Saturday, March 27, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
I was stunned and saddened to hear that Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson, one of New Orleans’s top jazz and R & B drummers, was found dead at his home on Sunday morning, the apparent victim of a heart attack.
Bunchy was one of my happiest discoveries after returning to live here in 2007—not that he needed me to “discover” him. He was one of the city’s best known drummers and had worked with a Pantheon of New Orleans greats, including Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew, James Booker, Aaron Nevile and Dr. John. He was also a movie and TV actor—he played the sheriff’s deputy who evicted Halle Berry from her house in “Monster’s Ball” and appears in two episodes of the upcoming “Tremé” series on HBO.
I didn’t know any of that when I met Bunchy on a gig in the Maison de Ville courtyard two years ago. It was a wedding reception as I remember. The band was a pickup group put together by trumpeter Clive Wilson. As soon as we started the first number, I was enthralled by Bunchy’s playing. His style was loose and easy, a seemingly effortless swing that just flowed from him in a way that was both driving and unhurried. I never saw a drummer who looked so natural and comfortable when he played, sitting low on the stool and barely moving his arms. The sticks seemed to grow out of his hands. And his personality was perfectly suited to his music: jovial, warmhearted, laid-back.
I got Bunchy’s business card that night and resolved to call him on future gigs. But I was rarely able to get him: he was one of the most in-demand musicians in town. He had a regular Saturday night hotel gig and often went out on the road. Every time I called him, he would tell me, “I can’t make that one, but keep trying me, hear? I want to play with you, man.” We did manage to get together at the Palm Court a few weeks ago, and again, I was delighted and amazed by his smooth swing and flawless timekeeping. He was one of those drummers who made a horn man play better—made the whole band sound better in fact. When we parted that night, I told him, “Bunchy, we got to get together again. You’re such a kick to play with. ” He chuckled and told me to keep calling him. “I want to play with you, too, man. You know my number.”
Well I can’t call that number anymore. Bunchy played his last gig Saturday night. A fellow musician came to pick him up for a brunch job on Sunday morning and found him dead in his bed. The news spread quickly among his fellow musicians. When I showed up to play at Preservation Hall last night, the mood was somber. But drummer Shannon Powell said what we all thought: “When they take Bunchy to the church, we all got to be there for him, you know what I’m sayin’?” Yes, we’ll be there with our horns and our drums, just as Bunchy would have been there for any of us. That’s the New Orleans way.
Rest in peace, Bunchy.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Friday, March 5, 2010
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
One thing that seems all-too familiar to this returning native is Louisiana’s celebrated penchant for political corruption. This part of the local culture has long roots. Huey Long famously boasted that he had “the best legislature money can buy.” His brother Earl once said that “the governor of Louisiana doesn’t have to steal money. As soon as he’s elected, a million dollars is going to fall into his pocket all by itself.” From the Longs to our jailbird ex-governor Edwin Edwards, to the current crop of pilfering politicians—Oliver Thomas, William Jefferson, among others—our state has produced an unbroken string of ethically challenged public servants.
Is this unique to Louisiana? Certainly not. Lord Acton’s famous “power corrupts” aphorism sadly applies to the entire human race. My experience as a journalist in France for 10 years bears that out. When it comes to corruption, French politicians can make our boys look like amateurs. None of this penny-ante $20,000 under the table and $90,000 in the deepfreeze stuff. The French play for higher stakes--and at the highest levels of power.
Here are just a few cases I covered as a Paris-based correspondent for TIME Magazine:
•Former Communication Minister Alain Carrignon was sentenced in 1996 to five years in prison for pocketing nearly $3 million in bribes and kickbacks while serving as Mayor of Grenoble--then tampering with trial witnesses for good measure.
•Former Interior Minister and Senator Charles Pasqua was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in a $790 million black market arms sale to Angola. He was earlier indicted (but not convicted) for illegally trafficking in Iraqi oil during the Saddam Hussein regime.
•Roland Dumas, the wavy-haired, silver-tongued ex-Defense Minister, was accused of setting up his mistress with a cushy job at a state-owned oil company, then sharing in the multi-million dollar kickback she got for lobbying his own ministry to okay a controversial $2.8 billion warship sale to Taiwan. (She spent five months in prison over the caper; Dumas himself was acquitted but forced to resign from his seat on France’s highest court.)
•In 2004, Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé was convicted for his role in an illegal party-financing operation while serving as an aide to then Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. His 18-month suspended sentence sidelined him from electoral politics and paved the way for his rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, to win the presidency in May 2007.
•Finally, there is the case of former President Jacques Chirac. Forget about the accusations that he used government employees to maintain and staff his private country home, the Château de Bity, or that he and his family enjoyed thousands of dollars’ worth of free vacation flights on a private airline owned by a friend. No, the real rap on Chirac is that, as Mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, he allegedly oversaw an elaborate scheme of public works kickbacks and fictitious city jobs that poured millions of dollars into the coffers of his Gaullist party, and ultimately helped finance his run for the presidency in 1995. Though Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution while president, his lawyers have been working overtime ever since he left office in May 2007. In December 2009, he was formally indicted for his role in the false jobs scheme. It is possible—though unlikely--that the former President could go to jail over the affair.
So the next time we are tempted to tout the historic bonds between Louisiana and France, let’s not forget the bail bonds.
© 2010 by Thomas A. Sancton