More women are taking the music stage in New Orleans

The obvious struggle by Republican candidates in their most recent debate to think of an American woman deserving to be on the $10 bill once again illustrated the dearth of awareness of women’s role in our history.

This issue is brought home to me almost every time I map out music for my New Orleans show. Perhaps because my knowledge and music library is not as extensive as I would like, I struggle to bring gender balance to my shows, particularly when  I play early jazz, R&B, funk and brass bands. But I also sense that New Orleans is no different than the broader music world where female musicians have struggled to get into the spotlight.

Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, was a pioneer in a male-dominated New Orleans R&B scene.
Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, was a pioneer in a male-dominated New Orleans R&B scene.

Finding music I can play that feature early New Orleans jazz women is pretty much impossible.  I only have a little more luck when I move into the New Orleans R&B era. Lots of great music recorded out of J&M Recording Studio heyday, but with the huge exception of Irma Thomas, and also Shirley Goodman, its mostly guys.

With the help of Jeff Hannusch’s book “The Soul of New Orleans – A Legacy of Rhythm and Blues,” I have learned about Jean Knight (Mr. Big Stuff), Martha Carter,  Mathilda Jones, and Barbara George.  And, of course, the Dixie Cups.

If you don’t recognize some of those names, you’re not alone. Finding their music to play on the radio takes work.

Similarly you might recognize Marva Wright and Charmaine Neville but what about Leigh Harris (Little Queenie) or jazz singer Germaine Bazzle? Many excellent female musicians  worked in New Orleans during the 20th Century but their recordings are sparse and scarce.

Fortunately, change is happening.  While it still doesn’t feel balanced, there is an increasing number of New Orleans-based women musicians who are getting recognized in our new century.  Helen Gillet, Aurora Nealand, Kelcy Mae, and Ingrid Lucia are carving a living out of the NOLA music landscape. Perhaps the most well-known in recent years is Alynda Lee Segarra who is the driving force behind Hurray for the Riff Raff.

And there’s growing recognition.  New Orleans Women In Music, founded in 2007, promotes the careers of women musicians through information, network and other support.

Debbie Davis is a member of the New Orleans Nightingale collective which has help put a spotlight on New Orleans female musicians.
Debbie Davis is a member of the New Orleans Nightingale collective which has help put a spotlight on New Orleans female musicians.

The New Orleans Nightingales is a marketing collective with whom Ingrid Lucia has produced a compilation featuring 19 female musicians.  Here’s the website description: “Steeped in the musical traditions of early American music, the ladies of the New Orleans Nightingales bring new life to this hundred year art form through new compositions, vibrant live performances and a commitment to the idea that traditional jazz and folk music is still evolving.”

I’m going to tip the gender balance scale of my next radio show, leaning heavily on the double X chromosome for my tunes.   Here’s the edited version of the show on Mixcloud.

Street music can be magical if you let yourself enjoy it

There is an element of excitement when listening to a street performer–it creates an unplanned moment that forces me to choose between carrying on with whatever I was doing or allow for the aural equivalent of “stop and smell the roses.”

The moment can be magical or quite painful depending on the quality of busker. The beauty of a street performance is you can vote with your feet but if your feet don’t move, you should definitely vote with your wallet.

On Monday’s show, I’ll feature musicians who have played on the streets of New Orleans.

Artesian Rumble Arkestra creates street music magic for Olympia.

But before I go there, let me say that I’ve had many wonderful moments, listening to musicians on sidewalks and parks in Seattle and Olympia. A favorite street event is HonkFest West which has featured one of Olympia’s finest purveyors of street magic, Artesian Rumble Arkestra.

But it’s hard to compete with a 300-year-old city that gave birth to Jazz. New Orleans has a rich tradition of buskers which attracts musicians from all over the world. The city even seems to have its own apprenticeship program.

The wandering Alynda Lee Segarra had not played an instrument until she found a discarded washboard in New Orleans and settled into a routine of playing with street performers. She found her niche, learned banjo and guitar, started singing and wrote her own songs. Now with four major release albums, the singer/songwriter of Hurray for the Riff Raff is playing in venues all over the world.

Alynda Lee Segarra began her music career on the streets of New Orleans. As part of Hurray for the Riff Raff, she now plays larger venues.

Tuba Skinny, a band that plays rag time and traditional jazz, is touring Australia right now but when home, the band often plays on Royal Street.

Meschiya Lake also played with various street bands including Loose Marbles but moved to the night clubs when she formed The Little Big Horns Jazz Band.  You can usually catch her amazing act live at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Street on Wednesday nights.

The most widely known street performers of New Orleans are the brass bands. With a long tradition of parades, second lines and musical funeral processions, the city has developed a very strong community of brass musicians and bands.  Treme Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Bands tour the world but can still be found on occasion playing on the streets of New Orleans. The street provides a great place for budding musicians to learn their craft and over time achieve success as evidenced by the Baby Boyz Brass Band and TBC Brass Band.

Grandpa Elliott (Elliott Small) and Stony B (Michael Stone) performing at a corner on Royal Street.
Grandpa Elliott (Elliott Small) and Stony B (Michael Stone) performing at a corner on Royal Street.

One of my favorite street music moments occurred when I was walking along Royal Street in April 2006. The guitarist sounded a little like Robert Cray and the harmonica player had a deep bass voice and looked distinctive in his thick grey beard, farmer overalls, straw hat and sunglasses with one lens punched out.  I listened for several songs and talked with them between songs. I bought their CD and had them sign it—a practice I still do with street performers I enjoy.  Stoney B, the guitarist, has since moved to San Diego where he and his band play regularly at festivals and night clubs. Grandpa Elliott, the harmonica player, became famous as a regular with the Playing For Change band and recordings.

It’s easy to find street musicians while in New Orleans. But you don’t have to visit NOLA, to hear them. I’ll be featuring several sets of music from NOLA street performers, Monday, October 6, starting at 10 a.m. on KAOS, 89.3 FM.  We stream.