It is a beautiful day in J. Monque’D’s neighborhood.
You can’t quite see the Mississippi River from the door of his rented shotgun apartment, but you can feel the cool breeze that hurdles the levee and washes over Tchoupitoulas Street.
Neither J. Monque’D nor his interviewer bothered to shave today. Wearing bright orange shorts and a “black Bart” T-Shirt, the bluesman settles into the passenger seat with a bottle of Heineken.
Like the French Quarter buggy driver he once was, Monque (when pronounced separately, James Monque Digbys middle name sounds like “monk”) immediately launches into a narrated tour of the area.
“Over there on that stoop, those are members of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe,” he points out. “In this area, you got a number of musicians, James Rivers, Deacon John. Down that street is Art Neville’s house.
“I lived for years with my house facing Aaron and Cyril Neville’s houses. At one time in the early ’80s, I went through a short period where I didn’t have a phone in the house. My bass player used to joke that J. Monque’D was the only guy who had telephone privileges at Aaron Neville’s house. ‘Cause when I needed to use the phone, I’d bang on Big A’s door and go, ‘I need to use the phone, , bro’!’”
The tour ends on Lyons Street, home to an endless number of societies and organizations. Monque belongs to all of them: the Lyons Carnival Club at Beach Ball Benny’s, the Uptown Assholes Social Society in Grit’s Bar, the J. Monque’D Fan Club, founded and presided over by bartender Janie Baum, also at Grit’s.
In the town of Monqueville, it’s hard to take two steps without someone calling “Hey, J!” Monque grips his green bottle like a scepter and carries it into Beach Ball’s and sits at a back table.
The past couple years have been as good as anything has ever been to J. Monque’D. There’s the new frontier of commercial work: He can be currently seen flashing his gold teeth on a Louisiana lottery commercial, and he plays “Jolie Blonde” with Cajun accordionist Steve Riley in an international commercial for Southern Comfort. He’s preparing for this year’s third tour abroad. And his debut album is coming out in November. Or maybe December. Even if it’s january, Monque doesn’t really care — this one’s really going to happen. It will be on the Wolf label, out of Austria, and it’s going to be called Chumin’ Man. The title track is a song he was inspired to write in high school, after losing his virginity.
More on that later.
Monque ‘D is much more than another bandleader with a new album. He’s a fixture on the New Orleans music scene, as permanent as his $10,000 dentures. He’s played at nearly every jazz Fest, often repeatedly.
Anyone who’s ever played in this city seems to have a Monque’D story, and the harp player draws steady crowds-including his fan club-at Mid-City Lanes, Beach Ball’s and Ruby’s Roadhouse, as well as Tabby’s Blues Box in Baton Rouge. (He plays at a Children’s Hospital benefit at Beach Ball Benny’s on Nov. 7th, MargaritavIlle on Friday, Nov. 12th, and Mid-City Lanes on the 19th.) He held down the Blue Monday program at WWOZ for five years, and when R&B singer Mr. Google Eyes died, it was Monque and Dr. john who organized the funeral.
On stage, Monque is a high-caliber blues singer and blower, wailing on his harp and shaking his well-oiled black mane at Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Slim Harpo standards, as well as his own originals. Scores of Crescent City blues players have passed through the J Monque ‘D Blues Band over the past 34 years–his current outfit includes veterans jack Cole on guitar and Jack Carter on bass, with Harry Ravain and Willie Panker trading off on drums.
“I know what it’s like to be nothing, trying to be something,” Monque starts out, launching into an interview that will stretch on for six hours. “I’ve been on the bottom all my life trying to get to the top. And that’s why I’ve always said, ‘I eat with the blues, I sleep with the blues, I walk and talk with the blues, I am the blues.’
“A tiny little thing with ten little holes in it will always be my best friend. It has helped me express my joy when I’m overflowing with joy. It has helped soothe me and chase my tears when I was so depressed when my son was kidnapped. There were times that I’m real glad that there was a harmonica laying on the table instead of a pistol and a razor blade.”
He looks up and smiles, revealing a gold-filled mouth of what may be the most famous teeth in New Orleans. “A psychiatrist could get rich writing a book about my life,” he says. The tour of the neighborhood is finished; the tour o. Monque’D is just beginning.
Like the dark-skinned Simpson on his T-shirt, there has always been some question about Monque’D’s ethnic makeup. The harmonica player hasn’t made it any easier — he learned as a young boy about the need to play the race card close to the chest.
“I came from a Creole-Acadian family on my father’s side, and my mother is half-white and half-Native American,” he says. “My father’s mother was half black and half white, so my father was what they call quadroon.”
It was one thing to be Creole when he lived with his grandparents in the tiny Plaquemines Parish town of Point a la Hache, says Monque. It was something else altogether near Birmingham, Alabama, where Monque moved to join his parents when he was a young teenager. His mother warned him not to tell anybody that he had African-American blood, he remembers, but word got out anyway. That’s when he first heard that he was a “nigger lover” and that he had a touch of the tar brush. A young girl named Norma drew Monque’s name for the school Christmas exchange. She gave him a banana with “To Monkey D” inscribed on it.
“I cried and everything,” recalls Monque. “But a couple years later, I was spending the summer in New Orleans with my grandparents, and I put my first band together, and a guy in the band suggested it as my professional name. At first I thought it was stupid.”
That would prove to be one of the last thoughts of James Digby. Monque has since changed his name legally to J. Monque’D.
To win friends, Monque would always turn to his music. He’d owned his harp since his fourth birthday, and he learned his first song by imitating his grandmother, who would play and sing “Trouble in Mind.”
Other memories include Jimmy Reed on the night radio. “I still remember,” says Monque, singing quietly: “‘Caress me baby, just like the wind caress the trees / Caress me baby, just like the wind caress the trees / I want you to love me baby, like a soft, soft summer breeze.’ And he’d play that real high pitch, what we call the first position-blowed out notes in the high register, and even when I was that little, it just ate me up.”
And then, says Monque, he saw Liberace playing a diamond-studded piano on television. “‘My God,’ I thought. ‘You can make money doing this!'”
The little white boy who belted out “I’m a Man” was cute enough to get called onstage with players like Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo, he recalls. When he was seven his uncle drove Monque and two of his cousins to appear on a Lafayette-area TV program called jambalaya that featured, remembers Monque, Clifton Chenier in the house band.
“Then later on when I was eight or nine, we all went. to see the Louisiana Hayride on the road in Baton Rouge,” he continues. They were going to see headliner Webb Pierce, but Elvis came on stage first, wearing an orange sport coat and purple pants. My uncle screamed out, ‘Get rid of that damn boy, I want to see Webb Pierce,'” he recalls. “But seeing Elvis had an immediate effect on me.”
After school, Monque started going to a place called the Canteen, where the older kids were hanging out. He’d pretend to play guitar, and he found that he could make his voice curl like Elvis and Jimmy Reed. “So I got the nickname ‘Little Elvis,'” he says. “I couldn’t shake that nickname.”
While telling his story, J. Monque’D gestures with his right hand, and someone walks by and slaps a fresh can of beer in it. He places it next to the still-full bottle and continues talking, not missing a beat.
There are far too many people, too many places and too much music in Monque’s life to ever cover here at this back table in Beach Ball Benny’s. A life in the blues seems to guarantee that you have a few lifetime’s worth of unsorted stories, and damned if they don’t all come out like a blues song. Yes, says J. Monque’D, as a child he picked cotton, pulled corn, cut sugar cane. And he found his blues at home, during the months his dad was home from his job on the Mississippi.
“My daddy — I don’t like to tell this, but my father was an alcoholic,” he remembers.
“The reason I went back to live with my grandparents again was my father’s drinking. This is something that I don’t like to talk about, but what the hell. You want to know me so you might as well know me.
“My father drank and he beat my mother. When I was a little boy I saw him hit my mother in the mouth one time and she spit seven — count ’em — seven teeth on the floor.”
The memory, says Monque, came back to him when he was getting his own teeth repaired. “I remember my momma’s gold teeth, and I remember it as a little boy, the few times I was around my real mother, I used to make her smile so I could see those gold teeth.
“And when I saw those teeth on the floor,” he continues, “I remember that two of them had golden crowns.
“A doctor once attributed a 15 decibel hearing loss in my ear, caused by my father hitting me in the face. If you can imagine a 13 year-old boy with a father throwing him down to the floor and kicking me with his shoes on. I was terrified of him. See, my father was over six and a half feet tall, and he wore a 60-inch belt. It was five feet of leather.
“So the Salvation Army came and took me away,” remembers Monque. “That’s why — look at this — I’m just not an alcohol person.
“It was the music, man! Don’t you understand? It was my escape.”
The J. Monque’D Blues Band played its first gig on the Fourth of July weekend in 1959, at the Skateland skating arena.
As far as early musical inspirations, Monque says that he’s like any musician in New Orleans: “I was influenced by everyone!” It was Tommy Ridgley and Earl King who showed him how to look pretty on stage. “But I went nuts over Polka Dot Slim,” he says. “I’d go by his house, by where he’d sit and drink — everywhere he went, there was this white kid right behind him. Polka Dot Slim played harmonica in one microphone and sang in a different one. I thought, ‘Man, that is cool. That is just so cool.'”
Monque refuses the description of a Chicago-style harp blower. “The blues harmonica, that real low-down wailing, chao-chao train sound, that from-your-asshole-all-the-way-up-to-your-eyeballs-your-mouth-and-your-ears-kind-of-blues, that came from right here, in Mississippi and Louisiana.”
It was also Polka Dot Slim who showed Monque how to add a comic stage persona to the blues. “But it must be inside of me,” he adds, “or it wouldn’t come out.”
As such, “Butter Churnin’ Man” is Monque’s autobiographical opus. The song’s intro announces that it was his job to make the butter, which means that he had to work the dasher in and out of the chum, until the cream would drip out of the top and down the sides: “It’s almost like a sexual thing, yeah.”
The song is actually based on a traditional rhyme, adds Monque. “When I was a kid, I heard something like, ‘I’m your butter and egg man / I’ll make your butter come / So come here baby / Let me show you how it’s done.”
“So when I was in high school I sat down and wrote a story about my childhood and how I grew up, and yeah, it was at a time in my life when there was this girl-she was a majorette in the school band. I was 15, she was 14, and we did-as they would say these days — we did the lambada. We did the love dance. That was my first sexual experience. I went to deliver the newspaper that afternoon, and she came to the front door and she opened up the screen and she said, ‘Come up close to the door for a minute.’ I stood up close to the door. She stuck her knee out like this, and very gently, put her knee up into my crotch …
“So my cousin Albert started teasing me, saying ‘Oh, you’ve been sticking that dasher in that little girl’s churn and whipping her butter up.’ So when I first began to write songs, “Churnin’ Man” was one of the first. “That was when B.B. King had ‘Rock Me Baby; and we all knew what he meant. So I wanted to have my own naughty song.”
As well as the title track to the new album, “Butter Churnin’ Man” is the favorite song of Janie Baum, president of the J. Monque’D fan club.
After surviving his father, after serving in Vietnam, after some psychedelic-laced years in Haight-Ashbury, after working his way up the French Quarter career ladder from Lucky Dog seller to Bourbon Street barker to blues player, J. Monque’D’s life as he knew It almost came to an end on the comer of Washington and Broad, while waiting with his son for a bus to the 1979 Jazz Fest.
He had been married to and divorced from a woman he had met in Alabama, and the judge had granted him custody of John, who Monque called “Little J.” Monque wasn’t playing the festival on the final day, so he packed a bag with toys and harmonicas, and brought his son with him. Little J. was in his arms, pointing to a Popeye’s sign and singing, “Love that chicken.” Then someone said, “Hey Monque ‘D.” A car pulled over and someone blasted father and son with a tank of mace.
Four men jumped on him. Monque tried to save his son by stuffing him in a passing car, but the driver was scared. He gunned the motor and crashed into another vehicle. “One of them had my son’s arm and one had his leg, and they said We’ll tear this little mother fucker apart like a chicken wing if you don’t give him to us,'” Monque remembers.
Then he recognized the voice of his ex-wife.
“I started screaming, ‘My God, don’t hurt my little baby,’ and they said, Well, then let go of him, asshole.’ And I let go of him. And I spent the next 13 years wondering where he was.”
Private investigators couldn’t turn up anything. Then In 1992, a number flashed on an Oprah Winfrey show about parental kidnapping. He was told to find his ex-wife’s social security number. An hour after he got it, he had a phone number. A week later, his son was in New Orleans.
The welcome home party was at Grit’s Bar. John is currently finishing his senior year with his grandparents In Salt Lake City, because he couldn’t graduate on schedule in New Orleans, says Monque. “And obviously he and I both have some mental and emotional problems,” he says, adding that they’ve been seeing a psychiatrist. “We’ve got a lot of confusion and anger, and a lot of shit in our heads. When he first got back, we had some major fucking arguments.”
All part of being a father again, Monque decides. Even if John Isn’t home on Christmas, he’ll be here for Mardi Gras, and Monque has already secured his spot in the Lyons Carnival Club.
The blues job has taken Monque into some different places, he says. He remembers one time in Alexandria, when the club had to draw a chicken wire curtain over the band, and the Ku Klux Klan escorted the musicians to the parish line.
“That’s when I thought that I should get the hell out of the South,” says Monque ‘D, who went to live in Michigan and California, where he played with John Lee Hooker’s band.
Back in New Orleans, the bluesman can also be found masking with the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indian tribe. And one time someone gave him static for that too, he says.
“We were on Jackson Avenue on Mardi Gras day, at one of our beer stops. Some guy who was getting a little drunk stepped up and made some remark: ‘Hey, white boy!’ See, when you’re an Indian, you can’t back down from no fucking body just ’cause you got light skin. You want to play Mardi Gras Indian, you do it for real.”
His attraction to the New Orleans tradition dates back to childhood, says Monque — the same time that he was discovering Elvis and Jimmy Reed. “When I was a little boy, I would wake up in the morning and I couldn’t wait to see the black men with the big feathers on their heads and shouting, ‘Hey Pocky, Way.'” And on that Mardi Gras day on Jackson Avenue, he remembers, it wasn’t long until a hundred Indians came crowding around them. The Creole Wild West Big Chief walked up to the challenger and pointed to Monque. .
He’s Creole Wild West, he said, and don’t fuck with Creole Wild West. You see that fucking suit he’s wearing, the Big Chief asked.
He made that suit hisself, he said.
And he did. Monque patched his own suit together. There are Indians who let the gas and electricity go off, just because they need to spend their money on feathers and plumes, he explains.
Monque doesn’t remember what It’s like to not have a dream so clear. “I don’t know whether It’s my Indian blood speaking, I don’t know whether it’s my African blood speaking, I don’t know whether It’s the fact that I’m a crazy son of a bitch from New Orleans who’s played the blues all my life, but I’m not afraid,” he says.
“My daddy had the blues all his life, and he made his family and the people around him unhappy. I have the blues, and I use it to make people happy,”
There’s a night ballgame underway outside Beach Ball Benny’s by the time the Interview finally ends. Monque says a few more lines about how he Is the blues, and he scoops up his beer and steps outside, and is surrounded by so many friends that, even though he’s a big man, you can hardly see him in the crowd.