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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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.)

Louisiana delta-inspired music taking on a cry for help

Thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High and hundreds of others, there is little doubt that our environment influences music.

The waters that flow through Louisiana originate in 31 states.
The waters that flow through Louisiana originate in 31 states.

 So it should be no surprise that musicians who reside at the tap end of North America’s largest drainage system write songs about rivers, wetlands, swamps and bayous.

Draining all or part of 31 states, the Mississippi River creates a powerful structure for creatives of all types to tell their stories.

In Louisiana, its the swamp that inpires many to “pole the pirogue down the bayou” (Jambalaya). These musicians may not really have swamp water running through their veins (Fire in the Bayou) but they know how to use the water’s magnetic pull to enliven a song.

Sitting at the soggy end of the 2,300 mile system, Louisiana and its bayou communities (including New Orleans) use the river, and its essential estuaries, as a lush backdrop for setting the mood–from boogie to blue.

In recent years, the music has been paying back in the struggle to restore and revitalize the delta environment. The flow of sediment of the Mississippi is less than half of what it was a century ago due to engineering the river to serve too many purposes. This means essential delta beds are not being replenished. Combine this steady decline in sediment, with the speed of climate change, and the bayou and the life and music it supports becomes more fragile by the day.

Tab Benoit started the Voice of the Wetlands to raise awareness about the importance of revitalizing the river system.
Tab Benoit started the Voice of the Wetlands to raise awareness about the importance of revitalizing the river system.

Voice of the Wetlands, started by Louisiana bluesman Tab Benoit, is a non-profit focused on raising awareness about the loss of the wetlands in southern Louisiana.

And as you might expect by an initiative launched by a musician, it uses the music of the Delta to reach the right ears, including performances before Republican and Democratic National conventions and an annual festival in Houma (about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans in bayou country).

The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars often headlines the festival. Over the years, this recording and live performance ensemble has included Benoit, Dr, John, Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, George Porter Jr., Waylon Thibodeaux, Anders Osborn and many others. This year’s festival is in October.

Muskrats, alligators, junebugs, and other critters crawl from the swamp into the music.
Muskrats, alligators, junebugs, and other critters crawl from the swamp into the music.

I’ve got close to a full two-hour show of songs about the bayou and bayou country so please tune in this Monday on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa (or catch it on archive) to hear Muskrat Ramble, Bayou Boogie, Swamp Funk and Junebug Waltz and others.

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