As a keen observer of our quixotic metropolis, Derrick Freeman laughs a lot. Out of disbelief, in bursts of joy, as punctuation to his stories. Freeman has lived here long enough to tell great stories. One time Peter Jennings came to the Thursday night Kermit Ruffins gig at Vaughan’s, where Freeman held the drummer stool for most of the last 10 years. As the start time passed unobserved and the usual partying preoccupied the band, Jennings approached.
“Goddamnit, you guys are so unprofessional!” the late ABC anchorman hissed. “You’d never make it in New York!”
The memory cracks Freeman up.
If media titans in faraway capitals once set the standards and controlled the spotlight, things are different now. In 2013, given the right combination of talent, persistence and timing, a New Orleans musician of Freeman’s caliber can laugh at Peter Jennings.
“What’s with all this pork?”
Freeman counts the swine-related items on the menu of a new restaurant that would probably suit a network personality just fine. On a Thursday night in August, we sit under thoughtful lighting at a well-apportioned bar in deepest Bywater, epicenter for the Americanization of New Orleans. Four options in the list of tapas contain the other white meat. Freeman gets fries; I order chicken yakitori. Each plate costs $6.
We seem a long way from Fallujah, or, rather, the New Orleans-as-Fallujah that Freeman describes on the lead track of Blurple Pain, his stellar 2012 record with his Smokers World band. In that city, the workingman struggles amid gunplay, nihilism and destructive politics. “New Orleans is Fallujah,” Freeman barks in the tune, “and we the insurgents.” Written after Katrina, “Fallujah” describes conditions that persist mere blocks from the restaurant, where brutality pops off as suddenly as small plates arrive next to microbrews. Freeman notices this contradiction. In some ways, he sits smack in the middle of it.
He arrived from Houston in 1992, an art school kid accepted into the University of New Orleans’ music program. “My intention was to try to go to Julliard, but I didn’t get in,” Freeman recalls. “I got accepted to Oberlin and I just didn’t want to go there. I was playing some gig in Houston with a local jazz group in high school. We opened up for Ellis Marsalis, and he was like, ‘You need to come to UNO.’ Actually Wynton and Herlin Riley and Shannon [Powell] all told me that I should come here. They gave me a scholarship, so I came, literally, the next week. I was only planning to be here a couple years, then I was going to go up to New York, become a jazz musician. Clearly that didn’t happen. I found the Treme neighborhood, started doing second lines, ingratiated myself. Never left.”
Along with occasional parade gigs with the Treme Brass Band and Lil Rascals, Freeman began filling in for Powell in Ruffins’ band, taking over full-time around 2004 and absorbing the tradition. During stints with the innovative groups Coolbone, All That and Crönk, Freeman became familiar with the limitations placed on artists who strayed too far from established ideas of New Orleans music. Around 2001, he and members of Crönk sat down with a major label to discuss a contract.
“The guy was like, ‘I gotta be honest, man, if you guys were from California, I’d sign you right now.’ We were like, ‘What difference does it make?’ He’s like, ‘I wish it didn’t, but it does. You guys are from New Orleans and there’s only a certain way I can market it, and if I don’t, nobody’s going to buy it.’ To be in the office, on the lot, looking at the papers, we’re finally going to do it, and then, ‘No, we can’t.’”
As years passed, Freeman came to terms with his career. “I’m just going to be a local cat,” he told himself. Then the federal levees broke and flipped everything upside down.
Blurple Pain—the title refers both to an inside joke about African-American identity and a strain of weed—is a product of the storm’s aftermath. “I had a concept for that record right after the storm. I was in Alabama with my then-fiancé, my wife now, waiting to get instruments back. The first thing I got was a keyboard and I started laying tracks, coming up with these concepts. It took me awhile to formulate it. It took me like four years to do that record. There’s like 40 musicians on it. I recorded in New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Houston—it was a labor of love.”
He laughs. “I’ll never do another record like that!”
The result hangs together surprisingly well, but the album is complicated, even conflicted. The R&B jewel “Slick” alternates smooth talk with the, uh, surprises of oral sex, then gives way to the reefer humor of “Short Paper,” which plays off Randy Newman’s “Short People.” Several emcees, Freeman included, contribute verses. There’s a great Prince cover and a borrowed chorus from Player’s classic, “Baby Come Back.” And then there’s the anger of “Fallujah” and “Grown Ass Man,” with significant memorializing of musicians lost to the streets. So, I ask, do tastemakers in other cities consider Blurple Pain a “New Orleans” record?
So far, Freeman says, the response of radio stations, venues, and fans across the country is decidedly affirmative. “Real answer to that question? I wish it was considered a New Orleans record.”
His reasons tell you as much about today’s New Orleans as the prices on the menus in the Bywater. Where once there was a stigma, there is now a brand. “We always used to get frustrated because we could see it happening to so many other cities,” Freeman recalls. “When Philly was blowing up—the Roots, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, D’Angelo. The whole time, all through the ’90s, we kept being like, ‘When?’
Now everybody’s trying to put that [New Orleans] stamp on their shit.”
The arrival of HBO’s Treme impacted the lives of many artists, with Freeman among the beneficiaries.
“I always had a realistic grasp of that situation,” he says. The demands of filming and role-playing weren’t new to a drummer who began acting in high school. “I grew up in musical theater. The stage and acting was my first love. Treme afforded me some opportunities to get back into it. I was in a bunch of episodes of that show and I did voiceovers for the whole fourth season. I went out to LA and did a couple TV shows. I’ve done six or seven movies in the last three years.” The show recently bought one of his songs for the final season. “Being in New Orleans at this time is perfect.”
I note the irony: after years of butting against the limits of this place, many musicians find success for holding fast and never leaving. Freeman calls it an exception. “We’re the lucky ones. If we were regular Joes, we wouldn’t be up in here.” He points to our swell surroundings. “We’d be in San Antonio, St. Louis. I don’t even want to think about it, to be honest with you. I have a lot of friends that disappeared into the diaspora and never made it back.”
His phone buzzes with a reminder from Kermit: show starts at 9 p.m. “Why’s he texting me?” Freeman asks in mock outrage. “I’m always 30 minutes early!”
We settle up and leave in separate cars. By the time I park outside Vaughn’s, Freeman is carrying the last of his drums inside. Summer-fresh in plaid pants and a white hat, Kermit is in “DJ-Smoke-a-Lot” mode, grinning as he crafts a characteristic iPod run: “Because I Got High” to “Jeepers Creepers” to “Between the Sheets” to Akon’s “Don’t Matter.”
Vaughn’s is near capacity when the band begins just before 10 p.m. My back against the cigarette machine, I lay eyes on a tourism official’s fantasy: summer visitors living the dream in the bar they watched on TV. Wide-backed males wear t-shirts from other locales—Belize, Vegas. Lithe women in sundresses pay the woman at the door and shuffle to the bar, where Anastacia Ternasky, singer in Morella and the Wheels of If, tends calmly to the throng. Outside, the BBQ man serves food and collects his cash as cabbies deposit the visitors. One might scoff at, say, the older lady toting a bottle of champagne through the neighborhood joint, but the money is no joke. Jobs and lives orbited the Kermit gig, held every Thursday night at Vaughan’s for 20-plus years before coming to a close in late August.
The musicians are in the middle. Casual but in command, Freeman provides a center of gravity. The set ends with the Treme theme song but not before veteran bassist Chris Severin sits in and, together with Freeman, sets the place ablaze for three songs.
During the break, we meet up on the sidewalk across Dauphine Street. Next week, he takes his own band to the Bay Area, where Smokers World has a following. Plumes of BBQ smoke rise above scattered groups of people. Along the curb, on the benches, against cars, they drink and talk and wipe away perspiration. Freeman looks back at the bar, then gazes down the street and shakes his head.
“Crazy,” he says