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.

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?