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.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


After three years of litigation that dominated French headlines and shook the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, have agreed to bury the hatchet.

In a move apparently intended to consolidate the family’s control over L’Oréal, the world’s leading cosmetics conglomerate, the two women announced via a joint communiqué on Monday that they were dropping the suits and countersuits that had divided them since December 2007.

[Read my complete article on the Vanity Fair website:]

Saturday, November 20, 2010


The Open House at Sylvaine's studio in the Bywater last night was sparsely attended but a lot of fun. Visitors seemed most interested in the 8-foot pecan log (a victim of Katrina) that she is sculpting into a kind of wavy obelisk with hammer and chisel, covering the floor with wood chips that would make great kindling if we only had a fireplace. We also offered some music along with the wine and cheese crackers, as Seva Venet joined me on guitar for a little jam session in the corner.
Check Sylvaine's website:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Remembering Walter Payton, 1942 - 2010

Walter Payton, a great jazz bassist and educator, died Thursday at the age of 68. He was a longtime regular with the Preservation Hall touring band, and a genial music professor who taught generations of students in the New Orleans public schools.
I have known Walter since he first appeared in Preservation Hall one night in 1965, a soft-spoken 23-year-old among all the "old men" who then played at that historic jazz venue. The regulars around the Hall looked on him as the "young hope"—the first young musician from the local black community to take up the flambeau of traditional jazz. Four decades later, he wound up, with his twinkling eyes and gray beard, the very emblem of the "grand old man" of New Orleans jazz. I heard Walter play many times, and was fortunate enough to play with him on several occasions. I was always struck by his mastery of the instrument and his ability to drive a band. I also enjoyed his warm personality and humor. But my friend Ben Jaffe, Walter's ex-pupil, who currently runs Preservation Hall, knew him far better than I, and recounted his thoughts about him in a recent email. With Ben's permission, I reproduce his moving tribute here:

Walt's been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I started studying music with him at Mcdonogh 15 when I was in pre-school. I wasn't supposed to be in band, but Walt knew my dad and he let me hang around. I went on to study
upright bass with Walt. He lived on St. Phillip Street at the time in Big Jim Robinson's old house right off Rampart Street across from the park. I would carry my bass over to his house every Saturday morning. I didn't look forward to those lessons. He was hard on me. Extremely strict. He pushed me harder than any other teacher I've ever had. We would sit for hours playing scales up and down, a cigarette dangling from his lips. His salt and pepper beard. His rock solid build. His stare...His playfulness...
Walt was a great athlete. He studied karate for years. He became a black belt. He was proud of karate and applied many of the lessons to life and music. I remember him staying up late at night, after our shows, practicing for hours. He made a bet one night that he could kick the sign hanging outside...
The other party eventually backed down. I don't know if it was because the wage was too high or they actually thought he could do it! There was no doubt in my mind he could.....
Walt could be intimidating. One minute ice cold and soft as a kitten the next. He was solid as a brick wall which could be deceiving since he had the temperament of an artist. He was often misunderstood. He could stop you mid stride with his glare. In grammar school, I saw him peg a kid once with an eraser from 30 feet away without even looking! I would not want to ever be on Walt's bad side.
He was an exceptional musician. He took music seriously. Few people know he was the bass player on "Working In A Coal Mine"...He taught me to respect and study the fundamentals of music. He imparted the importance of practice and hard work. Walt taught school in New Orleans for decades. A mighty achievement. Hundreds, thousands, of students passed through his classrooms. Walt battled his own demons up until his transition. It was difficult to watch, knowing he didn't have the will to fight anymore. Katrina left an open scar on his soul. It was hard to stay upset at Walt for long. Walt had lots of sides, as we all do. Some good, some regrettable but mostly lovable. He had the most gentlest of hearts and at the same time could be hard as nails. He left behind a great legacy. His son Nicholas is one of the finest, talented musicians I've ever known.I don't know a world without Walt. I miss his chuckle dearly.

See also Keith Spera's obituary of Payton in the Times-Picayune:

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Anyone who has been following this blog since last summer may have wondered why it suddenly went silent in July and August. (Probably nobody noticed or wondered anything at all, but just in case...) The reason is that my June 27 post on France's Bettencourt scandal attracted the attention of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who asked me to do a full-blown piece on this juicy saga for his magazine. Though I had expected to spend the summer luxuriating in France, eating exotic food and pecking away at a new novel in my spare time, I eagerly accepted Graydon's offer. Abandoning my beloved chaise longue, I launched into ten-hour days of reading press clippings, pumping the Internet, tracking down sources and doing interviews over steaming expressos and, I confess, the occasional gourmet meal in a Parisian restaurant. The reporting and writing job devoured my whole summer, but now that it's out in Vanity Fair's November issue, as Edith Piaff sang, "Je ne regrette rien." It's an intriguing tale about an 88-year-old hieress who gave more than a billion dollars (that's nine zeros) to her fawning dandy friend, photographer/artist François-Marie Banier, and nearly brought down the French government in the process. Check it out:

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Sorry about the late notice, fans (fans? Do I have fans?), but my quintet is playing at Trinity Church this Sunday 9/26 at 5 p.m., as part of the Trinity Artists Series. The group features Seva Venet on guitar, Nobu Ozaki on bass, Lars Edegran on piano and myself on clarinet (see photo). We'll be joined by the delightfully exuberant trombonost Ronell Johnson (see my earlier post: for a program of Gospel music and New Orleans Jazz standards. Trinity Episcopal Church, 1329 Jackson Avenue, New Orleans 70130, (504) 522-0276.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Branford Marsalis brought his soprano around to my gig with Lars Edegran's band at Preservation Hall last night and we had a ball. Branford is in town for the Katrina anniversary (he played in a commemorative second line yesterday--see photo). His little brother Jason was playing drums with us and Branford came to cheer him on. During the last set, we asked Branford to sit in, which he graciously agreed to do. I was curious to see what he would do in a traditional setting, since he is known mainly as a modern player and rates with the best of them. From the first bar of the first tune, "Up a Lazy River," I realized two things: 1) Branford has listened to an awful lot of "old time stuff," and 2) he plays with the kind of drive and passion that only emerge when your heart is in the music. On every tune we played, including Dixieland workhorses like "Tiger Rag" and down-and-dirty blues like "Saint James Infirmary," Branford brought something fresh and exciting to his solos. We all know he is a world-class technician on the saxophone, but what I learned to my delight was that he has a sound and playing style that are deeply rooted in the tradition and show, in particular, that he has listened to a lot of old school reedmen like Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard and Johnny Dodds. A lot of younger jazz musicians (and I still count Branford as young at age 50) scorn the jazz pioneers as being primitive, corny and irrelevant to where the music is going today. Branford—who can paddle most of their behinds in any style—disagrees. "That's where it all comes from," he told me after the session, "all of it." I hugged him and thanked him for caring enough about the jazz tradition of this city to learn from the old masters and spread their message. I could say the same about his little brother Jason, for my money the best young drummer in the world [sic]. Jason can play his butt off with all the modern guys, but when he's playing with us at the Hall, I'm hearing Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton and Minor Hall...and Jason Marsalis. What a kick!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Just back from my summer in France, I went to my favorite movie house, the Prytania, and saw "Eat, Pray, Love" just because that's what was showing. I knew something was wrong when I entered the packed theater and counted five males among a bevy of ladies of all ages (including a 97-year-old friend of my late mother). Uh-oh, I thought, chick flick. How right I was. The excruciatingly long film (almost three hours--rivaling "Gone With The Wind") consisted mainly of close-ups of Julia Roberts' grotesque mouth eating pasta and talking, talking, talking. This flick had more talk than a French art film—with none of the intellectual depth. Also no plot, no character development, no action, no climax, just sugary postcard-style images of Bali and gobbledygook aphorisms about meditation and the meaning of life that would be embarrassingly trite on a bumper sticker. ("If you want to get to the Castle, you have to cross the moat.") Gets my nomination for Worst Screenply, Worst Actress, Worst Direction and Worst Three Hours Spent in a Dark Room.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Okay, jazz fans, I know you think I’ve abandoned you in favor of French political scandals and Parisian food—both of which, you must admit, are titillating. But don’t despair: I remain a jazzman at heart so here is an update on my musical acivities:

Last Friday, I flew down to the southwestern city of Pau to play a concert with some French musicians (and my New Orleans buddy Tom Saunders on bass). It was supposed to be an outdoor event in the garden of a local chateau, followed by an open-air projection of the film “West Side Story.” But the forecast called for heavy showers—being at the foot of the Pyrenees, Pau often has extreme weather—so it was moved to an inside auditorium on the outskirts of town. Apparently a lot of people didn’t get word of the venue change, and a lot of soccer fans were doubtless glued to their TV screens by a World Cup match. So we wound up playing for only a hundred people or so. But the crowd, such as it was, was enthusiastic, clapped along, and even demanded un bis (which, believe it or not, is French for "encore").

The best thing about the experience was the chance to get together with some of my old French jazz buddies. Two of them, drummer Michel Senamaud and pianist Pierre Jean, were members of the “Haricots Rouges” (Red Beans) when they came to New Orleans for Jazzfest in 1971. I met them on that occasion, at a mammoth jam session at a place called Bonaparte’s Retreat on Decatur Street. I was impressed with their swing and energy and naturally found them exotic because they spoke French. I told them I was headed to Oxford in the Fall and they promised to invite me to play with them in Paris. I thought they’d forget, but a I got a letter from clarinetist Gérard Tarquin (since retired) in October asking me to come play at an all night concert in Paris—Le Jazz Band Ball. So I took a ferry over and saw Paris for the first time on a foggy autumn evening. The music was great—there were at least ten bands—and the red wine and calvados flowed. It was the very next morning that I met my future (and present) wife Sylvaine in the street while playing with the Haricots Rougues at a ribbon cutting for a new supermarket. She lived in the neighborhood and had come down to buy croissants for her breakfast. It was love at first sight.

Later, when I lived in France, I often played with Michel and Pierre and other French musicians that I met on that occasion. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been friends now for nearly four decades. The good news is that we’ve all gotten better over the years. Michel is one of the best, perhaps THE best New Orleans-style drummer in Europe. And Pierre Jean, who also plays trumpet, is a first-rate pianist and bon vivant.

After he left the Haricots Rouges in the 70s, Pierre got a job organizing events for the Mayor of Cannes. When I returned as Time Paris Bureau Chief in 1992, he invited me, along with the Haricots and a bunch of other French musicians, to take part in the Cannes Jazz Festival. I went down there with Sylvaine and my son Juilan (then about 12) and we had a ball. They put us up in one of the top hotels—the Martinez—and wined and dined us as if we were stars. Of course the real stars at that festival were people like Ray Charles. We were just window dressing.

Pierre invited us back the next year and I was starting to think I was onto a good thing. But all good things must part, as the old New Orleans drummer Sammy Penn used to say: Pierre’s boss, Mayor Michel Mouillot, was jailed for corruption and that was then end of the festival. And Pierre’s job. He since moved back to Paris and rejoined the Haricots Rouges.

Monday, July 5, 2010


French President Nicolas Sarkozy is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Under pressure to dismiss Labor Minister Eric Woerth, who is ensnared in a double conflict of interest (see following post), Sarkozy yesterday threw some ballast overboard by firing two second-echelon cabinet members: Secretary for Cooperation Alain Joyandet and Secretary for the Paris Region Christian Blanc.
Both men had sinned by wasting taxpayer money at a time when the government is calling for austerity and belt tightening. Joyandet had hired a private jet to attend a conference in Haiti at a cost of some $150,000, while Blanc spent $15,000 of state money on Havana cigars. Revelations about the two men's profligate ways caused a public furor and led Sarkozy to announce a draconian slash in his cabinet members' perks and operating budgets. (The austerity apparently does not apply to Sarkozy himself, who has seen his own salary increase by 150% and has recently ordered a brand new presidential plane to compete with Air Force One. Price: more than $200 million.)
Sarkozy (current approval rating: around 30%) is gambling that the dismissals and cutbacks will deflate public indignation and political opposition over the Woerth-Bettencourt scandal (see blow). But in a week in which it was revealed that Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, received a $40 million tax rebate while Woerth was Budget Minister, it seems doubtful that Sarkozy's gambit will work.
Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Imagine that an important U.S. cabinet member is also the treasurer and chief fund raiser for the Republican Party. Now imagine that this same pubic servant has a wife who is a financial advisor for a firm that manages the fortune of the wealthiest woman in America. Now imagine that this wealthy woman's butler secretly records telephone conservations between her and her financial advisers indicating that they are involved in massive tax evasion, and that she is discovered to have $100 million stashed away in tax-sheltered Swiss banks accounts. Finally, imagine that this same cabinet member is the key player in pushing through a controversial pension reform that will require his countrymen to tighten their belts and work two years longer before they can retire. How long after these revelations would an American President allow this cabinet member to keep his job? My guess: 24 hours.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, faced with precisely this situation, declares that he retains "total and complete" confidence in his embattled Labor Minister, Eric Woerth. Though no one has proved that the Minister or his wife have broken any laws, the strong presumption of conflict of interest, and possible wrongdoing, might preclude a more cautious President from expressing such unconditional loyalty. (Remember how quickly Obama dropped Sen. Tom Daschle as his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2008 when questions emerged about Daschle's underpaid taxes.)
Here are the facts in the French case:
Woerth's wife, Florence, works for the management company that handles the finances of Liliane Bettencourt, 87, heiress to the l'Oréal fortune. Now Florence Woerth's boss, Patrice de Maistre, is a friend of Eric Woerth (who decorated him with the Legion of Honor last year). De Maistre is just one of Woerth's many friends among the mandarins of France's financial, industrial, and business elite. These contacts are quite useful to Woerth when he dons his fundraising hat as treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party. Sound complicated? Perhaps a little. Does it raise ethical questions? Big time.
I'd like to think that such a situation in the U.S. would lead to a prompt dismissal or resignation once the facts were revealed. But maybe I'm wrong. Remember Dick Cheney hunting with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, or his inviting the top honchos of the oil industry to help make U.S. energy policy (while refusing to reveal their names), or his ties to Haliburton at a time when that company was getting major no-bid contracts in Iraq—or, for that matter, Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Mark Rich. The memory of such shameful episodes makes me reluctant to point my finger at the French. So I'll point it instead to all those public servants who cozy up to wealth and power and show contempt for the interest and opinions of the people they govern. J'accuse!

Friday, June 25, 2010


In these latitudes, June 21 is the longest day of the year. In France, it also marks the annual Fête de la Musique, when musical groups ranging from amateur guitar strummers to whole symphony orchestras and brass bands play all over town well into the wee hours of the morning. So my wife Sylvaine and I took the train from our suburb into Paris hoping to enjoy the festival, but most of what we heard was abominable.

Apparently it’s far cheaper for a restaurant or café to hire one D.J. with a trunkfull of electronic equipment than it is to hire a group of real musicians. So we were assailed with ear-splitting “techno,” an electronically produced cacophony based on breaking sound up into stroboscopic fragments, setting it to a machine-generated beat, then cranking it up as loud as possible. This is the kind of music kids dance to in discotheques while grooving on ecstasy. Admittedly, I have never done this—my generation just smoked grass and danced to the Rolling Stones—so perhaps I am clueless as to the real charm of techno. I get the impression it’s pretty much dépassé elsewhere, but the French are still into it and think it’s cool (they also think Jerry Lewis is cool). Last year, we heard Pierre Boulez direct the Orchestre National de Paris in a superb concert of Stravinsky under the Pyramid of the Louvre. The contrast between that and the techno D.J.’s was a striking comment on the decline of Western civilization. On the other hand, maybe we could have looked harder for some decent music.

Instead, we decided to have dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, the Epi d’Or, near the Louvre. Our links to the Epi d’Or go back to the mid -70s. Sylvaine used to go there when she worked on costumes and accessories at the Comédie Française theater, which is just a few blocks away. She and her fellow decorators would go there to celebrate after finishing their work on a new play. Sylvaine thought the place was wonderful and took me back there some time later.

And it was wonderful. L’Epi d’Or (“the golden shaft of wheat”) is one of the dozens of restaurants that surrounded the old central market, Les Halles. Since the Middle Ages, Les Halles had been the place where Parisian butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers procured their wares. Trucks would come there from all over Europe, and their drivers would wait while workers emptied their cargo and supervisors filled out the paperwork. To kill time, the drivers would hang out in local bars, visit the prostitutes that frequented the area (cf. the film “Irma La Douce”) or eat hearty meals in the late-night restaurants that surrounded the Halles pavilions, joining wholesalers, vendors, buyers and ordinary Parisians seeking out some colorful nightlife. L’Epi d’Or was one of these restaurants. Les Halles was closed down in the 1970s on orders of President Pompidou, who decided that having the wholesale food market in the middle of Paris caused too much traffic congestion. So the beautiful wrought iron and glass pavilions were demolished, the market activities were moved to the distant suburbs, and the empty space was turned into a garish underground shopping mall that is now a center for drug dealers and pickpockets.

The good news is that many of the traditional restaurants have remained, including l’Epi d’Or. When I first went there, the tile floors were covered with sawdust to soak up the blood dripping from the butchers’ smocks and the ashes from the vendors’ cigars and cigarettes. The waiters sported leather aprons, traditionally worn by workers in the meat market to prevent them from cutting out their own entrails, or worse, while wielding their razor sharp knives. The sawdust and leather aprons are gone now, but otherwise the place looks exactly as it did in the 1970s, and probably the 1870s for that matter.

The walls are covered with a dusty ocher fabric, many times painted over. The ceiling is the same dark mustard color, with a patina of smoke and a spattering of dark brown spots —perhaps the result of an exploding wine bottle a century or so ago. The spots were there the first time I ever entered the place and successive owners have had the good sense not to clean them off. They are part of the history of the restaurant, of Les Halles, of Paris. On the walls hang small paintings of rustic scenes, wheat fields, windmills. There are also some ancient wooden implements associated with wheat farming—a hand-carved pitchfork and a winnowing fan. On the left, on entering the room, there is a long zinc-covered bar. There are half dozen tables with starched white tablecloths and leather-cushioned benches along the walls. Another room in the back has four tables.

We were greeted by our usual waiter, Dominique, clad in the traditional style: black pants, white shirt with a black bow tie and a white apron. That used to be what waiters wore in every café and restaurant in Paris. Today, you see waiters (and waitresses) dressed in everything from trendy black shirts to polo shirts and even T-shirts. Not Dominique; he’s old-style. We have known him for about 20 years, but he never seems to age. In fact, his hair has become noticeably darker, going from brown in the old days to coal black today. Dominique, not at all surprised to see us after a year’s abence, gave us a choice table near the bar though we had no reservation. A few minutes later a couple without a reservation was turned away, so we felt privileged. (Maybe we were just lucky.)

The menu is traditional Paris bistro fare—the sort of hearty stuff that nourished the truckers and all-night Halles workers in the past. We started with a lobster salad (Sylvaine) and sautéed duck livers (me). The lobster salad consisted of one whole lobster tail on a bed of lettuce. This is not the oversized, butter-dripping Maine lobster we’re used to, but a smaller species, homard, that has a more delicate taste and consistency. My duck livers were just lightly sautéed with some balsamic vinegar. They were so soft and tender I could cut them with a fork and they almost melted in my mouth.

Surprisingly, considering all the bread we ate to soak up our sauce (considered de rigueur in France, not at all bad manners), we were still quite hungry when the main dishes arrived. Sylvaine had a navarin d’agneau, a slow-cooked shank of lamb, with green beans; I had a grilled barbue, a flat fish resembling a flounder but thicker and, to my mind, tastier. For dessert, Sylvaine had a clafoutis, a sort of flan with cherries, and I had a tarte tatin, an upside-down apple pie served warm with fresh cream. We topped it all off with a couple of expressos. By this time it was 11:20 pm, but the place was still full and more late night revelers were coming in the door. (We have trouble finding a New Orleans restaurant that will serve us after 9:30.)

As much as we enjoyed the food—actually, in France you “savor” food—I think our greatest pleasure came from revisiting a familiar place with long roots in our memories and seeing that everything remained the same. It seems to be a sad rule of life that when you really become attached to a restaurant, you can be sure that sooner or later, some idiot will decide to redecorate it, or “update” the menu, or change the chef, or sell the place, or a hurricane will destroy it, and it will never be the same. I have seen this happen to dozens of restaurants all around the world. And it happened to l’Epi d’Or.

When we visited Paris in the early 80s, after moving to New York a few years earlier, we were shocked. There was a new proprietor, and though he had the good sense not to touch the décor, he totally changed the menu and the food was mediocre at best. We resolved never to go back there. But when we moved back in 1992—I was sent over to run Time Magazine’s Paris Bureau—we decided to give it another try. To our surprise and delight, a new couple had bought the place and restored the Epi d’Or to its former glory. They kept the old look, but revived the Halles-style menu (with a few innovations) and hired a chef who knew what he was doing. We rejoiced over the phoenix-like revival of l’Epi d’Or and have eaten there regularly ever since. A good meal there can make up for a lot of bad music.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The timing could hardly be worse for French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Only days after his government announced plans to make the French tighten their belts and work two years longer before qualifying for retirement pensions, the French satirical weekly Canard Enchaîné revealed that Christian Blanc, Under-Secretary for the Paris metropolitan area, had been caught spending 12,000 euros (about $15,000 a year) of taxpayer money on cigars! That news has not amused feisty French unions, who called for a crippling national strike today (June 24) to protest the pension reform.
Sarkozy's embarrassment over his underling's cigar binge compounds his—and the nation's—consternation over the disastrous performance of the French soccer squad at the World Cup in South Africa. The diminutive French president is so disturbed, in fact, that he has called for an emergency meeting with his Prime Minister and Minister of Health and Sports today to investigate the causes of the French rout and propose ways to improve the national team's performance. At least President Obama, who has a lot of other things to worry about, will not have to lose precious time trying to manage a national soccer crisis: the U.S. team qualified for the second round yesterday by uspsetting Algeria 1-0.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Finally soccer fans in Paris got something to cheer about! The only problem is that the jubilant crowds that thronged the streets of the French capital yesterday were Portuguese immigrants rejoicing over their team's 7-0 trouncing of North Korea. (Take that Kim Jong-Il! Apparently it's easier to sink a boat than to score a goal.)
As for French fans, they were only slightly less humiliated than the North Koreans, after South Africa's 2-1 victory over the "bleus" eliminated the 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up from the competition. Not only did the French squad play lackluster soccer (one goal scored in three matches); they managed to cover themselves in ridicule with a scandale that started with some salty locker room epithets from striker Nicolas Anelka and ended with the entire team going on strike to protest Anelka's expulsion by trainer Raymond Domenech. Leave it to the French to reinforce their own national stereotype with a fingerpointing labor dispute in the full glare of the international spotlight. (For the whole pathetic story, related with humor and attitude by my son Julian in Vanity Fair, check this link:
Julian and I are thinking of handing out tricolor paper bags to put over theFrench fans' heads, thus reviving a practice from the bad old days when the New Orleans Saints were the laughingstock of the National Football League. Courage, les bleus! Those same Saints came back to win the superbowl—but it took them 43 years. Oh, and they never went on strike.

Friday, June 18, 2010


No more New Orleans gig lists for the summer, jazz fans—my wife Sylvaine and I have returned to our “other” home, in Saint Germain-en-Laye, France, where we will stay until mid-August dodging the New Orleans heat and gorging on French food.

We wasted no time on that front. Our first night back, Wednesday, June 16, we went to one of our favorite restaurants, the Brasserie du Théâtre, which specializes in traditional “bistro” food and shellfish. Our first taste of English Channel oysters brought ears to our eyes. Tears, in my case, because it made me think about the plight of our Gulf oysters in the wake of BP’s catastrophic oil spill; in Sylvaine’s case, they were tears of pure joy on rediscovering her “home style” oysters. They were outstanding. These oysters are brinier than the Louisiana version, fleshier, with a cold, deep-sea taste that you never get in the warm, brackish waters of the Gulf. They have gray-green rims and are less opaque than Louisiana oysters. They are also calibrated for size and classified by place of origin, like wine vintages—Cancal oysters, St. Vaast, Quiberon, etc. Also classified by type of oyster—fine de Claire, Spéciale, belon, papillon. Sylvaine prefers the papillons (the word in French means butterfly), smallish deep-sea oysters that have a nutlike, almost sweet flavor under their tart, iodate brininess. I like the Spéciales, bigger, somewhat fatter. They are served very cold on beds of shaved ice , which may account to some extent for the firmness of the flesh. Another big difference: the shells are clean, not mucky, and people here put them to their lips and savor the juice after the oyster has been eaten. No one would think of putting ketchup and Tabasco on their oysters here. (Nor would they dream of frying them in batter.) They just squeeze a little lemon juice on them, or vinegar with finely-chopped shallots. I also add a little black pepper. No saltines or soda crackers here; the oysters are accompanied by thin-sliced brown bread and fresh butter.

Sylvaine somewhat chauvinistically refuses to acknowledge that “her” oysters and Gulf oysters belong to the same biological species. I disagree, attributing the differences to environmental factors like water temperature and salinity. The final products, and the manner of eating them, are very different. But I like both kinds for their respective merits. And while enjoying my Spéciales No. 3, I have a little aftertaste of sadness and something almost like guilt because my fellow Louisianans are deprived of their oysters and the culture that goes with them.

After my half-dozen oysters ($20 worth!), I relished a main dish that probably few New Orleanians would be tempted to try: a steak tartar,—ground beef (filet, not hamburger meat) with a raw egg yellow, finely chopped onions, capers, Tabasco and Worscester sauce (yes, the French do use Tabasco, but not on their oysters). The tartar was accompanied by French fries as only the French (okay, maybe the Belgians) can make them.

The Brasserie itself was a welcome and familiar sight. The interior is 1930’s style deco, with white tile floors, a long wooden bar, framed photos of old French movie stars—like Jean Gabin, Louis Jouvet, and Fernandel—on the walls. Apart from the décor, a huge contrast with most New Orleans restaurants is the low decibel-level of the conversations. Though the place was packed, people here speak more softly and discreetly, and the acoustics are more sound-absorbant, so that I can actually have a conversation with Sylvaine without cocking my hand to my ear or raising my voice to make myself heard. Most New Orleans restaurants (think Galatoire’s, Clancy’s) are as noisy as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, but no one seems to mind.

The Brasserie has an open terrace that looks out on the Chateau de Saint Germain, where Louis XIV was born. Next door is the church where James II of England is buried. Exiled in France after the English kicked him out during the Glorious Revolution, he lived the latter part of his life as Louis’ guest in the Chateau de Saint German. In fact, Louis turned the whole chateau over to James and his retenue, preferring to live at Versailles or the Chateau de Marly nearby. On warm evenings, you can dine on the terrace al fresco and contemplate all this history along with your oysters.

But these are not warm evenings: since our arrival, the temperatures have been in the low 60s or high 50s even though we are in the second half of June. The locals have complained of a rainy, cold spring and early summer, but Sylvaine and I welcomed the cool weather after the near 100-degree heat and tropical humidity we left behind in New Orleans. We are wearing sweaters these days and have the heat on at home. It will get warm eventually, perhaps even into the 90s. When that happens for any prolonged period in France, it’s a national emergency. Almost no one has air conditioning in their homes, and their bodies are not conditioned to sustained high temperatures. When France had two weeks of 95-degree weather in 2003, 15,000 people died!

We had great pleasure in rediscovering our favorite local café, the Café de l’Industrie, on the central market square. On days when there is no market (there are three per week), the tables are spread out over half the square, sheltered from the sun by maroon-colored parasols. A rival café on the other corner of the square puts gray parasols over its tables,; from a distance the scene looks almost like two rival armies lining up for battle, each flying its own colors. We were greeted by our favorite waiter, Franck, who acted as if he had seen us only yesterday instead of a year ago.

We were there at breakfast time, and ordered café crème (which is what the French actually café au lait) with fresh-baked croissants. No comparison with the doughy industrial croissants we get in New Orleans coffee houses: these are light and fluffy on the inside, browned and flaky on the outside, and not at all greasy.

After breakfast, since this was a market day, we did some open-air grocery shopping. The market consists of at least 50 covered stalls, selling everything from clothes and books to fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, fruits, cheese, milk and cream, olives and nuts, flowers. Most of the vendors keep up a steady chatter, talking to the customers, joking with one another, hawking their wares with rhythmic chants. Nothing is pre-packaged. You want cheese? Tell them how much you want and they’ll slice it right there and wrap it up in colored wax paper. Same with meat—beef, veal, lamb, pork, horse, rabbit, chicken, duck. All cut and prepared to order. Ditto the fish, gutted, cleaned and scaled before your eyes.

Sylvaine bought some veal, mushrooms, new potatoes, cheese and fresh cherries for dinner. The veal here is a light beige color, not red as one finds it in most American supermarkets. When Sylvaine told this to the butcher he scoffed. “Red veal? Ha! They’re no calves, they’re broutards.” He explained that French veal is made from calves that are still drinking their mothers’ milk. Once they start to eat grass—brouter in French—their flesh turns red and no longer has the same taste. When Sylvaine prepared dinner that night, veal with sautéed mushrooms, I had to admit that the aroma coming from the kitchen was different from when she cooks veal in New Orleans. It was delicious, of course, along with the tender new potatoes served with salted country butter, and topped off by three varieties of cheese with a crunchy baguette and fresh cherries. It made me glad to be back in France, where I have spent more than half my adult life. But, as I tell Sylvaine all the time, it is pointless to constantly compare New Orleans with France. In each culture, there are wonderful things that you don’t get in the other. I try to enjoy the moment, in the present tense, wherever I am. And even though I am indulging in shamefully hedonistic pleasures over here, I am missing the things I love about New Orleans.

One big disappointment since we got back was the pathetic performance of the French football (soccer) team against Mexico in the World Cup last night. The Mexicans beat them 2 – 0 and that score did not begin to reflect the lopsided quality of play.

The Mexicans dominated the French from the first minute. Now everyone here, wistfully remembering their heady 1998 World Cup victory, wants to guillotine coach, Raymond Domenech, on the Place de la Concorde. Our son Julian sent us an email from New York right after the match that read: “Les Francais puent!” (Literal translation; The French stink.) Let’s hope the Saints don’t plummet as dramatically from their Super Bowl heights.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Jason Berry wrote a nice review of our recent "Classic Jazz Trio" CD in the latest issue of New Orleans Magazine. He deftly intertwines the use of music and memory in the "Tremé" HBO series with our approach to celebrating the culture with two clarinets (me and Tom Fischer) and a guitar (John Rankin). I can't quibble with Jason's conclusion: "The Classic Jazz Trio is a gem. New Orleans-Style is a world of melody that makes people dance in a town where music is a continuing performance of memory."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Countering the mild pessimism at the end of my last post, I do think traditional jazz has a future in this town. The future lies in the hands of some talented younger musicians that I've enjoyed playing with recently. They don't play exactly in the traditional style as we learned it from the likes of George Lewis and Kid Thomas Valentine back in the 60s, but they play with an impressive energy, swing, and intelligence derived from solid musical training and a strong dose of natural musical talent. I am thinking in particular of trumpeter Leon "Kid Chocolate" Brown and trombonist Ronell "Cricket" Johnson.
I played with both of them last night at the Palm Court, along with pianist Lars Edegran, bassist Gerry Adams (84 years old), and drummer Karl Budo. It was an exceptional night.The house was packed—mostly with French and Turkish tour groups—and we got them standing and dancing in the aisles. But what was most remarkable to me was how well Leon and Ronell, who can play a variety of modern styles, blended in with the more traditional sound of the band.
Both young men, still in their early 30s, play with an infectious drive and enthusiasm that excite audiences (and their fellow musicians). Leon is quiter, more taciturn, somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis in his manner. Ronell is exuberant, laughing and grinning when he doesn't have the horn up against his chops, and playing with growly humor when he does. Both are excellent singers. And both can steam up the room with their hot horns—or cool it down on hymns and ballads, as Leon did last night on "Body and Soul" and Ronell on "Closer Walk with Thee." Another point in common: they both have phenomenal ears that allow them to instantly absorb the chords and melodies of tunes they've never heard before. I called some tune last night that Leon didn't know. "Play the first chorus," he said. "I want to learn it." He did. Ronell does the same.
While I've only played with Leon a couple of times, Ronell is a pretty regular bandsmate these days. He does a bunch of crowd-pleasing specialty numbers, probably the most popular of which is "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Walt Disney's "Pinochio." I usually introduce it by telling the audience this next tune is traditionally sung by a cricket, hence the nickname I have coined for Ronell.
So, yes, there is a future for traditional jazz in this town. It won't sound exactly like the old stuff, but it will swing, and move audiences, and celebrate the unique spirit of this town and its musical heritage. Welcome to the family, Leon and Ronell.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Played on the steamer "Natchez" last night with trumpeter Jamie Wight, pianist John Royen and drummer Cori Walters. With that big red paddle wheel churning the waters of the Mississippi just behind us, it was easy to imagine ourselves playing on the Streckfus Line boats between New Orleans and St. Louis with Louis Armstrong and Fate Marabale's Orchestra. We even attracted a few couples to the dance floor. Trouble is, all the heads were gray, white or blue. I fear for the future of traditional New Orleans music in the absence of young dancers, musicians and fans.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Had an interesting talk with Ellis Marsalis a couple of days ago. I was telling him how much I enjoyed playing with his son, drummer (and vibraphonist) Jason Marsalis. 
"The amazing thing about Jason,"  I said, "is not just that he's one of the world's top jazz drummers, but the fact that he can play the traditional New Orleans style as well as all the modern stuff."
"Yeah, well he's checked out all that stuff--the roots," said Ellis. "See, when I was coming up, I didn't have any exposure to the old stuff. Nobody in my family played music, so I didn't have anybody to point me to it. I came up playing bebop. It wasn't till I was much older that I started listening to the traditional guys. It was Danny Barker who started clueing me in on that."
Danny Barker, a New Orleans-born banjoist and guitarist, played most of his career with Cab Calloway and other New York-based groups. But when he came back home in the late 1960's, he became a vocal proselytizer for traditional jazz. He's the one who organized the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band and gave a lot of younger black musicians—including Wynton Marsalis, Leroy Jones, and Michael White—their first exposure to the music that was in fact their birthright.  I knew about Danny's mentoring role with the kids, but never imagined that he was also giving pointers to experienced jazzmen (albeit modern) like Ellis. 
Then Ellis told me something that really got my attention: he had started out on clarinet and actually took lessons with one of the funkiest, jazziest, swingingest old-style players in town—Willie Humphrey. Here's the story:
"I went to old Mr. Humphrey's house for my first lesson. He told me, 'Just play something, I want to hear what you can do.' I played a little, then he gave me a book. He said, 'You got to work on these exercises. I want you to learn all these scales and arpeggios and come back next week.' He only charged a dollar a lesson, but I didn't have any money on me so I asked if I could pay him the next week. He said okay."
"Did you learn the exercises?" I asked. 
Ellis chuckled under his gray, otter-like mustache. "Naw, man. I never went back there. And Willie never forgot. Years later, I mean decades later, I was playing at Crazy Shirley's on Bourbon and St. Peter. Willie used to walk by there on the way to Preservation Hall. One night he stuck his head in the door and shouted, 'Hey, kid! When you gonna pay me that dollar you owe me?"
It was a funny story, but it got me to wondering, quite seriously, what would have happened if young Ellis Marsalis had taken to the clarinet and continued his lessons with Willie Humphrey?  What if he had become an old-style clarinetist instead of taking up the piano and following the be-bop road? Would his musical sons—Wynton, Branford, and Jason—have cut their teeth on traditional jazz instead of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker? Would they be playing at Preservation Hall today instead of Lincoln Center? 

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Just finished teaching my last creative writing class for this semester. The subject was the Art of the Profile. My eight students were smart, eager, and a joy to work with. The most gratifying moment for me was when one of them, a precocious freshman in a class of upperclassmen, volunteered that "what's cool about this class is that everyone's writing improved." That's true. Some were quite talented to begin with, but they all wound up well ahead of where they started from. I'll miss them all.


Did a long interview with WIST host Errol Laborde last week. Subjects: the new edition of "Song For My Fathers," my memories of growing up in New Orleans and learning to play jazz, my musical and other pursuits since moving back here after 40 years, and some anecdotes about my years in Paris with TIME Magazine--including an amusing story about former French President Jacques Chirac's claim to have dined at Galatoire's with Cab Calloway in 1954, an improbable event in those Jim Crow days. (A backslapping hail-fellow-well-met, Chirac never let the strict truth get in the way of a good story.) Check it out.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Thanks to WWNO's Fred Kasten for a deft editing job of the long-winded interview I gave him a few days ago on the subject of my memoir Song For My Fathers, which comes out in paperback next week, updated with a substantial new epilogue. Fred turned a hour's worth of talk into a coherent 10-minute discussion of the book and its origins. If interested, you can hear his show on this NPR affiliate by following this link:

Saturday, March 27, 2010


We said farewell to drummer Bunchy Johnson this morning, New Orleans style. The place was Trinity Episcopal Church in Jackson Avenue--traditionally the church of the city's old-line, Garden District establishment. Having grown up in this church, I can safely say it has never seen a service quite like this one. The congregation—African-American in its majority, but including Bunchy's friends, admirers and fellow musicians across the board—was on its feet much of the time, clapping their hands, singing along with the hymns, and applauding the music provided by such local legends as Deacon John, Dave Bartholomew, the Dixie Cups and Joe Saulsbury, and Wendell Brunious.

Family members took turns reading some of Bunchy's favorite passages, a delegation from Saint Augustine High School, Bunchy's alma mater, shared some reminiscences of him and presented his family with a commemorative plaque. Trinity's assistant rector pronounced a heartfelt eulogy.

But the emotional highlight came when Bunchy's elderly father, Charles E. Johnson, Sr., stepped up to the pulpit in his black suit and yellow tie to thank the large crowd that had turned out to say farewell to Bunchy. "I can see my son looking down at us smiling," he said, "giving me that high-five, saying, 'Everything's goin' fine,' and I say, 'Son, back at you! Everything's going good.'" Johnson's voice trembled over the last words as he raised his hand in a high-five gesture, and the crowd burst into applause. Bunchy would have been proud of his dad. (A few months ago, he begged off a gig I offered him saying, "It's my dad's birthday, and I gotta be there for him. He's gettin' up there and I don't know how many more he's going to have." Thing is, none of us ever know.)

Once the flower-covered casket was carried down the steps and placed into the hearse, the Tremé brass band, dressed in their proud black uniforms, played "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," followed by "Just A Little While to Stay Here." The band marched ahead of the slowly advancing hearse for two blocks, until it turned on Prytania and headed on to the cemetery. Once the body was "cut loose," as we say here, the band played raucous versions of "Fly Away" and "The Saints." Here on the edge of the Garden District, the second line was not exactly the get-down crowd you get in the back-o-town neighborhoods, but three grand marshals in full regalia danced and writhed enough to get everybody's spirits moving.

Having just seen advance review DVDs of the first three episodes of the upcoming HBO series, "Tremé," I could not help thinking that this was the real thing that the TV version was mimicking in fictional form, down to and including the dirges performed by the Tremé Brass Band. The main difference was the ironic fact that Bunchy Johnson was playing in the brass band in the opening episode's funeral sequence. Today, Bunchy was in the casket.

This is for Bunchy:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


What a kick. This morning pianist Lars Edegran and myself were guests on Tom Morgan's traditional jazz show on WWOZ from 10:30 to 11:00. We talked a bit about how we got into the jazz business--Lars via Stockholm, Sweden, and myself via Preservation Hall in the 60s--and flagged some future events we will be taking part in. Among them, the Tennessee Williams Festival, during which we are putting on a presentation called "The Making of a Jazzman," featuing drummer Jason Marsalis, bassist Kerry Lewis and trombonist Ronell Johnson in addition to Lars and myself. That will take place on Sunday, March 28, 1 pm, at the Palm Court, 1206 Decatur. Also some Jazzfest appearances (I have two sets in Economy Hall on Friday, April 23).
The other big event I was happy to talk about is a stage show based on my memoir "Song For My Fathers," which is coming out in an updated, expanded paperback edition later this month. The show, directed by Ron Rona of Preservation Hall, will take place at Tulane's Dixon Hall on Monday, April 19, at 8 pm. Free and open to the public, it will feature yours truly and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in a multimedia presentation based on the book and the story it recounts about a young middle class white boy's apprenticeship with a group of aging black jazz musicians in the 60s. (For more info, see
But the part of the WWOZ show that I found most moving was the hymn we played for our fallen brother Bunchy Johnson, who passed away last Sunday. With Lars on piano and myself on clarinet, we played "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." Here it is:

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


I am a passionate clarinetist, but I have no illusions about being the greatest. There are thousands of clarinetists around the world who are better than me, and that's okay. But every once in a while, I hear a player who makes me want to give up the horn--or practice a hell of a lot more. I encountered one such this morning at the Mahalia Jackson Center in New Orleans: Paquito D'Rivera. Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra had invited me to attend a rehearsal for tonight's concert featuring the celebrated Cuban clarinetist with the LPO. I knew D'Rivera only by name. But when I heard him play, I immediately recognized him as one of the world's anointed greats. The purity of his tone, the dazzling but seemingly effortless technique, the lyricism of his phrasing, were stunning. The one thing I could claim to have in common with him, aside from playing on Vandoren reeds, is that we both have rosewood clarinets. When the rehearsal was over, I resolved to go straight home and woodshed.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Le Foret, a new upscale restaurant on Camp and Common boasts an elegant décor and French-inspired haute-cuisine. What it cannot boast of is any proficiency in the French language. In their effort to sound, well, chic, whoever named this establishment apparently intended to evoke the romance and mystery of the "forest." However, the word for forest in French is feminine, so it would be "La Forêt." By masculinizing the name with "le," the good folks at this proud new establishment actually named it for a "drill bit." (le forêt, in French). That's a rather unfortunate name for a restaurant--unless the chef is actually using a drill back there in the kitchen. Once again, you'd think folks would consult an actual French speaker, or at least a French-English dictionary, before they put such a ludicrous name on their menus.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Within days of my return to New Orleans in August 2007, after a long residence in France, the popular City councilman Oliver Thomas pled guilty to taking $20,000 in bribes and kickbacks. Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson was then under investigation—and has since been convicted—for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in connection with various business deals in Africa. The papers were full of stories about corruption. Which prompted the following thoughts, written in September 2007 and updated as warranted:

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

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