A city full of music

Royal St in New Orleans. PHOTOS: TNS
Royal St in New Orleans. PHOTOS: TNS
On New Orleans’ Royal St, the music is sweet and the history is deep, writes Christopher Reynolds.

When  I set out last year to write about great American music venues, the idea was to pick buildings whose histories are steeped in music, including familiar names such as Carnegie Hall in New York and half-hidden treasures such as Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. New Orleans reshaped my thinking.

Doreen Ketchens, on clarinet, and her band play Royal St, New Orleans.
Doreen Ketchens, on clarinet, and her band play Royal St, New Orleans.
This city's musical roots are found largely outdoors, including the slave gatherings that brought West African rhythms to Congo Square in the 18th century; the brass bands that have been marching since the 19th century; the jazz and heritage festival that has been filling the city fairgrounds every spring since 1969; and the street performers who depend on the French Quarter's foot traffic the way Spanish moss depends on the branches of Louisiana's stately oaks.

For four days in early March (including Mardi Gras), I haunted a mile of Royal St. That included 13 blocks through the French Quarter and three blocks leading to Frenchmen St, where about a dozen music clubs are concentrated.

Why Royal? It's one of the city's oldest streets, dating to the early 18th century. Several of its blocks are closed to cars from 11am to 4pm most weekdays and 11am to 7pm most weekends.

Bourbon St's loud bars and drunken crowds make busking or street performances all but impossible, but this stretch of Royal invites it with art galleries, antique and jewellery shops and restaurants.

"Royal Street is where the trad jazz happens,'' sax player Aeryk Parker told me.

"If you need money, you walk down the street and hope somebody needs a reed player.''

Musician Jason Jurzak in Royal St.
Musician Jason Jurzak in Royal St.
Sometimes "you end up playing with musicians you don't know. It's great'', said Stefano Barigazzi, a 22-year-old singer and blues guitarist from Italy.

You get all kinds. You might see the dreamy young singer whose every song is marred by her hyperactive drummer. The Christian puppet show with live accordion music. The bearded quartet whose careful grooming, vintage attire, Gypsy jazz repertoire and Gallic nonchalance all whispered Montmartre, 1925.

But finding Ketchens was harder.

First day, no Ketchens. Second day, no Ketchens.

Fortunately, there was still plenty to hear. I mostly gravitated towards traditional jazz players. Whenever I stayed for longer than one song, I tipped at least a dollar.

On my third day, wandering near Royal and Frenchmen, I got caught in a sonic riot called Mission Delirium - a San Francisco brass band on a working holiday in New Orleans. Eighteen musicians playing to win.

By the time I arrived, they were well into their set. Widespread dancing. One horn player was rolling around on the pavement while another crawled through shrubs. The four percussionists cavorted and collided.

Mission Delirium Brass Band, from San Francisco, plays at the corner of Royal and Frenchmen streets.
Mission Delirium Brass Band, from San Francisco, plays at the corner of Royal and Frenchmen streets.
I didn't recognise the tunes, but their chops and showmanship won me over.

Their set would have been enough to make my day. But minutes later, in the French Quarter, a gaggle of jazz players launched into Sweet Georgia Brown.

By the time they moved on to Darktown Strutters' Ball, they had gathered a crowd of 30 or more, including a cyclist who paused to hand them bananas.

The Spotted Cat Music Club in Frenchmen St.
The Spotted Cat Music Club in Frenchmen St.
"We're the St Peter's Orchestra,'' one horn player announced. I guessed that they were seasoned bandmates, judging by how the five members traded solos and moved from tune to tune. But, no, this line-up had been assembled on the fly, and none of them was raised in Louisiana.

Aeryk Parker, the front man on vocals and sax, had been splitting time between New Orleans and Denver. Former Angeleno Smitti Supab, on stand-up bass, had been in town for six years. Lamar Anderson Clark, another former Angeleno who arrived four years ago, was playing rhythm guitar.

Nathaniel Ruiz, on tenor sax, came from Illinois. Blanche Methe, who sat in on trumpet, had arrived three weeks before from Montreal.

As the crowd dispersed, the players huddled to count the take - more than $200 and a bag of weed.

"There's no club owner telling me what to play. I'm getting paid to have fun and learn,'' Supab said.

The downsides, Methe said, are that you never know if a spot will be open, tips will be rotten if it rains, "and sometimes you have all brass players and no rhythm section''.

That same day, I stopped by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park's office on North Peters St, where interpretive ranger Jon Beebe was giving a talk on the roots of jazz and local traditions of competition and mentorship.

You probably know about Louis Armstrong, Beebe told a group of mostly foreign tourists, but Armstrong built on the innovations of King Oliver. And Oliver built on the innovations of Buddy Bolden.

Musicians (from left) Walker DiTrani, Bobby DiTrani, Cole Gibson and Andrew Louis Willens in...
Musicians (from left) Walker DiTrani, Bobby DiTrani, Cole Gibson and Andrew Louis Willens in Royal St.
Bolden, a cornet player, pioneered improvisation while marching and playing French Quarter clubs in the first years of the 20th century. He died penniless in an asylum, and there are no known recordings of him, leaving jazz hounds to wander the neighbourhood and imagine his echoes.

In Bolden's time, Beebe said, "there used to be bands almost on every street corner.'' It was "the proving ground before you could be able to play on the riverboats''.

In recent years, Beebe said, one of the most popular acts on the street was a duo, Tanya Huang, a violinist born in Taiwan, and Dorise Blackmon, a guitarist from New Orleans. They split in 2017, but Huang is still a regular at the corner of Royal and St Louis streets.

Then there's Tuba Skinny, an eight-member group that focuses on traditional jazz, ragtime and Depression-era blues. (The name is a nod to local musician Tuba Fats, who died in 2004.) They've been playing Royal St and local clubs since 2009.

Dragonfly wings during Mardi Gras night in Royal St.
Dragonfly wings during Mardi Gras night in Royal St.
But at the top of list, Beebe said, is Ketchens.

"She's technically amazing. And she has more songs memorised than I'll ever learn.''

I sighed and bought one of her CDs at the Louisiana Music Factory on Frenchmen St.

By my last day in town, I'd inspected Armstrong's first cornet at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, sampled gumbo at half a dozen restaurants and watched the fast fingers of "Plink'' Floyd, Wednesday night banjo player at Cafe Beignet.

I'd heard the Royal Street Winding Boys at the Spotted Cat. I'd caught the traditional jazz show in Preservation Hall.

There was time for just one more walk on Royal. I'd barely begun when an arresting sound cut through the street noise.

A clarinet playing Summertime in front of Rouses Market.

I edged through the knot of people so I could see a tiny, smiling African American woman seated in a lawn chair. Fur hat, box of CDs at her side. She was Doreen Ketchens, joined by her husband, Lawrence, on tuba, a trombone player, guitarist, drummer and a semicircle of six buckets, all rapidly filling with bills.

Italian guitarist Alessio Magliocchetti plays in Royal St.
Italian guitarist Alessio Magliocchetti plays in Royal St.
Ketchens, raised in the city's Treme neighbourhood and classically trained, has toured the world, played for four United States presidents and released about two dozen CDs. Last year she played Just a Closer Walk With Thee with the Louisiana Philharmonic. She's also admired as an educator.

Until I saw her on the street, I didn't realise she also sings, and she does it well. But the clarinet solos - they're in another category.

When the moment arrived, she grabbed her clarinet, furrowed her brow and leaned back and blew. If her eyes had been open, she'd have seen the third-floor wrought-iron railings of the 1830s LaBranche House across the street.

Later, when I asked her how she ended up playing Royal St, she said: "I fell in love with a tuba player ... I can only say so much. But I never was a club person. I never was a night person.''

Playing on the street, she said, "we had our bouts with the police where we lost at first. And then we won.'' Now, she said, "there's a level of respect that's working.''

About halfway through her set, Ketchens noticed a horn player perched on his instrument case.

"What you sittin' on?'' she called out. "Want to join us?''

He was Aeryk Parker, the sax player I'd met the day before. He'd never been invited to play with Ketchens. He pulled out his horn, told her his name was Parker and joined her on Royal Garden Blues.

"A hand for Parker, y'all!'' hollered Ketchens.

The applause rang up and down the block.

"Incredible,'' said Parker later, looking at the queen of Royal St.

"Something to aspire to."- TCA

One of New Orleans’ many art galleries in Royal St.
One of New Orleans’ many art galleries in Royal St.

When to go

  • Three music-intensive events to pursue or avoid, depending on how you feel about crowds: the French Quarter Festival (April 2-5, 2020), the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (date to be announced) and Mardi Gras (February 25, 2020).

Where to listen and learn

  • Preservation Hall, 726 St Peter St, New Orleans; (504) 522-2841, preservationhall.com/hall. Five 45-minute traditional jazz shows nightly between 5pm and 10pm; all ages. Tickets $US20 ($NZ30.60)-$US50. Most tickets are general admission at the door (cash only), requiring a wait of 30 minutes or more before the show.
  • Spotted Cat, 623 Frenchmen St, New Orleans; spottedcatmusicclub.com. Jazz nightly, different acts at 2pm, 6pm and 10pm. Cash only; 21 and older.
  • Louisiana Music Factory, 421 Frenchmen St, New Orleans; (504) 586-1094, louisianamusicfactory.com. CDs, sheet music and other merchandise.
  • New Orleans Jazz Museum, 400 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans; (504)568-6993, nolajazzmuseum.org. Admission $6 for adults. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, 916 N. Peters St, New Orleans; (504) 589-4841,nps.gov/jazz/index.htm

On the ’net

  • French Quarter, bit.ly/royalstreetguideNew Orleans & Co., neworleans.com







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