If f you study with Banu Gibson at her New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp, one of the first things she’ll do is march you around the French Quarter with your axe. To her, learning the notes is easy, but learning the feel is a little harder—and a lot more important. And sometimes the simplest lessons are the crucial ones, starting with learning not to play too damn fast.
“One of the first things you notice as you listen to the traditional jazz repertoire over the years is that it just got faster,” she explains. “People forget that it used to be dance music and that if you can’t dance to it, you’re playing the wrong tempo. A lot of these guys have never second lined, so we start by marching them around the French Quarter in the heat. So they start out playing at full speed and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, they’re going to drop dead in the heat if they keep up at that tempo.’ But you just start walking, and within a couple of blocks you’re hitting the natural tempo that you need for that New Orleans feel. It really comes from walking and dancing in the streets. Otherwise you’d be roadkill.”
Getting the feel right has been a hallmark of Gibson’s career. Well before arriving in New Orleans in 1973, she was a crusader for traditional jazz, and she’s since travelled the world on that material. At home, she’s long been a beloved figure, and even after traditional jazz has seen a few revivals, her ability to personalize material that’s coming on a century old makes her something of an anomaly.
“You mean like dinosaur time?” she asks. “Absolutely! I find I’ve been a unique kind of thing running around out there, and I’m proud to have been this different kind of influence. Don’t forget that when I first hit town there were no female singers per se, even some of the original ones like Betty Assunto (of the original Dukes of Dixieland) weren’t performing. Nowadays there must be 70 little chickie singers doing this music, and I hear people saying things like ‘Wow, Banu must be pissed, she was doing this shit 30 years ago.’ But the cross ventilation has been really terrific. The best thing is that nowadays you can get together with some of the younger singers and say, ‘Hey, did you know this or that song?’”
Originally conceived after Katrina by Gibson with musician/educators Leslie Cooper and Nita Hemeter, the Jazz Camp will be holding its sixth annual session during the second week of June. About 90 players attend from all over the country and Europe, plus about a dozen younger students on scholarships. For one week, they’ll be based at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, jamming with locals, getting daily instrumental lessons, hanging out at hotspots like Preservation Hall, Snug Harbor, Buffa’s and Fritzel’s, and ultimately performing as a band. And, ideally, going back home to spread the gospel.
The camp started modestly enough when the founders came together under the New Orleans Women in Music banner to do something productive after Katrina. The first goal was to buy new clothes for performers who’d lost their gig-wear in the storm. In the process, Cooper mentioned that she was sending her son to study traditional jazz in Sacramento. “She was really fuming that he couldn’t learn it here, and I came to realize that I’d been complaining about the same thing since the ’90s—kids could take jazz classes at NOCCA and Preservation Hall, but there was no place for adults to learn it,” Gibson said. “So we broke off and ran with that.” Though many of the attendees are already musicians, the level of expertise varies. “We get a pretty wide range of abilities, but it’s more important to come with passion than with unbelievable technique,” she said. “The key thing is to help keep New Orleans traditional jazz alive, and to me it comes down to the joy I see when they walk into Preservation Hall. I’ve seen grown people start crying, and I say, ‘See? Now you know why I’m doing this.’ It’s the love of the music that I can pass on to people.”
Her music and her local scene connections were two of the lifelines during her own dark period in the past couple of years. Her husband Buzz Podewell, a much-admired member of Tulane’s theater faculty and director of its summer stock company and associated Shakespeare festival, died of lung cancer in March 2013. The couple had been together four decades, and his hiring at Tulane was one of the main factors that brought them to town. As one might expect, performing after the loss wasn’t easy.
“When you lose a spouse, you have to figure out other reasons to keep going,” Gibson said. “It’s the kind of moment that makes you think, ‘Who am I, and what am I doing again?’ And if you don’t have anyone to travel the road with, it’s painful. So you invent carrots that give you something to look forward to, just so you have a reason to get out of bed. Riding in the Muses parade was one, and I had a cruise gig that was still on the books. And being part of the (female singers’ collective) New Orleans Nightingales helped a lot. They had some gigs booked, and that kept me singing. Mostly though, I didn’t turn work down, but I didn’t go looking for any either. The shows I did were emotionally good. They at least kept me singing. But for a while my private face was very different from my public face.”
When Tony Bennett played Jazz Fest last month, he noted onstage that he only sings old songs “because I don’t like the new songs.” To some extent, Gibson shares that mindset (though not entirely: She was recently part of a local show celebrating Randy Newman, something of a proud throwback himself). But as a singer, she has the same knack Bennett does for bringing out the romance and the underlying joy of her chosen material, making it clear why this music speaks to her. “There is pure happiness in this early jazz. You have to feel good when you’re singing it. It’s funny because one of my favorite lyricists is Lorenz Hart, and he was such a sad individual. His lyrics are just breathtakingly full of agony, and I think we’ve all been there. But I am attracted to the happy stuff because I’ve been happy my whole life and I like sharing the joie de vivre.”
To Gibson, each era of music has its own defining spirit. “When you think about it, during the 1920’s, jazz was in its own teens and 20’s,” she said. “That was when it was full of incredible energy and life. During the ’30s, things mellowed and matured a little bit, but you still had a good melody and some meat on the bone. The ’40s was when it all sped up, the riff starts becoming a song. Then in the ’50s it all went back to melody. Everybody was tired, we’d just come through a war, and it was ‘Can I have a nice little song, please?’ Then we took off on rock ‘n’ roll, and to me the Stones were the point where it just got in your face.”
Yet the Rolling Stones and their contemporaries were just what she grew up listening to. A child of the ’60s, she was born in Dayton, Ohio, raised in Florida, and spent the usual teenage time driving around in a Ford Falcon convertible with the top down and the AM radio up. It was old movies on TV that gave her the first taste of something different. “It came from watching Fred Astaire and Shirley Temple movies,” Gibson said. “I was studying dance, so I loved watching Bojangles Robinson. I didn’t understand what movies were, but I knew that I liked the sound of the songs, the harmonic and rhythmic content.” She got an early gig with Phil Napoleon, the ’30s hot-jazz trumpeter who’d settled in Miami by 1967. But her first national exposure, for better or worse, was with Your Father’s Moustache, a spinoff band from a chain of ’20s themed restaurants of the same name.
“We used to call it ‘Music to Throw Up By,’” she said. “It originated as a series of nightclubs that sold pizza and beer. You’d sit at tables and have big singalongs. That’s when everybody’s collective repertoire was pretty much the same.” She did get on TV once (a long-forgotten Jack Jones special) and nearly made the Tonight Show before guest host George Segal bumped her, but most of those gigs were less glorious. “It was playing for college students with a lot of beer. Everybody was certainly being wild and rowdy. There was a tuba and a trombone and two banjos and me. It wasn’t Carnegie Hall.” She hooked up with a touring Walt Disney revue soon after, at around the time her husband entertained two job offers: One at Tulane and one in Plattsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Funny to think that I could just as easily have wound up there—I mean, shoot me now.”
The mission got stronger when she came to New Orleans in 1973, a time when the climate was quite different. Traditional jazz was well under the radar, and even Louis Armstrong wasn’t getting the same veneration he gets now. “The heroes at the time were Connie Jones and George Finola, both playing very good music. But there were also a lot of what I’d call Dixieland bands, and it had become very Bourbon Street-ized, which means it was fast and loud and moving toward the ‘Hello, Dolly’ song list and away from the original repertoire that Louis and the Hot Five were playing. Tourists would come with a certain picture of New Orleans in their heads and there was a disdain for that music, especially in the black community—where there was a passion for being forward-thinking, looking to play the next thing and not repeat what anyone else did. It took someone like Dr. Michael White to come along. He and Wynton put Louis back on the pedestal where he belonged.” She began working in the ’80s with pianist David Boeddinghaus, a fellow musicologist who added a bunch of rarely-played New Orleans songs to her repertoire.
Gibson hasn’t been involved with a lot of flops, but the late ’90s brought a notable one, as she partnered with Levon Helm to launch his Classic American Café on Decatur. The club actually had a good feel and a great sound system and hosted some memorable shows (including the best Morphine gig I ever caught, during Jazz Fest 1999)—but you would only know that if you were around during the big three months it was open. “I’ve never seen a place get run into the ground so fast,” she says now. “Usually it takes at least five or six months. I wish I’d known. I could have raised the money by myself. Otherwise, I would never have partnered with this guy from New Jersey who managed to blow through Levon’s and everybody else’s money. It was great to be able to hang out and meet Levon, even if we were from two different musical worlds. But as for that other guy…” End of topic.
The same year brought a show that she names as a career peak, with the Boston Pops at that city’s Symphony Hall for the millennium. “How’s that for one-upmanship? The gig of the century and I was on it,” she said. “I knew I was on the short list, but I thought it would never come through. Usually I’m up against, say, the second coming of Jesus and the Beatles reunion. But this time it really happened, and I asked (Pops director) Keith Lockhart why he chose me. And he said, ‘We wanted somebody good that wasn’t going to be a diva.’ So, finally, being a nice gal paid off.”
With her enforced semi-retirement at an end, she has a few more high-profile projects in the works. One is the Randy Newman tribute, which she and her collaborators (Debbie Davis, Matt Perrine and Tom McDermott) plan to bring on tour. Another is a musical play, Moanin’ Low, currently being written for her by Jimmy Fitzsimmons and based on the life of ’20s/’30s actress and torch singer Libby Holman (whose life was certainly full of material: She was a civil-rights activist, an open bisexual, the apparent inventor of the strapless dress, and the accused murderer of her first husband). Gibson is keeping the details under wraps for now, but she does say that her daughter will be onstage with her, playing the character in younger days. She’s also planning an autobiographical touring show, Chick Singer: Tales From the Bandstand, which will allow her to tell career stories between the songs.
“It’s really been only in the last two months that I’ve been able to get my energy back for performing,” Gibson said “In the last couple years I wasn’t singing as much, my voice wasn’t really where I wanted it to be. So now I’m ready to work on this phase of my career, whatever it may be.” And, just maybe, to claim her place as an inspirational figure in local music. “I really have no idea what my status is in town, but I hope it’s something like that. It’s a lot better than being in the ‘She’s a real asshole’ category.”