New Orleans clears the air in its bars and nightclubs

New Orleans may be the place where you can “Do Whatcha Wanna” but thankfully that no longer includes sticking a lit end of a cigarette in my face while dancing to Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar.

Vincent Broussard of Rebirth Brass Band powers his saxophone at the Maple Leaf Bar.
Vincent Broussard of Rebirth Brass Band powers his saxophone at the Maple Leaf Bar.

New Orleans recently joined the more than 700 other U.S. cities in adopting a smoke free ordinance for its bars and nightclubs. Louisiana restaurants have been smoke-free since 2007.

For the record, I wasn’t too bothered by the cigarette in my face. We were all enjoying the music; safety goggles might have been nice to have.

That was a few years back. And even before then, a movement was building to protect service workers and musicians from sidestream smoke. Can you imagine what it must feel like to suck in a lungful of smoke to sing or blow your horn.  More and more establishments were going smoke free or, at the very least, creating a smoke-free performance space for musicians and their audience.

King James and the G-Men perform regularly at BJ's in the Bywater--a classic neighborhood bar that allowed smoking up until the citywide ban.
King James and the G-Men perform regularly at BJ’s in the Bywater–a classic neighborhood bar that allowed smoking up until the citywide ban.

In my last visit, just two weeks before the ban went into effect (April 22), the smoke had cleared from just about every venue. One notable exception was a Bywater neighborhood bar, BJs–a quintessential New Orleans neighborhood dive bar that would never have gone smoke free if the law hadn’t required it. Still, it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t have to throw my clothes away after a night of listening to King James and the Special Men.

It may be too soon to tell the lasting impact of the ban. Early reports are that business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the ban. Drinkers will drink and smokers will smoke. So the biggest concern now is the noise factor.

Places with courtyards, patios and balconies can still allow smoker unless, like Bacchanal, the owners prohibit smoking. The Roamin's Jasmine playing in the courtyard.
Places with courtyards, patios and balconies can still allow smoking. Above, the Roamin’ Jasmine perform in the courtyard of Bacchanal which by its own choice prohibits smoking.

Bars and nightclubs can be fined by the city if they create a “nuisance.” Since New Orleans is a collection of neighborhoods with bars and businesses in close proximity, when patrons go outside for a puff (the ban includes vaping), noise levels rise. With some bars operating 24/7 or until the very wee hours of the night, a group of “pissed” smokers outside a bar run the risk of pissing off the neighbors.

Well, I’ve got music that will take you back to the smoke-filled dive bars of New Orleans yore on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  And you won’t need to wash your clothes and hair afterwards.

James Booker carried the piano tradition forward in his own way

If there is justice in the music world, James Booker would be better known for the genius and artistry of his piano playing.  The fact that his music is still played 30 years after his untimely death in New Orleans offers some hope that justice may ultimately be served.

James Booker – New Orleans pianist extraordinaire

Classically trained but also taught by Tuts Washington and influenced by Professor Longhair, Booker came of age in the heyday of New Orleans R&B era when Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew and Huey Smith were rocking the jukebox with singles recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.

Booker got in on the act as a studio musician as well as fronting his own songs with “Doin’ the Hambone” and “Thinkin’ About my Baby.”  His song “Gonzo” charted nationally and his playing style, sometimes described as a nest of spiders on the keyboards, was admired by many, including music lovers in Europe where he spent some time and built a following.

But while Booker was a versatile musician, capable of playing a wide range of styles, including working with Freddie King, Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, the Doobie Brothers, Maria Muldaur, and Jerry Garcia, his star never quite rose to the level of his talent and genius. (Check out this sound recording of a rehearsal session with Booker and Garcia.)

James Booker – “I’ve got some blues that contain old soul with new wrinkles.”

It’s a sad but familiar story; he had his issues. Some, in retrospect, have pondered whether he suffered from a mental malady that in our current day might have been more successfully treated by means other than with heroin and alcohol.

He died way too young in the emergency room of Charity Hospital in 1983 at the age of 43.

Booker was able to bring elements of many musical genres together and his interpretations of familiar songs are unique and probably difficult to duplicate given his skill.

Booker’s “absolutely unique style is a polyglot mix of gospel, boogie-woogie, blues, R&B and jazz, all executed with a thrilling virtuosity,” wrote Tom McDermott who is himself an amazing pianist from New Orleans.

Classified was reissued with more recordings on it. We’ll play from it on Monday.

When I listen to Booker’s music, I hear shades of the “Spanish Tinge” made famous by Jelly Roll Morton. His hyperactive right hand razmatazz and left hand syncopation are reminiscent of Professor Longhair. And yet, his style builds on those masters rather than replicates.  And he passed the tradition on by tutoring Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr.

As always, its best if you hear for yourself. I’ll be playing from a few of his solo recordings on Monday but if you have time, consider checking out his last recorded performance at the Maple Leaf. He had a regular gig at the Uptown New Orleans bar, often playing to sparse and disinterested audiences. The Booker you see in this video contrasts sharply with the more flamboyant Booker of earlier years. His teeth are fixed, he’s wearing a suit and not wearing his trademark patch with a star on it over his left eye. Here’s a video of that period in his life.

Helping to bring the world’s eye to Booker’s talent is a documentary called the Bayou Marahaja by New Orleans filmmaker Lily Keber.

“Bayou Maharajah explores the life and music of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, the man Dr. John described as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” A brilliant pianist, his eccentricities and showmanship belied a life of struggle, prejudice, and isolation. Illustrated with never-before-seen concert footage, rare personal photos and exclusive interviews, the film paints a portrait of this overlooked genius.”

I have none seen this film; no distributor yet. I’m hoping it can be shown at the Olympia Film Society’s Capitol Theater. But you can check out the trailer and join me in honoring and enjoying his talent. I’ll be spinning some Booker tunes along with my usual mix of New Orleans music this Monday on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.

Music fans must tolerate occasional misfires

Like players preparing for the big game, Bob and I were ready to boogie to Rebirth Brass Band last night.  Even though we long ago qualified for our AARP memberships, we decided to pass on the 7 p.m. show and go for the late show at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, even if it meant driving back to Olympia in the wee hours of the morning.

We had made a point to take naps in the afternoon and I had a taken the rare step of drinking a cup of caffeinated coffee.  What we hadn’t counted on was an early winter storm in Bend Oregon where the band had played the night before.

As we stared dumbfounded at the notice on the door saying the show was cancelled, we couldn’t help but wonder why we bothered.  Sometimes misfires happen. Some times you have to put up with long lines and waits, uncomfortable seats and too much cold or heat or other types of discomfort.  But we do it because live music is worth it.

So last night was a bit of a bust. We ended up catching a few numbers by a jazz duo with the radio unfriendly name of Suffering Fuckhead at the Sea Monster in Wallingford. They were okay but it wasn’t what we were looking for and we ended up getting home right at midnight, about two or three hours sooner than expected.

So since I’m a bit ragged from spending long hours enjoying the Olympia Film Festival and a bit bummed about last night’s letdown, I’m going to finish this week’s blog with a few photos and one video of when the effort was worth it.  And Monday’s Gumbo YaYa show will include an hour of danceable brass band music. . .because I deserve it.

Glen David Andrews singing at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley as part of the "Treme Tour" a couple years back.
Glen David Andrews singing at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley as part of the “Treme Tour” a couple years back.
Original Rebirth Brass Band member Kermit Ruffins joined Rebirth at the Jazz Fest a few years back.
Original Rebirth Brass Band member Kermit Ruffins joined Rebirth at the Jazz Fest a few years back.
Olympia brass band, Artesian Rumble Arkestra, regularly plays Honkfest which is now timed with the Fremont Festival.
Olympia brass band, Artesian Rumble Arkestra, regularly plays Honkfest which is now timed with the Fremont Festival.
This concert was easy to enjoy cause it was held in Olympia at the historic Capitol Theater. More shows there would be great.
This Mudhoney concert was easy to enjoy cause it was held in Olympia at the historic Capitol Theater. More shows there would be great.

The video below is a short excerpt of Rebirth playing at their home base, Maple Leaf Bar, a couple years back. Sorry for the poor video and sound quality but you get the idea.