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.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Just back from the "Jazz in Marciac" festival in southwest France. Founded 35 years ago by the local mayor, Jean-Louis Guilhaumon, this annual event in a small village of 1,100 souls has become one of Europe's major jazz festivals, drawing a quarter of a million visitors over a two week period. Headliners this year included Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., Sonny Rollins, Lucky Peterson, Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Joshua Redman, and Diana Reeves, among others.
     The big name artists all performed under a 5,000-seat tent, while a stage set up in the town square hosted the so-called "Off Festival" acts. That's where I performed on August 14th and 15th with a hand-picked group of Europe-based musicians under the name of the "Tommy Sancton New Orleans Swing Sextet." The band consisted of trumpeter Jerome Etcheberry (France), bassist Mathias Allamane (France), drummer Guillaume Nouaux (France), trombonist and vocalist Paddy Sherlock (Ireland), guitarist David Blenkhorn (Australia, now living in France) and myself (New Orleans) on clarinet.
Tommy Sancton New Orleans Swing Sextet at Marciac
The idea was to play New Orleans-inspired music without trying to adhere strictly to the "trad" style. The use of an electric guitar in place of a piano helped give the band a somewhat freer, more modern sound. Each musician brought his own ideas and stylistic approach to the mix. I found the resulting music fresh and exciting and hope to do some more festival work with this group next year. Off stage, the band had a great time eating the local culinary specialties—foie gras, cassoulet, confit de canard, etc.—and jamming in some of the little bars near the square.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Open-air markets are an age-old tradition in France. In Saint Germain-en-Laye, the town we live in some 10 miles west of Paris, there are markets on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. The marketplace covers an area half the size of a football field on a paved square surrounded by 18th and 19th century apartment buildings. At one end of the square, there is an arcaded row of shops and cafes; the other end is occupied by the post office. In the middle of the square there is a fountain that jets up from ground level. In hot weather, kids run or ride their bikes through it, pealing with laughter as they soak themselves to the bone.
On market days, they turn off the fountain and the whole square is covered with stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and produce to fish, meat (including horse meat and rabbit of course), wild game (in season), pots and pans, clothing. The colors are vibrant—red tomatoes and radishes; green lettuce, zucchini, avocados; orange apricots; yellow lemons and grapefruit. There are a dozen kinds of whole fish on beds of shaved ice—tuna, salmon, bass, trout, mackerel, swordfish, sprats, sardines, skate, sole, rougets (small redfish)—and mounds of oysters, mussels, clams, shrimp, lobsters, crayfish (called ecrévisse, nothing like our crawfish). In season (November through January), you can see wild rabbit, hare, even whole deer, hanging by their hooves in their full coats of fur. And hovering over it all is the sound of voices—vendors hawking their wares with a cacophony of shouts and chants.
Sylvaine and I like to go into town on the market days, not just to shop, but to take in the spectacle. I usually get a Herald-Tribune or a French newspaper (unlike New Orleans, you can choose between five or six different dailies) and take a table at a sidewalk café facing the market. The one I prefer is called the Café de l’Industrie. The interior was recently redone and still seems a little strange to me—too clean, too modern--but outside on the terrace, under a burgundy-colored parasol, with a cup of expresso and my paper, I feel right at home. Even after all these years, it always feels like I’m on vacation when I’m on the terrace of l’Industrie.
We have what the French call “nos habitudes” at l’Industrie. One of the waiters used to go out with our daughter, and he always greets us warmly. His name is Franck with a “c”. He is about 40 now, jowly and thick-waisted in place of the trim figure he had when we first met. He sports a gold-stud ear-ring. Franck has been a garçon de café since he was 18. His father retired from the same place several years back after 50 years of wearing the traditional white apron and wielding trays full of coffee and beer and wine. You hear a lot of talk about jobs of the future, but for a lot of people here, the jobs of the past suit them just fine. Franck is a happy man, supports a wife and two kids, does his job well and seems to enjoy it.
So do the truck farmers, butchers, fishermen, and vendors on the market place. 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.
You can see how European marketplaces formed the center of social and economic life over the centuries. What is bought and sold there now forms only a fraction of overall commerce in France—the supermarkes and hypermarkets and Walmart equivalents dominate here as elsewhere—but the social function of the market remains. Sylvaine has a relationship with the vendors—they recognize her, know what she likes, exchange banter and pleasantries with her. We run into neighbors, acquaintances or just familiar faces of people we see regularly but don’t know. Even after our long absence, the vendors recognized her, asked about her “séjour” in the U.S. And even the vendors she doesn’t like, and avoids, are part of this market-centered social life. (“Don’t buy anything from this greengrocer, he sold me rotten peaches last year.”) Sylvaine hardly ever buys food in a supermarket. There is an open-air market somewhere nearby—St. Germain, Le Vesinet, Chatou--almost every day of the week.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Sylvaine and I just spent three days in St. Valery en Caux, a fishing village on the coast of the Upper Normandy where we have a summer house. St. Valery is nestled into a natural breach in the chalk cliffs that line the Channel coast from Fécamp to Dieppe. About half of its original stone and brick houses were destroyed by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel after he captured the town in June 1940 in one of the last battles before the French surrender and armistice. Most of the seafront was hastily rebuilt after the war, but the old part of town, where he have our house, still has the look and feel of "old" St. Valery. The town's centerpiece is an ancient port lined by 40-foot high stone walls. The tides are so strong that the port empties out at low tide and the level rises 30 feet or more at high tide. The beach is covered with stones that were originally part of the cliffs. Walking on them in bare feet is painful, which, along with the chilly waters, keeps the tourist population down to tolerable levels compared to, say, Deauville with its powdery sand beach or the more famous Mediterranean resorts. On this weekend, though, there was a large crowd in town for the annual "Fête de la Mer," which attracts spectacular sailing ships from all over Europe and features outdoor concerts, food vendors and local arts and crafts. Sort of like Jazzfest without the jazz. The weather was typical for a Normandy summer: rain and overcast alternating with sunny spells and average temperatures in the 60s and 70s. It's hard to make the locals believe in global warming. During the five years since we bought our house there, we have gotten to know the place pretty well. It has a long, dark history--plagues in the Middle Ages, countless shipwrecks and drownings at sea, wartime destruction, etc.--all which makes it a fascinating setting for  novel I am currently working on. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012


My New Orleans Legacy Band hit the road earlier this summer on a 10-day tour of Switzerland and Germany, June 19 - June 30. High points were jazz festivals in St. Gallen and Rapperswil, and of course the JazzAscona Festival on the beautiful shores of Lake Maggiore. I have been playing at Ascona off and on since 1989, and it is always a thrill to return to this charming lakeside town with its winding alleys and pastel-colored Italianate buildings set against the backdrop of Alpine hills. With five outdoor stages, Ascona was a great listening experence for us as well as a privileged venue for our own concerts. Standouts among the bands we heard were trumpeter/trombonist Wycliff Gordon's tribute to Louis Armstrong featuring the spectacular drumming of New Orleans's own Herlin Riley; Trombonist Dan Barnett's Australians; and Germany's Maryland Jazz Band featuring my old friend and fellow clarinetist John Defferary. My own band--Clive Wilson (tpt), Lars Edegran (pno), Ronell Johnson (trombone), Richard Moten (bass), Walter Harris (drums), and myself--was joined for the occasion by the soulful and dynamic London-based singer Denise Gordon. Also along on the trip was Rachel Johnson, Ronell's lovely bride of one year, who got her first taste of Europe on the tour and took these pictures. It all ended too soon, but we hope to do a repeat performance in 2013. It's a great way to beat the N.O. heat!

Lagniappe! Here are some video clips from our Ascona appearances:


Uncle Lionel Batiste, a popular bass drummer, singer and colorful character on the New Orleans music scene since the 1940s, died on July 8 at the age of 81. He was a longtime member of the Treme Brass Band and was frequently featured on the HBO series "Treme," which used his iconic image in its publicity and posters. Gaunt-faced and skinny as a drumstick, always dressed to the nines, he was a familiar figure in the Frenchmen Street music clubs and the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. He would regularly show up, unannounced, whirl a pretty girl around the dance floor, then grab the microphone and sing a blues or ballad to the delight of the audience and musicians alike. His warm, humorous singing style was captured on several CD's including two produced by pianist Lars Edegran. I had the honor of accompanying him on several tracks, as well as in this video of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" shot in the Palm Court last March:

Colorful and flashy till the end, Uncle Lionel had a wake that was probably unique in the history of the undertaking profession: instead of being laid out in a casket, he was displayed standing up, leaning against a faux lamp post, dressed in his sporting clothes with his hands covered with the rings and jewelry that were part of his trademark. Check out Keith Spera's account and accompanying photographs:

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I'm spending the summer in Europe, playing at a couple of festivals, but mainly just chilling out with Sylvaine at our place near Paris and waiting out the hot weather in New Orleans. Planning to complete revisions on my new novel, read a bunch of books, enjoy some great food, see some French movies and generally enjoy myself. See you in September!


You heard it here first, folks. Back in August 2011, when sexual assault charges against former IMF President Dominique Strauss-Kahn were dropped, I predicted that his stand-by-her-man wife Anne Sinclair would give him his walking papers after dumping millions on his legal defense and living expenses in New York. (  It took her almost a year, but that is apparently what has happened according to French news reports. Sinclair, recently named the editor of a new French edition of the Huffington Post, has reportedly kicked the disgraced former presidential hopeful out of their conjugal apartment on the Place des Vosges. ( Strauss-Kahn may be out in the cold, but not out of hot water: he still faces charges in connection with his alleged involvement in a prostitution ring based in the northern French city of Lille.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


[from Tennessee Williams Festival website]

Song for My Fathers

A unique multimedia stage production based on Tom Sancton’s critically acclaimed New Orleans memoir featuring Tom Sancton and the Preservation Hall All-Stars. Directed by Ron Rona and produced by Ben Jaffe.

Hailed as a “newly minted classic” by The Times-Picayune, this heartwarming story about a boy growing up in the 60s and learning to play jazz from the veteran musicians at Preservation Hall comes to life in the form of Sancton’s narrations, audio-visual projections, dramatizations and musical interludes provided by the onstage band. The Song For My Fathers stage show debuted at Tulane’s Dixon Hall in 2010 and played to packed houses at the Chat Noir in 2011. Now it comes to the new state-of-the-art performance hall at the Old U.S. Mint, which is currently hosting a year-long exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of Preservation Hall’s founding.

Come view the exhibit as part of an intimate cocktail reception before experiencing Sancton’s guided musical tour in this unique multimedia stage production that blurs the lines between personal journey and historic account. It’s a history lesson that will have you dancing in the aisles.

For booking see TWF site:

Susan Larson’s Q&A with Tom Sancton

Posted on February 14, 2012 in Arts & Letters, Enews
Susan Larson’s Q&A with Tom Sancton

Another one of the great pleasures of working on the Tennessee Williams Festival is the chance to catch up with old friends. It’s been a pleasure to know Tom Sancton and a delight to see his wonderful memoir, Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White, metamorphose from page to stage. He’ll be performing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Festival’s gala Wednesday night at the Mint.

Here’s a glimpse into his life on and off stage.

Performing in the musical adaptation of your book, Song for My Fathers, must be a little bit like walking around in your own past, isn’t it?

That’s exactly what it is like. As with any memoir, the process of writing the book required a long, deep plunge into my past. That was a mental process of memory, imagination, reconstruction. The stage show is a different way of reliving the past in that I don’t just tell the story; I must evoke it physically and visually. The presence of the band, the young man who represents me as a teenager, and the audiovisual elements, bring the story to life onstage in real time. So being in the middle of that is not merely relating the past but re-enacting it. At times, it is almost like an out-of-body experience, especially when I watch Zach Young play little Tommy Sancton taking a clarinet lesson from George Lewis and sitting in with the band.

Has the experience of this book been transformative for you?

Absolutely. The writing itself was a transformative experience. But the really significant transformations are the ones that followed the publication of Song For My Fathers in 2006. In a very real sense, it was the book that brought me back to New Orleans after living away for 40 years, much of that time in Paris. In the wake of Katrina, I had wanted to come back here to re-connect with my roots and be closer to my family. The book was the vector that brought me home. Here’s how it happened: Tulane University chose it for their Fall Reading Program that year and invited me to come give a lecture in October 2006. That led to discussions about coming to teach at Tulane and resulted in my being named the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities for the 2007-08 academic year. My teaching role at Tulane was subsequently extended for three years beyond that. In the meantime, I became active as a musician and writer, re-connected with old friends and made new ones, and became thoroughly anchored again in my home town.

Does doing the musical version somehow complete the book in a new way for you? (I know many poets who say that the poem isn’t finished until it’s read aloud and heard.)

Yes. Relating the story out loud, re-enacting the events with the audiovisual elements and live music, connects it to an audience in a way that goes far beyond words on a printed page. As with my music, I feel like it doesn’t really exist until an audience hears it.

Do you have a new book in the works?

I am putting the finishing touches on a novel set in a little fishing village in Normandy. It takes place in the contemporary time frame with flashbacks to the Nazi Occupation during World War II. The story has elements of a thriller, a detective story, a historical novel and a literary novel, through the story of a young couple that moves to this town and is confronted with a dramatic series of events that transform — and threaten — their lives.

You’ll also be moderating a panel about books about music at the Festival. Is that something you read for pleasure?

Actually, I don’t read a lot of music books. This may seem paradoxical, since Song For My Fathers is to a large extent a book about music and musicians in addition to being a coming-of-age memoir. But music is something I experience most intensely through my playing, and through listening to other musicians play. When I happen to read music books, as I am doing in preparation for this panel, I do enjoy them as they tend to tell great stories about musicians and their lives — and all good writing, after all, is about storytelling.

And are you here to stay now? Still spending summers in France?

Yes, I am here to stay — but with one foot still planted in France. My French wife Sylvaine, a sculptor, painter and photographer, has made a place for herself in the New Orleans art world. I have picked up an active life here with my music and writing. But France still occupies a big place in our hearts. We are fortunate enough to have a house over there, so we can return periodically — especially during the scorching New Orleans summers. In short, we enjoy the best of both worlds.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


From the March 2012 edition of New Orleans Magazine:

Memories of Music

Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote in The Glass Menagerie, “In memory everything seems to happen to music.” This year at the annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, local musician, writer and educator Tom Sancton will kick off the celebration on March 21 at The Old U.S. Mint with “Song for My Fathers,” a multimedia autobiographical performance that celebrates the city’s music and pays a heartfelt tribute to those who taught it to him. Based on his memoir, “Song For My Fathers” weaves live music from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Sancton’s personal experiences, offering glimpses into an era that remains a powerful influence on our culture.

What is this performance about? “Song for My Fathers” is the story of a young white middle-class kid’s encounter with a group of elderly black jazz musicians at the tail end of the segregation era in the 1960s. The boy learns to play their music and gets a privileged lesson on life, culture and humanity from his willing mentors. That is the central theme of both the book and the stage show version.

Who’s involved? Ben Jaffe [of Preservation Hall] is the overall producer. Staging and direction were handled by Ron Rona of Preservation Hall; he was also the one who put together the terrific audio-visual package. I am present as the narrator. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is on stage and provides live music, and we have a young man, Zach Young, who plays me as a teenager.

How does it tie in with the festival? It ties in with the festival in several ways. First, it’s theater – not an actual play, but certainly a theatrical presentation. Secondly, it’s based on a literary work, my coming-of-age memoir. Thirdly, it celebrates New Orleans culture and musical history. I have been involved in the festival in various capacities for the past few years and like to consider myself part of the Tennessee Williams Festival “family.”

The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival takes place March 21-25, featuring plays, staged readings, lectures, panel discussions, parties and more, at various locations throughout downtown. Information,

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Playing at Preservation Hall has been a thrill for me ever since I first sat in with George Lewis in 1962. But yesterday's taping for the HBO Treme series was especially exciting—even if we had to play the same tune ten times.
Invited by trumpeter Wendell Brunious to join his band for the occasion, I found myself surrounded by some of the city's—no, the world's—top traditional jazzmen: Don Vappie on banjo, Gerald French on drums, Thaddeus Richard on piano, and Richard Moten on bass. New Orleans-born actor Wendell Pierce rounded out the band, miming the trombone part while Rebirth Brass Band trombonist Stafford Agee did the real playing off camera. (Pierce is not in this photo, taken during a run-through.)
The taping of our five-minute sequence took seven hours, allowing for numerous camera, lighting, and microphone changes as we played and replayed "My Bucket's Got a Hole in it" and several dozen technicians scurried around doing their thing. Their seven production vans lined St. Peter Street from the corner of Bourbon all the way down to Royal. There was a lot of down time, which allowed us to talk musician-trash among ourselves and chat with some of the people behind the great HBO series. I enjoyed talking with actor Wendell Pierce and learned that he, like Treme writer Lolis Elie, were both alumni of my high school, Benjamin Franklin. Despite the difference in our generations, it turns out they had some of the same teachers I had back in the 60s. Also got the chance to meet Treme's executive producer, Eric Overmyer, an unconditional fan of New Orleans music and culture, which he has done so much to honor and preserve with this series. Our sequence should run some time next fall. Stay tuned...

Sunday, January 22, 2012


The Classic Jazz Trio had a great time playing in the new performance space at the Old U.S. Mint on Saturday despite an air conditioning malfunction that kept temperatures in the 50s. Outside on the it was 75º. Fortunately, our fans (we have fans?) were not deterred by the chill. The place was packed and the response was enthusiastic. The state of the art performance space was wonderful to play in—the acoustics, lighting and sound system were all tops as was the helpful staff of National Jazz Park rangers, who run the weekly concert series at the Mint.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


The Classic Jazz Trio makes another rare live appearance on Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade, 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm. For those who haven't checked out the new state-of-the-art performance space on the third floor, it's a good time to do so. Also a chance to visit the remarkable exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Preservation Hall on the second floor. The CJT will be reprising tunes from our latest album (see photo) as well as a few new additions to the repertoire. The CD will be on sale, as well as copies of "Song For My Fathers."

Monday, January 9, 2012


The concert was billed as "Preservation Hall Jazz Band & Friends." Touted in advance in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, the event, a benefit for the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, filled Carnegie's Isaac Stern Auditorium to its full 2204-seat capacity. The performing "friends" included a star-studded cast of musicians ranging from Allen Toussaint, Tombone Shorty and Mos Def to My Morning Jacket, the Del McCoury Bluegrass Band, the Trey McIntyre Dance Project and the Blind Boys of Alabama. And of course, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, headed by Ben Jaffe, son of the founders and organizer of this exceptional show.
What am I doing at Carnegie Hall, I asked myself more than once. Nonetheless, when the show started, there I was onstage with the legendary festival promoter and pianist George Wein seated at the Steinway behind me. I recited a passage from my memoir, Song for My Fathers, and played "Burgundy Street Blues" as a tribute to George Lewis and the other great jazzmen who played at the Hall when it was founded half a century ago. Wein and I were onstage for all of eight minutes, but it was for me an unforgettable occasion. (See photo by Michael Jurick, whose wonderful pictures of the show are well worth viewing on his blog
The good thing about getting my bit over early was that I could enjoy the rest of the show from the wings. High points for me included meeting and chatting with the legendary Pete Seeger (whose grandson Tao Seeger performed in the show), watching the Trey McIntyre dancers, reminiscing with my old friend trombonist Frank Demond, talking shop with PHJB clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, and hearing the indie rock group My Morning Jacket bend its sound to the beat of a New Orleans jazz band on "Saint James Infirmary" then do its own thing on a folk-rock ballad "I Feel Wonderful." The cast party afterwards at the trendy downtown cabaret club called "The Box" was a bit hard on the ears, but I had a chance to chat there with Morning Jacket's lead singer Jim James, who told me he's taking up the clarinet. That was good news: if rock stars popularize the instrument, guys like me might still have a shot at the big-time at last!
(See Jon Pareles's review in the New York Times: