Jazz Pioneers, House of Dance and Feathers and the Ghost Next to You

On today’s musical journey of New Orleans, we celebrate the birth anniversaries of two Jazz pioneers and we visit the House of Dance and Feathers to hear the voice of the museum curator and recent COVID-19 victim Ronald Lewis talk about his passion for preserving his community’s culture. We’ll also hear from Helen Gillet and Shawn Williams whose music evoke a passion in very different ways. Go ahead and start the show and I’ll tell you about the ghost . . .eventually.

After Danny Barker gets the show rolling with “Rose of Picardy,” I kick up a set featuring two songs with Sidney Bechet and James “Zutty” Singleton — early jazz pioneers who followed the Great Migration out of New Orleans to larger venues. Singleton would participate in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings and Bechet, would find his comfort zone in Europe where he would innovate with clarinet and saxophone. They were born near the end of the 19th Century but their music lives on.

Helen Gillet

Helen Gillet joins the show around the 15 minute mark. One of her last performances before a real audience was in Olympia at Octapas Cafe. She will introduce a song from her latest Helkiase followed by two from her Bangkok Silver record. She references two organizations that are working hard to support the community during the COVID closures in New Orleans – Letters from the Porch and Krewe of Red Beans . She’s doing shows on Mondays starting at 5 p.m. Olympia time on her Facebook page.

At about the 40-minute mark, Shawn Williams comes on to talk about serenading her neighborhood and expressing her hope to be able to tour the Northwest soon. I’m hoping it happens and you will too when you hear her sing two songs from her Motel Livin’ record.

My visit with Ronald Lewis, founder of House of Dance and Feathers. Photo by Kim Vu-Dinh.

I wasn’t happy with my recording of Ronald Lewis when I had the pleasure of meeting him in his lower Ninth Ward backyard museum, House of Dance and Feathers, a few years back. The hammering of nearby construction made me reluctant to use it. But with the short voice clip I share (for the first time) you’ll identify the enthusiasm in this special man’s voice. He was one of the Nine Lives by Dan Baum — a wonderful book that introduces you to some of the many facets of the New Orleans social diamond. The fact it was made into a musical by many New Orleans musicians is an indication of how spot on it was. Sadly, Lewis died in March, possibly from complications of COVID-19. I play two songs by Shamarr Allen, Lewis’ uber-talented nephew, that depict the role of his uncle as curator of his neighborhood’s unique culture. If you want to skip to that, it all starts around the 57 minute mark. As lagniappe, here’s a video of Mr. Allen performing in his uncle’s museum for the NPR Tiny Desk contest. It’s a winner particularly when Shamarr shows us his footwork near the end.

Now about that ghost, its been weird shopping at the Olympia Food Coop. I love that store (I’m an Eastside customer) and I love my regular shopping routine. But, like every other grocery, its different now. We put on gloves and masks and we move haltingly through the aisles sometimes making eye contact and recognizing (maybe) the driver of the next shopping cart. When I heard this opening lyric “I saw your ghost at the grocery,” I had to include the Hurray for the Riff Raff’s song “Is That You?” I’ll say no more except that the last hour is basically two long sets of great New Orleans music including a new window-pane rattling number by Cowboy Mouth.

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Author: Tim Sweeney

Host of Sweeney's Gumbo YaYa - a two-hour radio show featuring the music of New Orleans -- every Thursday starting at 10 a.m. (PST) on community radio station KAOS 89.3 FM Olympia, Washington -- www.kaosradio.org. Show also airs on Fridays, 7 p.m., KMRE, 102.3 FM, Bellingham.

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