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

Monday, December 22, 2014


Photo of burnt-out club, La. Weelky 5/4/1940
Trumpeter Punch Miller was a great teacher and a great raconteur. One amazing story he told me involved the Walter Barnes orchestra. Punch had played with them in Chicago, but quit the band in 1940 just before they went south for a gig in Natzhez, were they all burned up in a dance hall fire. I recently ran across an article in the Louisiana Weekly that described the disaster in these grisly terms: "More than 200 baked humans have been taken out of this land of the dead, the Rhythm Club, where they suffocated and died when someone flung a lighted cigarette into the Spanish moss-covered ceiling...all of the instruments used by the Walter Barnes band were destroyed except the piano." (My profile of Punch Miller, including his account of the fire, appears in SONG FOR MY FATHERS, chapter 11.)

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Old friends: with George Wein at the gala. photo by Deborah Ross
Last Thursday, Sylvaine and I attended the grand opening gala for the George & Joyce Wein Heritage Center on N. Rampart, the new headquarters of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. The new multimillion dollar center, including a state-of-the-art concert hall, was officially inaugurated that afternoon by George and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. In addition to great food and drink, and some funky music by John Cleary, George Wein himself played the piano and sang an improvised blues narrative about the history of Jazzfest, which he founded in 1970. He brought down the house. For me it was a particularly moving occasion, as George, now 89, has been a friend of mine and my family's since this first visit here in 1962. It was great to meet up with him on Thursday night and an  honor to show him a photo by my wife Sylvaine, which was acquired by the Foundation as part of their permanent collection.

[See Keith Spera's article about the new center in the Times-Picayune:]

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Thomas Sancton in 1942
In the flood of commentary about the shakeup at The New Republic, there have been numerous criticisms of the magazine as being, in the words of Ta-Nehesi Coates, “an entirely white publication, which published stories confirming white people's worst instincts.” [Atlantic, 12/9/14] That may be true of the Peretz era, but there was a time in TNR’s earlier history when the magazine was famous—or infamous in some circles—for the race articles by its firebrand Managing Editor demanding immediate and full racial equality. That man was my father, Thomas Sancton (Sr.), who served as M.E. from 1942 to 1945.
During those years,  Sancton published dozens of articles denouncing segregation and taking to task the timidity of most other liberals on the race question. I can’t say whether his personal passion for racial equality represented TNR’s editorial position at the time—the main focus then was on the war against Hitler—but Sancton took advantage of his rank to place his own articles in the magazine throughout his tenure. “I controlled the pages,” he once told me, “so I could publish whatever I wanted.”
Sancton was almost unique among southern liberals for his radical stand on the race question. Among other things, he wrote about lynchings, race riots, the so-called Negro Press, the work of black writers, the northward migration of southern blacks. He even called FDR to task for not speaking out against segregation and racial discrimination, an article that Eleanor Roosevelt herself promised to “bring to the attention of the President.” He befriended prominent black intellectuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Roi Ottley, Henry Lee Moon. His race articles were denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives by the segregationist congressman John Rankin—a call-out that he wore as a badge of honor—and attracted the attention of Henry Luce, who hired him away from TNR to write about racial issues for LIFE. After a brief stint there, he decided in the late 1940’s to move back to his native New Orleans to write novels. At that point, he largely dropped off the radar of the East Coast intelligentsia.

           Historians of the civil rights movement, however, did not lose sight of his crusading work in TNR, The Nation, Harpers, and other publications. John Egerton cited Sancton’s contributions prominently in his 1994 book Speak Now Against the Day. The New American Library anthology, Reporting Civil Rights, excerpted passages from his TNR articles. In 2007, Lawrence P. Jackson of Emory University devoted the bulk of a long article to Sancton’s work in the  The Southern Literary Journal, which he expanded and included in his 2011 book, The Indignant Generation. In Jackson’s view, “Sancton had no peer” among liberal writers and thinkers as a champion of racial equality. Earlier this year, TNR itself paid him a recent, if belated, tribute (TNR 9/15/2014) as a “pioneering civil rights reporter” and reprinted part of his 1943 article on the Detroit race riots.
For anyone who is interested in researching Sancton's TNR articles, here is a link to nearly two dozen of them online. More information on his writing and career is available in the Wikipedia article on Thomas Sancton and in the obituaries following his death in April, 2012, at the age of 97: Rosenwald Foundation obituary and Times-Picayune

And anyone seriously interested in researching the career of this early civil rights champion will find his voluminous papers and correspondence at The Historic New Orleans Collection. 


Tuesday, December 9, 2014


As an American writer living (at least part time) in France, I have often had occasion to look at what was going on in the U.S and despair. I have blogged from time to time about some of these issues, especially health care, but here's an insightful article by my former TIME colleague, Don Morrison, who puts it all together brilliantly in an article originally written for Le Monde. He has given me permission to include it in this blog. Read it and think.

Le Suicide Américain

Le Monde, December 2, 2014

Donald Morrison

Lately it has become difficult to enter a bookstore, open a magazine or turn on a TV without stumbling across the saturnine visage of Eric Zemmour. That sly provocateur has become France’s hottest literary celebrity thanks to his best-selling book, Le Suicide Français, a chilling jeremiad about the perils of immigration, the “feminization” of French men, the forgotten glory of Vichy and a number of other contemporary outrages which, he warns, will soon sweep France into the dustbin of history. At first I thought it was a murder mystery. Turns out, the book is serious.
And dead wrong. Not so much because Zemmour’s analysis is faulty -- France is without doubt suffering from a weak economy, an inability to deal with its restive immigrants and a feckless political leadership. Instead, Zemmour is wrong because he vastly overestimates the seriousness of France’s predicament. A French suicide is extremely unlikely.
To understand why, one need only look at a country that truly is killing itself: the United States. The French may be vexed, but their slump is nothing compared to the demented fury with which the world’s only (for now) superpower is systematically squandering more than two centuries of power, prosperity and prestige. The real danger today is Le Suicide Américain.
Consider that country’s recent mid-term legislative elections. Americans voted to hand control of the Senate -- and a wider margin of control in the House -- to the opposition Republicans, the party that shut down the government last year, threatens to do so again and has blocked nearly every major legislative initiative of President Barack Obama. The Republicans, however, did not seem to be a major issue in the election. Obama did. The President’s approval rating, at around 40%, is historically low among voters of both major parties (though higher than that of his French counterpart), and he is routinely depicted in the press as overly cautious at the same time dictatorial. (His critics are not bothered by that inconsistency.) Exactly why Obama is so widely disliked by his countrymen remains a mystery. After all, he presided over a reversal of the country’s economic decline, an improvement in its image abroad and a bold reform of its troubled health system. But Obama is a proxy for the national mood, and polls consistently show that most Americans believe the country is “heading in the wrong direction.”
That direction is, unmistakably, downward. The U.S. economy is recovering, but the benefits are not being spread evenly. Corporate profits are at record highs, but companies are using their newfound cash largely for share buy-backs and dividend increases, not to hire more workers. Wages for working- and middle-class Americans have barely risen in the past decade. By contrast, most of the gains from the recovery have gone to the top 1% of earners, giving the U.S. highest level of economic inequality in the industrialized world.
America is falling apart, literally. The country’s civil engineers have warned that thousands of bridges and tunnels are in serious risk of collapsing. U.S. airports and highways are stretched to capacity, and there is no high speed rail network (and barely any passenger trains at all) to share the strain. Broadband internet is the slowest -- and yet most expensive -- in the developed world. Despite all the deterioration, Obama’s calls for rebuilding America’s infrastructure have fallen on deaf Congressional ears.
Americans are also killing themselves, individually. Despite the recent health reforms, U.S. doctors, drugs and hospitals remain the world’s most expensive, though rarely the world’s best. Important measures of public health are well below the rich-country average, including life expectancy and infant mortality. About two-thirds of American adults are overweight; half of those are downright obese, (double the levels in France). Because contraception -- and even information about it -- is restricted, especially in the more religion-obsessed parts of America, 30% of teenage girls become pregnant, 80% of them unintentionally.
If their health habits are not lethal enough, Americans have guns -- 300 million of them, nearly one for every man, woman and child. About 31,000 people die of gunshots in the U.S. every year, 16 times more than in France. School shootings have become so common -- nearly 100 in the two years since 20 children were slaughtered at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut -- that such incidents are no longer front-page news. (One gun death, the recent shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, was an exception: It sparked nationwide protests, underlining America's continuing racial divide.) Periodic attempts to impose even minor firearm restrictions -- background checks, limits on automatic weapons -- are routinely thwarted by legislators fearful of the National Rifle Association, one of the richest and most fearsome of the Washington lobbies.
Lobbying has become one of America’s leading industries. Even before the right-leaning Supreme Court recently struck down long-standing campaign-finance reforms, American elections were swamped with money from special interests. Spending for this year’s mid-term elections hit a record $4 billion, much of it from industry groups and ideologically motivated billionaires. Political campaigns are dominated by “negative” TV advertising, composed of slick innuendo and half-true slurs. Partly as a result, American politics, and public discourse in general, have become poisonous arenas where extreme views are reinforced, moderation is discouraged and compromise is impossible. Thus, there is little will to fix any of America’s considerable problems.
Against this grim background, France does not seem suicidal at all. Americans may mock the French for their work habits and other stereotypical traits but, viewed from the U.S., France looks pretty healthy: fast trains, world-class health care, unadulterated food, globally competitive companies, healthy and handsome citizens, and a reverence for culture, leisure and learning that the U.S. has never really known.
More seriously, France is a remarkably durable nation, having survived invasions by the British and the Germans, long and bitter religious wars, home-grown revolutions, flawed Republics, disastrous colonial conflicts and the 35-hour week. And don’t forget immigration, especially that disruptive wave at the end of the Great War of uncouth, non-assimilating, obstinately un-French barbarians, most of them Americans. No, I am confident that France will remain a vibrant, highly successful society, and that national suicide is a Zemmouresque fantasy. I am not so sure about America.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Wednesday, December 9:
• Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Lard Edegran, 6:30 - 7:30 pm.

• Palm Court, 1206 Decatur St., with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Saturday, December 13:  Monteleone Hotel, with Clive Wilson Serenaders, 9:30 - 11:30. (Private reception)

Sunday, December 14: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St.with the New Orleans Legacy band. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, December 16Palm Court, 1206 Decatur St., with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, December 31: New Year's Eve Gala at the Palm Court, 1206 Decatur St., with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Barbara Shorts. 9:00  - 12:30

Sunday, January 4: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St.with Wenell Brunious. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, January 7Palm Court, 1206 Decatur St., with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, January 11: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St.with the New Orleans Legacy band. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, January 14Palm Court, 1206 Decatur St., with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Thursday, January 15: Pavillion of the Two Sisters, Botannical Garden, City Park, with the Lars Edegran band. 6:00 - 7:00 pm.

Sunday, January 18: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St.with Wenell Brunious. 8 - 11 pm.

Tom Sancton Website:
Tom Sancton FB page:
"Song For My Fathers" FB page:


Harold with me, at 16, blowing behind him. © Sancton Coll.
One of the greatest learning experiences I had growing up was marching and playing with Harold Dejan's Olympia Brass Band. Harold, a soft-spoken, good-humored alto sax player, had a favorite saying: "Everything's lovely!" I built up my chops playing eight-hour parades and funerals with the Olympia, I learned a lot of great music, and got an inside view of the back streets and neighborhoods that, in those Jim Crow days, were largely unknown to whites. Harold opened the door to a different world.

Here's what I wrote about Harold's band in "Song for My Fathers":

By far the funkiest of the marching groups was Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. Harold had a day job as a driver and delivery man for the Lykes shipping line, but his real love, and genius, was running the Olympia. Harold had a favorite saying—”Everything’s lovely”—and when you hung out with him and his band, everything was lovely and life was fun.
         Harold was one of the younger jazz musicians, probably in his late 50s when I met him. He was short, broad-shouldered—he used to be an amateur boxer—and a bit paunchy. He had a smooth, gentle voice and a ready laugh that always made you happy to be around him. People called him the Duke.
Olympia on Parade. Photo © Tom Sancton, 1962
        Harold played an alto sax with a transparent red plastic mouthpiece. To tell the truth, Harold was not a dazzling instrumentalist. In fact, he never played anything but straight melody. That was surprising, since he had played with some famous bands in his youth—reading bands that required high-level musicianship. So I couldn’t figure why he never ventured past the melody line or displayed any kind of technique.

         He explained this to me one day when I asked his advice about clarinet playing. “Tommy, I’m a tell you how it is,” he said with a loud sniff. I think he had some kind of allergy, because he wore reddish-tinted glasses and was always sniffing and blowing his nose. “You take me—I can run scales and arpeggios all up and down my horn. But you’ll never hear me do that. You know why? Because you gotta let the people know what you playin’. Out on the street, folks don’t want to hear all that fancy stuff. What they loves is the melody.”...
The Olympia musicians were the most unselfconsciously funny people I had ever met. They were always kidding each other, bragging about their sexual prowess, their drinking capacity, their luck at the race rack, or telling hilarious stories about one another... (Read the rest in Chapter 15 of "Song")

Please check out my SONG FOR MY FATHERS page on Facebook:

Monday, November 3, 2014


Catching up on news from my summer in Europe, I had a great time playing a weeklong engagement in London Sept. 13-20 at private gentlemen's club that must remain nameless.
The club's powers-that-be decided to celebrate Mardi Gras a bit early (or late), so they brought over two New Orleans bands, plus Washboard Chaz and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux to provide the entertainment. They also hired a team of theater designers to transform their posh Mayfair club into a New Orleans environment complete with second line umbrellas, Mardi Gras beads, feathers, and costumed revelers. My band, featured at left, included myself on clarinet, Wendell Brunious on trumpet., Thaddeus Richard on piano, Don Vappie on bass and banjo, Maynard Chatters on trombone, and Gerald French on drums.  We had a ball, even if we ate too much of the club's gourmet cuisine and pastries. 


Okay, folks, I'm back from my summer sojourn in Europe at last, so here's where to find me:

Wednesday, November 5: Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Saturday, November 8:  Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Clive Wilson's New Orleans Serenaders. 8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, November 9: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St.with the Wendell Brunious band. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, November 12Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Thursday, November 13: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Lars Edegran's Preservation Hall All Stars.  8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, November 19: Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Saturday, November 29: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St.with Tommy Sancton's New Orleans Legacy Band. 8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, November 30: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Lars Edegran's Preservation Hall All Stars.  8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Sylvaine and I are just back from a great weekend in Germany. We took the TGV train to Frankfurt. Trevor Richards met us there and drove us to the charming village or Bad Homburg, a former royal spa. I played a concert that night in the chapel of the local chateau along with Trevor (drums), Colin Dawson (tpt), John Service (tbn), Simon Holliday (pno) and Cliff Soden (bass). The hall was packed, the acoustics were beautiful, and the two sets went by all to quickly.

The next day, Trevor drove us to Frankfurt for some sightseeing in Europe's financial capital, much ravaged by WWII bombing but still presenting some majestic pre-war architecture along with an impressively restored old town center.

We stayed that night at Trevor's house in a small village some 100 km from Frankfurt. He lives in a converted former schoolhouse with his partner Almut, whose talents in the garden and the kitchen (wild boar ragout!) contributed to a delightful visit.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


I just ran across a picture that brought back memories of the first time I met Japanese clarinetist Ryoichi Kawai. Ryoichi came to town in 1966 with his Osaka-based New Orleans Rascals and impressed local jazz aficionados with his phenomenal ability to copy his idol George Lewis. George had toured Japan in 1963, playing to packed houses of adoring fans, and making friends with Ryoichi and his band. When Ryoichi and the Rascals arrived at New Orleans airport, George was there to greet them with an impromptu brass band. I was at George's side, playing my Albert system clarinet as he had taught me to do it. The Rascals were thrilled by the jazz serenade and broke out their instruments as soon as the exited the plane. This photo shows me (at about age 17), George, and a partially obscured Ryoichi. The Rascals played concerts at Tulane's Dixon Hall, at Preservation Hall and other venues and charmed everyone not only with their music but with their polite reverence for the  jazz tradition that they were spreading on the other side of the world. I met up with Ryoichi and the Rascals years later at the Ascona Jazz Festival in Switzerland. In 2010, Ryoichi and I crossed paths again at the Rapperswil Festival, also in Switzerand, and teamed up on a couple of numbers that have since found their way onto youtube. Check them out if you're curious to hear what two George Lewis-inspired clarinets from opposite ends of the earth sound like when they get together. I think George would be pleased by the tribute.

Burgundy Street Blues:

St. Philip Street Breakdown