This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Monday, February 22, 2010


I had lunch at Mandina's today with Dr. Michael White, my fellow clarinet player and longtime friend. Michael and I have a lot in common: we both admire the playing of the late great George Lewis, we both try to keep the flame of real New Orleans traditional jazz burning, and we both teach in local universities--Michael at Xavier and myself at Tulane.
Over turtle soup and fried oysters (is this a great city or what?), we talked about the kinds of things clarinet players talk about when they get together--reeds, mouthpieces, records, other clarinet players--and about the future of traditional jazz. We're both somewhat pessimistic, since the younger generation of musicians seems uninterested in examining the roots of this city's musical culture. Michael said something I've thought for a long time, and that is that this musical tradition is like a language that is on the verge of extinction--like some Indian language in Brazil, or a patois in Africa.
We learned it from the survivors of the first generations of jazzmen in this city. They're all dead now, and we are the keepers of their stylistic "language." But if the young musicians aren't interested in learning it--like the younger people learned the classic books from their elders in "Farenheit 451"--the language will die. On the other hand, there is a lot of music in this city, a lot of work for musicians, hordes of tourists and locals who want to hear it, so some kind of New Orleans jazz will continue. It won't be the same thing we heard from George Lewis and Kid Thomas and Sweet Emma nearly half a century ago, but hopefully something of their spirit will survive. In any case, Michael and I will keep playing it as long as we've got breath.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


In part two, I reflect on certain acoustical phenomena that assaulted me upon my return to New Orleans in 2007 after long years in France:

I was reassured to find that New Orleans restaurants, from the upscale to the funky, remain some of our proudest cultural jewels. The grand old dowagers like Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, were exactly as I remembered—and rightly so. Only a fool would change a winning game. The real excitement was discovering the hot new places that blend high-end creativity with local products and tradition—Upperline, Herbsaint, Lüke, One, Cochon. Another surprise was finding down-home neighborhood joints like Mandina’s and College Inn all gussied up and gentrified—with pricier menus and waiting lines out the door. Who would have ever believed you could break $100 on dinner for two at College Inn? Last time I ate there, in high school, you could get a whole oyster loaf for a buck.

The really surprising thing is the noise level of many local restaurants, some of which sound like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier as soon as you walk in the door. Partly this is due to the acoustic properties of hard surfaces—tile floors, bare walls, curtainless windows—that are typical of many restaurants here. But the main problem is the prodigious lung power of the diners themselves. People in New Orleans restaurants don’t converse; they shout at one another across the table, often punctuating their babel with loud claps and explosive laughter that seems to rise in volume in proportion to the alcohol consumed.

Can their exchanges really be that funny? Is everyone at the table a Jerry Seinfeld or a Jon Stewart? The French can be loud, too, especially when they’re travelling in other countries and want the natives to know that they are French (as if they could possibly be anything else). But the high-decibel talking and laughing I hear in local restaurants are different. It’s not just the volume that seems strange, it’s the ritual of it. It seems to be obligatory table behavior, like picking up kebabs with your right hand and burping after meals in Arab countries, or sopping up the sauce with your bread in France so the hostess will know you savored it down to the last molecule.

If you’re not loud in a New Orleans restaurant, apparently, people will think you’re not having a good time and everyone will go home depressed. But for this returning native, whose ears are battered from years of playing in jazz bands with overexuberant drummers, all this conversational cacophony can border on the physically painful. You might say that’s just my generation talking. But I remember rock musicians in the 1960s shouting from the stage: “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Guess what? Most of those rockers are deaf today. Or dead of drug overdoses.

Speaking of painful noises, what on earth has happened to the voices of young women? I am astounded to hear the raspy, gutteral, iron-filing voices almost universally affected by American females these days. Most of girls I remember here, like the French women I have lived among, had melodious voices, feminine voices. The voices I hear today sound more like the gratings of rusty gate hinges. How did this happen? Obviously some misguided female somewhere—probably a California valley girl--started talking like that and other girls thought it was cool and copied it. Maybe the original raspy-voiced girl was a whiny country and western singer, or maybe she just had a sore throat or a tracheal disease. No matter: once it got picked up on television, the effect was multiplied and universal emulation was assured.

The vocal timbre is bad enough. The vocabulary it transmits is equally regrettable: “awesome” (a word once applied only to things like Grand Canyon and the Second Coming), “I’m like” (which has largely replaced the verb “to say”), and “you guys” (as in, “Hi, I’m Tiffany and I’m going to be waiting on you guys tonight.”) So strange!

© 2010 by Thomas A. Sancton

Friday, February 19, 2010


In August, 2007, I returned to New Orleans after living away for some 40 years. I spent most of that time in New York and Paris, where I was a writer and correspondent for TIME Magazine. Upon returning to my hometown, I jotted down some notes about my impressions of what I found here—some things familiar, some new, some strange. Some readers (if I have readers) may find these observations interesting, or at least amusing, so I offer them up here in periodic installments. This is Part 1:

One 19th century French traveler noted in his journal that Americans were remarkable for three things: their peculiar habit of drinking ice water with their meals, their tendency to put their boots up on any horizontal surface that presented itself, and an unfortunate propensity for “blowing their noses in public without the intervention of a handkerchief.”

When I read that account, some 30 years ago, the first two observations seemed accurate but unremarkable. Why shouldn’t we drink ice water and put our feet up if it made us feel better? The nose-blowing thing seemed a bit gauche, but I figured this traveler had probably hung around the wrong taverns and train stations.

But as the years passed, and I became more accustomed to the French culture, certain things about America that had always seemed perfectly normal to me began to seem strange. Ice water? The French don’t drink it because they think it interferes with digestion—and we all know how important digestion is to the French. Foot propping? They consider it the height of rudeness. The first time I did it on the Metro as a visiting student, I was almost put off the train. I eventually came to consider it rude myself, just as I learned to prefer wine to ice water at the dinner table, and to drink my coffee after my meal, not along with it as Americans tend to do.

Lest anyone accuse me of going native, I should point out that I continued to barbecue hamburgers, root for the Saints, make red beans and rice, and play New Orleans jazz all the years I lived in France. I remained a red-blooded American and proud of it. But the point is that when you have lived away long enough, like Halley’s comet, orbiting to the far end of the universe and back, things that once seemed familiar on the home planet can appear odd, even bizarre.

That is what I have experienced since returning to my home town of New Orleans. I am not exactly like Rip Van Winkle, who slept for 20 years and woke to find everything changed around him. Nor am I like some anthropologist who arrives from the outside to study some lost tribe of Brazilian Indians. I am more like a member of the tribe who traveled to other lands and learned other ways, then returned to look at his own people through different eyes.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

© 2010 by Thomas A. Sancton

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Just when I thought that Drew Brees's stature could not rise higher in this town, his performance as King of the Bacchus parade tonight, dressed in a gold tunic with a winglike gold crown, gave him the aura of a Greek God. Like Zeus raining thunderbolts down from Olympus, King Drew hurled plastic footballs into an adoring throng of mortals who gathered by tens of thousands to bask in his glory. Would Indianapolis have worshipped Peyton Manning as fervently if his Colts had won the Superbowl? Indianapolis? You gotta be kidding.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


So the New York Times informs us that a brilliant young German author, 17-year-old Helene Hegemann, is shooting to the top of the German bestseller list with a first novel that includes whole pages lifted, without attribution, from another book. Hegemann's literary pilfering, spotted by an alert blogger, drew criticism from the German media, but hasn't prevented young Helene's book from being nominated for a $20,000 literary prize and, if anything, has goosed her sales. Hegemann apologized (sort of) for not being more forthcoming about her "sources." But she claims her critics don't understand the culture of her generation, which was raised on sampling, mixing and matching, borrowing "inspiration" where they find it. As she sees it, "There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity."

It seems to me that fundamental requirement for any book's authenticity is that the person whose name appears on the cover actually wrote it--all of it. Maybe I'm being old school about this, but plagiarism is plagiarism. If any of my creative writing students at Tulane "mixed and matched" other people's work into their papers, I would give them an F and send them to the Dean for disciplinary action. Plagiarism is also against the law and punishable as a copyright violation. But as long as the book sells and this brazen wunderkind continues to collect literary prizes, no one seems to care much about things like honesty and integrity. As Bob Dole famously put it in his 1996 campaign against Bill Clinton: "Where's the outrage?"

[See the NYT article online:]

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


An astute reader asked if I saw any point of comparison between the euphoric reaction to the Saints' victory and the glow that followed France's World Cup victory in 1998.
In fact, as I watched the Saints' victory parade today, it reminded me of nothing more than the celebrations following the French world soccer championship in 1998. The effects in that case went far beyond the sports field. The World Cup victory was followed by a period of popular optimism and confidence (contrasting with the habitual morose, wining tendency of the French), economic improvement, enhanced prestige on the world stage, and even an easing of ethnic frictions as people saw what France's mixed-race ("black-blanc-beur") team had accomplished by working together. I would hope that some of these same benefits can flow from the Saints' victory.
But the French example is not so positive in the medium-term: as the World Cup glow wore off, the economy soured again, political infighting between a conservative president and a Socialist prime minister threatened to gridlock the government, and racial tensions rose to the point where the anti-immigrant National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came in second to the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, in the 2002 Presidential election. Oh, and France was eliminated from the 2002 World Cup after failing to score a single goal in four games. So let's hope that New Orleans enjoys something akin to the first phase of French's World Cup glow, without suffering from the hangover that followed.

Monday, February 8, 2010


No New Orleanian could remain indifferent to the Saints' stunning triumph in the Superbowl. In my case, it feels like a kind of welcome home present to someone who moved away in 1967, the first year of the Saints' franchise, and returned to live here 40 years later. I spent most of that time in New York and Paris, and missed (perhaps mercifully) the bag years and the jokes about the 'Aints. But I could follow enough of it in the papers to know that the Saints were struggling through most of those four decades. I moved back in the wake of Katrina to find a city still reeling from the effects of the storm, badly in need of heroes, and dreams and renewal. New Orleans has shown surprising signs of revitalization in the two years since my return, but nothing has done more to restore the city's pride and confidence than the Saints' triumphant 2009 season and Superbowl victory. Coming on the heels of Mitch Landrieu's landslide victory in the mayoral election, which heralds a new start in city government, the Saints' championship brings hope that New Orleans come together and build a better future. That's something worth cheering for.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu scored a stunning first-round landslide to become the first white mayor of New Orleans since 1978. Wheras his predecessor, C. Ray Nagin, had shamelessly played the race card four years earlier, proclaiming that God intended New Orleans to remain a “chocolate city,” race played no part in Landrieu’s campaign. Nor did race, this time, determine the choice of the city’s African-American majority, which spurned the two main black candidates and gave some 58% of its vote to Landrieu. Crossover voting by the city’s two-thirds black majority largely accounted for Landrieu’s wide margin of victory, But in fact, he was the choice of every demographic group, won all but one of the city's 366 precincts, and took 66% of the overall vote.

How can we explain such a juggernaut performance by a man whose earlier campaigns had ended in failure? Maybe, like the Saints, his time had simply come. But it’s more than that. Like Barack Obama in 2008, Landrieu became the lightning rod for all those who desired change after a disappointing administration. Landrieu’s image also benefited from his long experience in government, a reputation for competence, solid connections in Washington, and name recognition—his father, Moon Landrieu was a popular mayor in the 1970s, and his sister Mary is a Democratic Senator.

Landrieu’s sweeping victory, in itself a symbol of unity, gives him a chance to pull the city together and take on the huge challenges it faces in this recessionary, post-Katrina environment: crime, education, rebuilding , jobs, and corruption. But his victory, for all the hopes it engenders, will mean little if he cannot make progress on all those fronts. As Obama could tell him after his tumultuous first year, the people who elect you expect results. They will be watching from day one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

GEAUX SAINTS: a spellcheck

GEAUX SAINTS! This exuberant cheer is scrawled on car windows, emblazoned on T-shirts, and immortalized on bumper stickers all over this part of the country. I enthusiastically endorse the sentiment. But I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to the French language, having spent more than 20 years living in France and trying to speak it properly (even though any Senegalese cab driver in Paris will know immediately that I'm an "étranger" as soon as I blurt out the address I want to go to). Anyway, with the passionate conviction of the convert, I am particularly sensitive to those who massacre French--even though they don't care what I think and continue blithely to mispronounce and misspell mainly to irk people like me.
A few examples:

--GEAUX SAINTS! Any French person will pronounce this phonetically as "Zho-Saints." The "e" turns the "g" soft in French. So if you want a hard g, as in "GO," you have to get rid of the e: "GAUX SAINTS!" (But I don't think anyone is going to put a Sharpie to their bumper sticker and strike out the e just because I say so.)

--Fleur de Lis. People here pronounce that "flure duh lee,"' on the assumption that the French never bother to pronounce final consonants. That's generally true. However, out of sheer cussedness, the French make an exception for the occasional final consonant, and "lis" is one of them. French pronunciation: "Fleur de Lisss." I persist in pronouncing it that way, even though I get pitying looks from the locals who assume I haven't lived in this former French colony long enough to learn proper French pronunciation.

--"Laissez le bon temps roulez," and variants, like "roulé". First off, this literal translation of an idiomatic English expression is laughably meaningless to a French speaker. Second, if you must use it (and in these parts, we must), at least spell it right. It should be "rouler" (infinitive) and not "roulez" (second person plural). But these subtleties are of no consequence to New Orleanians (or their Cajun cousins to the southwest) and I don't expect to see a sign painter correcting the moniker of the "Bon Temps Roulé" cafe a block from my house any time soon.

--Then there are those who think that by adding a nifty-looking accent to their names, they will give themselves a certain continental je ne sais quoi and perhaps even get invited to the Bastille Day (quatorze juillet) reception at the French consulate. Example: the grocery chain "Robért." Robert happens to be a common French name, used both as a surname and a family name. It is never written with an accent. The gratuitous addition of an accent over the e immediately signals to a French speaker that this "Robért" person is an illiterate or an imposter or both. Then there was the case of the late Congressman F. Edward Hébert, who insisted, because it looked cooler to him, that the accent in "Hébert" was grave (è) instead of acute (é). That was orthographically and phonetically incorrect. But whenever anyone pointed that out to him, he said it was his name and he could write it any way he damn pleased.

Maybe that's the bottom line (la ligne la plus basse): this is our city, our cultural heritage, and we can write and pronounce it the way we want no matter what the Académie Française thinks about it. (Frankly, they don't think about it much.) Fair enough. After all, the French have been massacring English words ever since 1066. In France today, "sweat shirt" comes out "sweet shirt" and "Levis" become ""Loo-wees." And so on...The battle is hopeless on both fronts, so probably the wisest course is to go with the flow (aller dans le sense du courant).

So...GEAUX SAINTS! And after we smash the Colts (écraser les Poulains), we'll all let "le bon temps" do its thing! WHO DAT, Y'ALL! (untranslatable)