New Orleans piano skills.  He connected with Jelly Roll Morton specialist Tom McDermott and seriously considered moving to the city permanently.

But its more than just the professional milieu that is attractive. The daily infusion of tourists and the large number of clubs and venues provide a wealth of employment opportunities for musicians — allowing them to lead a reasonably normal life. They can catch their child’s soccer game in the afternoon, play a gig in the evening and sleep in their own bed that night.

“I’ve never been to any city where I’ve met so many working-class musicians. New Orleans is really nurturing in that way; the quality of life is very good,” Kristin Diable told American Songwriter magazine. Diable, Americana singer/songwriter, is from Baton Rouge but for a time she tried her luck in New York City. “Within a year of being in New Orleans, I was making 10 times more money than I ever made in New York City.” The influx of new talent is not without its controversy. Some have argued that newcomers don’t take the time to learn the history, culture and style of New Orleans music.

Congo Square is where slaves congregated on Sundays in 19th Century New Orleans and is considered where jazz was born.
Congo Square is where slaves congregated on Sundays in 19th Century New Orleans and is considered where jazz was born.

The debate raises the question of what is New Orleans music. Is it jazz, R&B, bounce, funk, roots, hip hop Mardi Gras Indian? Or is it all of the above and more. The lesson and legacy of Congo Square is that the city’s musical storehouse relies on its continued ability to welcome and nurture different styles.

So I’ll keep playing music from New Orleans whether or not you might think its New Orleans music. For this Monday’s show, I’ll emphasize music by those who made a conscious decision to make New Orleans their home. Oh yea, and I’ll have a little more of my interview with the effervescent Taylor Smith. (Whoops. Left the interview on the wrong computer. I’ll include with podcast and air it next week.)

Tuts Washington holds solid place in New Orleans piano legacy

The rich creative humus that nurtures New Orleans music is built upon generations of musicians who, mostly in historical anonymity, shared their art and craft with younger musicians. (Here’s the edited version of the radio based on this post.)

If not for one solo recording and a fortuitous film that captured his brilliance and his legacy, Isidore “Tuts” Washington might have easily have been lost to future audiences. But his contribution to New Orleans music will not be forgotten

Isidore
Isidore “Tuts” Washington at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

Born in 1907, Washington was old enough to follow the early jazz masters perform on the streets of his hometown. Mostly self-taught on the piano, he would whistle the brass band tunes he would hear until he could work them out on the keyboard.

At an early age, he excelled in the boogie woogie, improvisational style of piano common in the New Orleans clubs called barrelhouse. He played with a number of New Orleans bands throughout the 1920’s and 3o’s, including backing up a singer whose missing front teeth got him dubbed “Smiling” Lewis.

In the late 30’s while playing in these clubs, Washington nurtured a young pianist named Roy. He even painted a charcoal mustache on his face to help him get into clubs under age so he could perform with him.  Years later, Roy, otherwise known as Professor Longhair, would talk fondly of his mentor’s clean playing style and the long stretch of his fingers on the keyboards.

Cover of Tuts Washington's only solo recording
Cover of Tuts Washington’s only solo recording

After the war, when the now “Smiley” Lewis began to record, first with DeLuxe Records and then with Imperial Records, Washington found himself at the vanguard of Rhythm & Blues, playing piano on songs like “Turn On Your Volume,” “Tee-Nah-Nah,” and “Gumbo Blues.”  But recordings would be a rare experience for Washington who would not return to the studio again until he was deep into his 70’s.

Washington left the city and was gone for most of the J&M Studio R&B heyday.  When he returned to New Orleans, he played jazz with Papa Celestin and the Clyde Kerr Orchestra and held down regular gigs at places like the Court of Two Sisters Restaurant–solidifying his reputation in the 60’s and 70’s as a New Orleans institution.

He regularly performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and collapsed from heart failure while performing at the 1984 New Orleans Worlds Fair.

As mentioned above, he was a direct influence on Professor Longhair but also other New Orleans piano players, including James Booker and Allen Toussaint. This is evident when you watch this excerpt from Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together.  This film by Stevenson Palfi captures Tuts Washington and Professor Longhair near the end of their lives and Toussaint in his mid-40s.

Professor Longhair (top), Allen Toussaint (middle) and Tuts Washington performing Boogie Woogie in Piano Players Rarely Play Together
Professor Longhair (top), Allen Toussaint (middle) and Tuts Washington performing Boogie Woogie in Piano Players Rarely Play Together

The film features interviews and historical footage but the most exciting part of the film is the three masters playing pianos all lined up so the camera can catch them in the same shot.  While the YouTube version is muddy, the film has been digitally restored.

If you don’t want to watch the whole film, skip to the end when the filmmaker shows the three playing a boogie woogie tune to its full length. The number (available on Longhair’s anthology) starts with Professor Longhair giving a little coaching, scatting a bit to describe how to avoid cutting in on his master, Tuts Washington.

Hear this amazing artist on my next show, (recording of the show) Monday at 10 a.m.

Portland Blues Festival serves up a sweet NOLA line up

Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival seems to have a serious jones for New Orleans music.

In previous years, the festival has held Second Line parades, filled its dancing stage with Zydeco and Cajun music and featured New Orleans acts such as Rebirth Brass Band, Galactic and the Stooges Brass Band. But this year, as we approach the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, the festival doubled down putting together a stellar New Orleans line up for its Friday (July 3) show.

Yes, we’ll get a return performance by Galactic, a versatile funk and soul band that hit the I-5 Tour as recently as February.  This time, the band will feature Macy Gray on vocals as the band harkens back to its soul and R&B roots when Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet fronted the group. Galactic takes the Brewery Stage at 9 p.m.

Allen Toussaint looking over his shoulder at a Paddlewheeler cruising the Misssissippi while performing at French Quarter Festival this year. He'll be playing by the Willamette River this Friday.
Allen Toussaint looking over his shoulder at a Paddlewheeler cruising the Misssissippi while performing at French Quarter Festival this year. He’ll be playing beside the Willamette River this Friday.

But the headliner for the day is Allen Toussaint (7 p.m. Brewery Stage).  This uber-talented composer, producer and pianist extraordinaire is closely aligned with the New Orleans R&B and funk sound. He was there from the beginning and now at 77, he continues to prove he can do full justice to his amazing legacy of songs.

“Working in a Coal Mine,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Lipstick Traces on a Cigarette,” “Fortune Teller,” “Sneaking Sally through the Alley,” “Night People,” “On Your Way Down,” “Ride Your Pony,” “Yes, We Can” and so many more song that you’ll recognize.  This guy has made a boat load of money from others singing his songs. The pleasant surprise is how ass-kicking good he is when he sings them.

He started his own New Orleans-based record label in the 60’s and he was the first to do a major recording in New Orleans (with Elvis Costello) after Katrina. He’ll have just returned from performing in London when he takes the waterfront stage on July 3 and I’m struck how the Portland setting is so similar to the French Quarter Festival stage where I last saw him perform in April. His band and performance will be as sharp as the suit he’ll be wearing.

Another New Orleans star attraction is Charmaine Neville. Daughter of saxophonist Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, Charmaine has toured the world but has stayed closer to home in recent years. She and her band will dish up a jazzy soul set at the Brewery Stage starting at 5:15 p.m.

(From Left) Jeff Mercurio, Ben Ellman, Dan Vogel, Jeff Raines and Stanton Moore.
Galactic will perform at the Waterfront Blues Festival on Friday as part of a New Orleans line up.

Likely to hop on the stage with Charmaine is her former band leader now Portland resident, Reggie Houston. This native New Orleans saxophonist has been making Portland a hipper place ever since he called it home in 2004. With over two decades of performing with Fats Domino, you know Houston and his Crescent City Connection band is going to rock the Brewery Stage (3:45 p.m.)

Other highlights include venerable guitarist Paul “Lil Buck” Sinegal (First Tech Stage, noon), Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band (First Tech Stage, 8:15 p.m.) and the Dog Hill Stompers (Front Porch Stage, 10 p.m.)

See you there, but if you miss it, I’ll be playing some of what I hear on my show on Monday.  Have a safe Fourth of July.