This year’s Jazz Fest poster, “Busking Out: Becoming Jimmy Buffett,” depicts Buffett on a street corner playing for tips. This scene doesn’t come from painter Garland Robinette’s imagination; Buffett started his musical career playing Bourbon Street bars and French Quarter sidewalks. He hadn’t become a songwriter, but New Orleans is where he first started to hone his craft.
“I was going to school in Poplarville (Mississippi) and I got a job at Trader John’s (in the French Quarter), so that had to have been 1967. That was kind of like the minor leagues, and that little club fed other places. The major leagues was the Bayou Room on Bourbon Street. If you weren’t good enough to get into the Bayou, then you went to Trader John’s. But a band had tragically been killed in a car wreck on the Causeway that had worked in the Bayou Room. We went down and auditioned and got the job.
Tuesday through Sunday, we started at seven in the evening. We played until three in the morning, half hour on, half hour off. And then Mardi Gras, we started at 10 in the morning, and we went until four. I think that’s the hardest job I ever did, doing literally 20 hours of playing. It was amazing. I was 19 years old or something like that.
In those days, the biggest thing to do was to try not to get as drunk as the audience. Occasionally, we didn’t make the cut, and that wasn’t fun. I learned early on that it was a responsibility to be onstage. I had seen bad drunk performers, and I really didn’t want to be one. I slipped occasionally, but that was a different time. You’d get off work at three and you never got home ’til the sun came up, so you slept all day. And you could get a muffuletta for a dollar and a six pack of Dixie, so it wasn’t a bad life.
I used to come down before the Trader John’s gig and play on the streets around the Seven Seas and Las Casas de Marinas. I busked probably in the summer of ’66 and got that job in ’67, and in ’68 I was back working on the street. I always had a good time doing it. It’s just what you did. Between gigs, you played on the street. For me, it was fascinating. You were living that kind of romantic life, the reason most people that had any artistic tendencies went to New Orleans. It wasn’t any kind of degrading or down-on-my-luck or broke thing.
There were definitely songs [that earned tips]. They were all covers.I don’t even know if I’d started songwriting then. Hey, it was the 1960s. A lot of Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction.” Folky stuff. Protest songs. I remember there was a song called “The Song of the Salvation Army.” There was one Mason Williams song called “Them Poems.” Certain catchy songs. There were other people playing that had the real jobs and there were groups that I looked up to. I’d pick up material from them and apply the stuff that really worked on crowds and worked it into my set. Humorous drinking songs.
I’ve always been a shameless entertainer. Chances are, if someone was stopping and listening to you and you made them feel good, then they would put some money into your guitar case.
And right down the street in those days, Frogman (Henry) was still on the street. And the Nevilles were at the Ivanhoe Piano Bar. There was a lot of music on the street in those days. There was a great piano bar on Iberville, and they had this guy play some Frank Sinatra stuff. And then there was always Las Casas. They had conga drums chained to the wall in the front room, and you could rent the conga drums and play along with the jukebox. I always loved that.
[In New Orleans] I learned what I was best suited to do. I’m not the best singer or the best guitar player, but I was front a band and run a band. I was the only one in the band who had credit at the music store because I had another job, so I became the leader of the band and I liked it.”
The street musician band Playing for Change will perform with Ilo Ferreira at Margaritaville May 6 and 7 at 9 p.m. There will also be a Recording Lounge for the band and Jazz Fest musicians who wish to participate in Playing for Change’s collaborative process.