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.)

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.

New Orleans and the piano – A good team.

As part of my ongoing education on New Orleans music, I’ve been reading about the use of the piano in New Orleans music. (Please note: I’m not a real musician but I operate a CD player at home)

While the piano wasn’t invented in New Orleans, several styles of piano playing are derived from the city’s musicians.  So much so that “one can easily claim the piano as the prime choice of innovators in New Orleans music,” according to an article by Tom McDermott who innovates on the piano on a daily basis in New Orleans.

This versatile instrument combines melody and rhythm and makes it possible for every parlor or living room to become a concert hall.

As Jon Cleary, another fine keyboard purveyor of New Orleans music, said, the piano is “a hip little tool because it allows you to reproduce all the elements of what a band would do.”

littlerichard
It was on a piano in the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans during a recording break that Little Richard connected with his mojo, banging out Tutti Frutti.

What Jelly Roll Morton and others that followed did was translate the sounds of the New Orleans street bands to a piano, delivering their own interpretation to the customers of night clubs and sporting clubs and ultimately to a global audience.

The piano is so important to New Orleans music that a premiere annual event is Piano Night held around the time of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  The host of this event, WWOZ, has created a compendium of videos that explore that New Orleans piano tradition.

Here’s Jon Cleary providing a quick run down of the various piano playing styles. 

My goal is to focus on New Orleans piano players from time to time. Next week’s article will feature the amazing, but often overlooked, James Booker. (I have since added:  Professor LonghairAllen Toussaint, Jon Cleary, and Isidore Tuts Washington).  For my next show though, I’ll offer a wide range of New Orleans piano players.