Washboard Chaz is a lucky guy. Not everybody gets a festival named after them, but Chaz has become the iconic figurehead of one of the most interesting musical events to develop in New Orleans since the 2005 flood, the Bywater celebration called Chaz Fest. For a musician whose only equipment is a tricked-out washboard and the finger thimbles he plays it with, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Or maybe I should call him the festival’s ironic figurehead. Chaz Fest was named after him even before it existed, the byproduct of the endless punning that takes place between Chaz and his bandmates in the Tin Men, Alex McMurray and Matt Perrine.
“The name was part of the Tin Men shtick,” McMurray explains. “The word ‘Chaz Fest’ had been floating around forever with the Tin Men. When we used to play at the Matador, part of our shtick was to beg for tips by telling the audience ‘You’ve all heard of Jazz Fest, but we have Chaz Fest, and if you put five dollars in the bucket you can get one of Chaz’s thimbles. Put in a 20 dollar bill and win a dream date with Chaz.’ So we had Chaz Fest as a term before we had the fest.”
Chaz Leary is well aware of the irony, which extends to the fact that his main duty at the festival is to play at least one song with every act on the bill.
“The only reason the festival is named after me is that my name rhymes with ‘jazz’ and we were trying to offer an alternative to Jazz Fest,” Chaz explains. “It could have just as easily been called ‘Alex Fest.’ We were back after the flood and wanted to have a festival for some of the bands that weren’t invited to play Jazz Fest in 2006. It was born out of frustration and it’s mushroomed into what it was now. I never thought it would become a destination festival in between Jazz Fest weekends.
“It was my idea to try to play with everyone from the very beginning. I had already played with the brass bands, and it was easy to play with the rock bands. One of my favorites was playing with Supagroup. You just have to play loud and aggressive and rock on out. The more nuanced bands are the most difficult to play with, like Helen Gillet‘s Other Instruments. Helen’s a genius the way she puts things together.”
McMurray and his wife Kourtney Keller live at the Truck Farm, a group of houses just past the tracks on the river side of St. Claude Avenue. The houses have an enormous common garden which was once a small farmyard. When they were considering a site for their alternative festival, it suddenly dawned on McMurray that they could use their own backyard.
“We were sitting around in the back garden here trying to figure out where we were going to hold Chaz Fest,” says McMurray. “We thought of doing it outside the Fair Grounds and then we thought ‘Fuck, let’s do it here’.”
The setting has proven to be idyllic. Over the years, Keller has developed the site from outright ruins into an English Romantic garden, a Tolkien landscape that should definitely be considered for a spread in some alternative version of Southern Living. A walkway down the side of the first house in the complex leads into an area of makeshift food and crafts booths. This year, Eve Abrams, who also lives at the Truck Farm with her husband, accordionist/songwriter Greg “Schatzy” Schatz, ran a booth selling lemonade, crawfish bread and copies of her new book about Preservation Hall.
Past the food stalls further into the garden was an open space filled with festgoers who brought their own portable furniture and set it up casually in front of the main stage. A clump of enormous palm trees provided shade at the back of this area, while spruce and cypress trees offered deep shade along the corners. Facing the main stage were two large booths: drinks from the nearby Saturn Bar and barbecue from The Joint down on Poland Avenue. Photographer Zack Smith had a makeshift outdoor studio to the left of the main stage and took photographs of anyone walking past who wanted to pose for a shot. In the furthest reaches of the garden were labyrinthine paths where festgoers could wander around listening to the music while completely disengaged from the crowd.
The second stage is nestled into a corner of the yard obscured by trees and bushes. The small stage juts out from a crumbling three- sided barn structure with a makeshift blue tarp for a roof, a Katrina relic made to seem even more dreamlike by the strings of fairy lights draped across the roof beams. It’s a great little secret garden for the audience, shaded by trees, with an audience of adults and children looking like so many hobbits as they sit barefoot on the grass in front of the stage and peer out from behind clumps of bushes and a screen of trees. Next to the stage is a tiny pink Barbie piano that actually works, allowing children to accompany the band as they see fit.
It’s mid-afternoon at Chaz Fest 2011 and Helen Gillet’s Other Instruments are about to play. Earlier in the day, Chaz performed with the New Dopey Singers, War Amps, Mas Mamones, Sarah Quintana, and Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers. With Gillet’s cello and James Westfall’s vibraphones taking up much of the tiny stage, there’s only room for Carl LeBlanc and his banjo, so Chaz slumps down offstage against the wooden wall, seated on an amplifier. He’s dressed even more casually than usual, in a frayed green WWOZ baseball cap, a grey Treme t-shirt, black jeans and sneakers. Percussionist Michael Skinkus places a wooden box opposite Chaz which will double as an instrument and a seat.
“We are the Other Instruments,” Gillet announces. “Every year OffBeat magazine, our local music publication, has an awards show. Different instruments—trumpet, guitar, bass, drums—have their own categories, and then there’s a category for all the instruments that don’t get their own category. They are all lumped into the Other Instruments category. Last year I was nominated for cello along with people who were nominated for playing the banjo, theremin, and a washboard. Guess who won?”
Gillet exchanges a broad smile with Chaz, whose “Aw shucks” look cannot conceal his delight at winning the award.
“We’ve never played together,” she says, gesturing with her bow. “But when you’re all in the same category, it’s no problem.”
Gillet begins playing a Belgian waltz, singing in French, and Chaz weaves a beautifully articulated rhythmic accompaniment with Skinkus while banjo, cello and vibes combine to play the dreamlike theme. As the afternoon sun casts long fingers of light onto the players, the moment is totally hypnotic, sheer pastoral magic, casting a spell over the audience that holds everyone, especially the kids, in rapt, spellbound attention. The music is a combination of free jazz and rustic folk song, clearly improvised on the spot. Gillet proceeds to loop an entire chorus of vocals behind her. Chaz gathers it all together with a few judicious swipes and thimble gestures across his washboard.
When the band finishes, the garden erupts with squeals of delight and applause.
“Who needs a bass,” Gillet laughs impishly, “when you’ve got a cello?”
Someone in the crowd adds: “Who needs drums when you have Chaz?”
Who needs drums?” sums up the genius of Washboard Chaz. If you listen carefully, Chaz does indeed play washboard like a full drum kit. His wood-framed washboard is outfitted with a wood block and a hotel call bell. He ratchets his thimbles over the ridges of the corrugated metal as if it were a snare drum, and uses the block, bell and wooden frame for rhythmic accents. Chaz plays blues, jazz, swing, country and whatever else you might care to hear on his instrument. He prides himself with being able to play with anyone.
“Some people play just one style, but I like to play everything,” he says.
Leary grew up in New York, where he developed his fascinating approach to washboard playing by listening to jazz records.
“I’m basically a bop player. I listened to all the great drummers,” he says, “Roy Haynes, Kenny Clarke, I would play along with all of them. You know the record Jazz at Massey Hall? The drum solo Max Roach does on ‘Salt Peanuts’? I used to be able to play that note for note. I think that’s how a lot of people start out; they’re interested in something and they play along to the record. I moved to Colorado in ’75, played country mostly. I didn’t get a chance to play much bebop out there, although I did have a bebop band called Rudy and the Remarkables.
Leary immediately put his talent for fitting into any music scenario to the test upon his arrival in New Orleans on December 3, 2000.
“I played here before and had lots of friends; they showed me around and got me set up,” Chaz says. “But the main thing I did when I got here was play with Tuba Fats in Jackson Square. I was on the square for about a year and a half. That’s how I got to know all of the brass band cats. The guys in the Jazz Vipers played out there, too. So I got into that brass band/trad jazz thing there. It was good work. I’d get down there about eleven o’clock, play to six, you’d make about 100 dollars a day especially before nine-one-one. Then I’d play gigs at night, sit in with various bands. I still go down and say hi to the fellas. It’s been great watching some of them grow over the years into the bad asses they are today. I always say I’m glad Trombone Shorty didn’t pick up the washboard or I’d be out of work.”
When he was through at Jackson Square, Chaz would go all over town listening to other players and asking to sit in. “I used to go up to see John Rankin at the Columns Hotel, then I’d go see Royal Fingerbowl at the Matador. I got to sit in and play some with the Nightcrawlers.”
Royal Fingerbowl frontman Alex McMurray took a liking to Chaz.
“In the waning days of the Fingerbowl, Chaz started coming around,” McMurray recalls. “He was just trying to sit in with as many people as he could. We thought he was kind of a weird guy for a second. But he slipped right in there, and he sounded great right off the bat. I left the Fingerbowl in November of 2001. I’d been playing at the Circle Bar solo, Matt would come down and sit in with me, and because Chaz was new to town he’d come and sit in. We all got along so we formed a band and decided to call ourselves the Tin Men because we all had metal in our instruments.”
Meanwhile, Chaz formed his own group, the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio.
“I started that band in 2001,” says Leary. “We started getting a weekly gig at the Spotted Cat in 2002, and we’ve been working there ever since. Those were the early days of the renaissance of Frenchmen Street. I’ve seen it grow over the last 10 years to the point where now it’s a destination scene for the music of New Orleans.”
Chaz subsequently joined the swing band Palmetto Bug Stompers, the Tin Men offshoot the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, and a trio with McMurray and Jonathan Freilich called the Mirlitones. Last year, Chaz released the first record by his western swing outfit Washboard Rodeo.
All the while, Leary never stopped listening and learning.
“There are a lot of great drummers here in town,” Chaz says. “Herlin Riley was my favorite. Shannon Powell was right behind him. Johnny Vidacovich used to play across the street from me at d.b.a. so I’d go to see him all the time, and I always picked up stuff from them cats.”
As much as Leary learned from some, he influenced others.
“When I got here, there was Washboard Annie (Lissa Driscoll). She’d been around forever,” says Leary, “but aside from that, everybody was playing the frattoir. Now there’s 9 or 10 washboard players and some of them are pretty good. There’s no right or wrong way to play it. I play it pretty aggressively. I never got involved in endorsements, but about a year ago I got a call from a company and they asked, ‘What kind of washboard do you use?’ Because they were getting callers saying, ‘I want to get the washboard Washboard Chaz uses’.”
Washboard Chaz is one of the more ubiquitous presences on the incestuous Frenchmen Street scene. His latest Blues Trio album, with guitarist St. Louis Slim and harmonica whiz Andy J. Forest, is called On the Street, a tribute to New Orleans’ hippest music strip. One of the reasons Chaz can play with anybody is that he gets along with everybody.
“He’s very versatile,” says Forest, “but as years go by, it’s important to realize how important a good personality can be. There are people who play well but don’t get along with other people, like Benny Goodman, but Chaz is a good guy and he’s diplomatic. He’s got ideas, but he’s open to different things.”
Two days after Jazz Fest—which he also played—Chaz enjoys a day off by attending Forest’s birthday party at his Bywater home. “It’s fun to play music, and I’m very lucky to be able to make a living doing it,” Chaz says between sips of a cold drink while sitting on Forest’s back porch watching a group led by St. Louis Slim play the kind of altered American acoustic music Chaz and his cohorts are known for. “There’s a lot of musicians living in the Bywater. It’s a cool scene. The Chaz Fest people are Bywater people.
“Frenchmen Street isn’t as much fun as it used to be. I make more money, but I don’t have as good a time playing to mostly out-of-towners. So the locals are finding other places to go. St. Claude Avenue is starting to pick up. The All Ways Lounge. The Hi Ho. The Saturn Bar is a great room. We do the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus there. Right now I’m doing fine being one of the many kings of Frenchmen Street. This year I’m going to try to play a little more in Bywater at Sugar Park. I’m looking around for things to do.”