Being a doctor is silly in the first place.
Doctors need sick people around to make a living
but they continue to work hard to cure them all.
—From Kurasawa’s Drunken Angel
Whether you’re walkin’ to New Orleans, or taking the train they call the City of New Orleans—aside from the harsh truth of Katrina and her aftermath, and the still-massive efforts at recovery, and the Xs marking the many spots of the victims—once you get there it’s both a nonstop party and tourist trap. If the French Quarter had not survived I honestly believe the city itself might have perished. Beignets, oysters, and crawfish flow freely down Decatur and Bourbon Streets. The chicks in their underwear try to entice you. Food is everywhere. Harrah’s lures you in, then drowns you in its oppressive ambience while it takes your money. Music and booze pour out of every orifice of every bar and novelty shop: Jazz Funeral, Snug Harbor, Blue Nile, the Dragon’s Den, DBA’s, Tippitina’s, the House of the Blues. The steamboat whistle tugs at your heart as it beckons you to take a trip down the not-very-scenic Mississippi, and the guided tours range from Mardi Gras Land to swamps to the cemeteries and flood-ravaged areas at $23 to $43 a pop. But the questions I continually raised while there were, “Does the music fuel the booze, or the booze the music? Is Louis Armstrong and the birthplace of jazz the priority in what appears to be a still very racist town, or is the alcohol that spills freely out onto the streets the real main attraction?” For me I felt their deep symbiosis, at times sensing that one could not exist without the other. But in the end I sensed that, aside from the jazz fests, music played second fiddle to drinking, and that without it, as in New York, getting stoned would still go on endlessly. I also came to the conclusion that the origin of a thing is not always the best place (intellectually, at least) to experience that thing, and that too much of a good thing is not always necessarily a good thing. Take the mighty Mississippi, for instance.
The cemetery closes at three pm. The parks by six. Why? Well, because the city is afraid someone’ll get mugged. But aside from all that, I had a great time. I went there for the wedding of my dear friends Brian and Kim and to do two gigs. While there I caught snippets of many local musicians like Stanton Moore and Kid Merv. A bit of blues at the Apple Barrel, some standard good-time piano and guitar at Snug Harbor, some bop at the French Market Restaurant, and a couple of my homeboys, Vijay Ayer and Saul Williams, at Tippitina’s. Bob Log III, replete in a silver spacesuit, sang weird folk-blues. Rob Cambre did a great set of improvised guitar. There was another set of guitars, sax, and drums by the Gonzales Brothers and two Portuguese musicians. All this and more in nine short days.
There is a small improv scene in New Orleans kept alive by Cambre and a handful of others. The architecture is magnificent, and I could easily see owning a place in the French Quarter if they would move the termites, mosquitoes, and waterbugs to another country.
But now I’m back, and in brief the highlight here at home has been the joy of seeing many different tenor players in as many venues in a very short space of time, all with their own sounds and ideas. They were, in order, Joe McPhee, James Carter, David Murray, Peter Brötzmann (in a rare solo gig), and Pharoah Sanders—McPhee and Brötzmann being the least commercial, with Murray, still strong as ever, running a close third.
I also dug much of the Bang on a Can Marathon. And a great set by NuBand (Roy Campbell, Mark Whitecage, Lou Grassi, and Joe Fonda) at the new venue Local 269 at Houston and Suffolk.
Marc Ribot celebrated his 55th birthday with a full week of concerts all over town ranging from solo gigs to large groups, playing everything from Scelsi to Ayler and many originals. I attended four completely different sets and loved them all.
After Issue Project Room’s successful Soundwalk fundraiser I headed out to the Stone to catch 88-year-old pianist/composer/vocalist and friend Stepanie Stone; the Stone, in fact, was named after her husband Irving Stone. Move over Little Jimmy Scott. Roll over Alberta Hunter. Stephanie played a great trio gig backed by Kenny Wollesen and Greg Cohen. They waltzed through a repertoire of standards and one of Stephanie’s untitled originals, with Steph singing softly and sweetly and charming the audience with her self-deprecating humor in what turned out to be a truly heartwarming evening.
I caught most of David Byrne’s act at the opening concert of Prospect Park’s Celebrate Brooklyn. It was a free concert and one of the most crowded I have ever attended, so crowded that when I left my wife Yuko to go to the bathroom (which I never located) I got lost for half an hour just trying to find her. It was, when one could get close enough to see or hear it, one of the most vital shows I’ve attended in a long time. We finally found a huge TV monitor and settled in to watch. There were at least ten musicians, singers, and dancers on stage. Everyone wore white, and the group gave an amazing five encores. On the fourth one, Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” they all came out donned in Degas-esque layered white chiffon tutus and did some wild corny ballet moves. A hectic time but a great treat.
Now on to this year’s 14th annual Vision Festival, whose first six days were held in two theaters at the Abrons Art Center, Henry Street Settlement. I again had the pleasure of both attending and participating in it, and never found my Rail photographer, though Butch Morris assured me he was there. [He was. Corey Hayes’ photo of Butch Morris accompanies the interview with Morris elsewhere in this issue.] Highlights for me were the return of Joseph Jarman with Douglas Ewart’s group, in which Baraka read a stunning new poem (well, all but one line, anyway) about kids fighting kids, which he later told me was inspired by his new grandchild. Though the music sometimes got in the way of the text and there was a bit of an overall muddle, the playing was superb. This was followed by a new Billy Bang concept of violin, four trumpets, trombone, and drums, which had some great solo moments. And of course Butch’s conduction with poets, strings, and a text by Alan Graubard truly sang out to us.
This year’s festival honoree was 85-year-old Marshall Allen, the longtime Sun Ra collaborator, who played a rousing set with another octogenarian, Kidd Jordan, and later led the Arkestra through a fun-filled romp.
Matt Shipp played in two contexts over two nights, exhibiting his strength and versatility as both a soloist and group member. The night he played solo proved overall to be an outstanding evening of pianos from Shipp to Craig Taborn in Rob Brown’s trio with Nasheet Waits on drums (a high point in the fest), to D. D. Jackson in a pounding Milford Graves set, to Steve Lantner in a Latin big-band setting with Joe Morris. In a performance with Shipp, William Parker, and South African saxophonist Zim Ngqawana the night before, Waits proved once again that he is every inch the drummer his dad Freddie was.
Other Vision highlights were a wonderful solo set of bass, violin, and poetry by the legendary Henry Grimes (he even has a book out), who seems to get better each time I hear him; an incredible trio set by Charles Gayle, who is back playing tenor; vocalist Lisa Sokolov with Cameron Brown; a fierce Brötzmann heavy metal set; Joe McPhee; Fred Anderson; and a lovely final-night set by Jason Kao Hwang’s 25-piece string ensemble Spontaneous River, which took place at the Angel Orensanz Foundation.
So whether you do or don’t know what it means to miss New Orleans as you’re gobblin’ your grits and gumbo or pummeling your po’ boy, chew slowly. And while you’re digesting, digest all that music you’re taking in, and try not to listen to what one is playing all the time so much as how one is playing it.