Check through the arts columns of the New York Times these days and there is scarcely a mention of traditional jazz. Yes, there is jazz coverage: bebop, free form, jazz-rock fusion. Perfunctory perhaps, but it’s there at least, in what has become our national newspaper. But trad jazz? It’s a curiosity out of the past for most of America, if you can find it at all.
Then there’s New Orleans, where more traditional bands may play regularly today than at any previous time in jazz history. When last we checked there were more than 40—and that doesn’t include brass bands and blues groups. And the audiences, once confined almost exclusively to older folks, have swelled into crowds of enthusiastic young people who turn out in droves from all over the world for the myriad festivals and special events devoted to our native music. The numbers you’ll find listening and dancing on any given weekend are astonishing. It’s an absolute rebirth, but it seems to be mostly here, nowhere else.
Bourbon Street was once the main place to go for this kind of music. There are still a few jazz clubs in and around Bourbon, but the center of gravity has moved. Frenchmen Street, down the road in the Faubourg Marigny, is now the hub of our jazz world.
At one time the only jazz club on Frenchmen was Snug Harbor. But today there are more than a dozen venues crowded together in a few short blocks, rivaling New York’s fabled 52nd Street in its “Swing Street” heyday of the 1930s-’50s.
Jazz veterans such as bassist James Singleton, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, pianist Tom McDermott and Swedish clarinetist Orange Kellin are Frenchmen mainstays. And when it comes to a genuine icon, venerable trumpeter and vocalist Lionel Ferbos, now 101 years old, usually leads the band on the final Sunday of the “Nickel-a-Dance” series at the club Maison. But there’s also a younger breed of musicians that seem especially attractive to the new audiences. What they lack in experience they more than make up for with their remarkable rapports with the music and individual stylistic approaches.
Orange Kellin has noticed a change in the music scene over the past 10 years, especially since Katrina, when many young people came down to help rejuvenate New Orleans. He attributes the shift to a cultural immersion in New Orleans traditions—one which, of course, includes music.
The new groups frequently go out of their way to play tunes that extend beyond the usual run of Dixieland standards. Sure, they can and will play “Muskrat Ramble,” “That’s A Plenty,” “Jazz Me Blues,” or “Saints,” but you’ll also find many unusual and unexpected items in their repertoires.
The Smoking Time Jazz Club, heard at the Maison or the Spotted Cat, can handily go an entire evening without playing anything that’s easily recognizable. They collaborate on versions of less familiar numbers done by King Oliver or Jelly Roll Morton, and vocalist Sarah Peterson has a way with words to tunes that many of us never knew had lyrics.
Tuba Skinny has graduated from the streets to become an international favorite, spending part of the year now on overseas tours. When they are in New Orleans, you can find them at the Spotted Cat or d.b.a., or Three Muses, or Maison. The band demonstrates another new trend—its lead horn player is female. Shaye Cohn started out on piano and cornet with the currently defunct (though occasionally resurrected) Loose Marbles. She now concentrates on her horn and is among the better young brass players in the Crescent City.
Shaye comes from a jazz family, but her father, guitarist Joe Cohn, and grandfather, Four Brothers tenor sax man Al Cohn, were modernists. Shaye prefers the older music. And though trained as a classical pianist, when it comes to jazz, Shaye prefers to play strictly by ear; offered some rare transcripts of original Louis Armstrong solos, she said she’d like to hear them but wasn’t interested in reading them. Tuba Skinny’s lead vocalist Erika Lewis is a laid-back, completely natural stylist. She does wonders with the old blues singers’ repertoires, plus other favorites from the past.
Canadian Marla Dixon is another talented female trumpet player and singer, the leader of her Shotgun Jazz Band. Dixon says she didn’t get seriously interested in traditional jazz until she was about 26 years old, when she heard Kid Bastien, a revered Canadian player who led a New Orleans-style jazz band in Toronto until his death in 2003; Bastien was a devotee of veteran Preservation Hall trumpeter Kid Thomas. Dixon also specializes in digging up seldom-heard lyrics to songs from the classic era—”Oriental Man,” for instance. And as of this writing, she is the only person in town doing a one-time Chicago jukebox favorite, “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck.”
Californian Aurora Nealand helms her Royal Roses group and plays a soprano sax style that might be described as funky traditional. Naturally, she does the Sidney Bechet standards such as “Blue Horizon” and “Dear Old Southland,” though she is anything but a slavish imitator. Nealand also performs with the Panorama Jazz Band, whose repertoire includes Jewish folk dances.
Emily Estrella and the Faux Barrio Billionaires are typically found at Maison, Vaso, or Mojito’s. Estrella hails from Cincinnati but lives on Frenchmen in the very house where Jelly Roll Morton grew up. The band is just as at home with “Basin Street Blues” or “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll” as it is with “Besame Mucho.” Estrella is also a dance instructor (and master of pantomime), which may help explain her remarkable stage presence.
You may have noticed that three of the five groups mentioned thus far are led by women who sing, but that’s just for starters. So many female jazz vocalists populate New Orleans today that one of them, Ingrid Lucia, produced a compilation CD that features cuts by herself and 18 others—and a second disc is in the works.
A singer who appears on the album, Meschiya Lake, also used to live in the Jelly Roll Morton house. Lake and her Little Big Horns do a number of Morton tunes, “2:19 Blues,” “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” and “Don’t You Leave Me Here” among them. Emily Estrella says she learned those tunes by listening to Lake, whose star has been on the rise in recent years; a local attorney uses her regularly in his television commercials.
The Jazz Vipers was a pioneering act on Frenchmen. It has since become two bands: the Vipers, still helmed by sax man Joe Braun, and the Cottonmouth Kings. The latter lineup includes several senior figures in the Frenchmen Street jazz explosion; Charlie Fardella is one of the most respected trumpeters in town. Bass saxophonist Tom Saunders brings with him a wealth of musical knowledge, an expertise reflected both in his playing and in his broadcasts as a WWOZ deejay. Violinist Matt Rhody is new to the Cottonmouths, but he’s a veteran of the Hot Club of New Orleans, a weekend mainstay at d.b.a.
The Palmetto Bug Stompers, another early participant on the Frenchmen scene, still gigs on a regular basis. Its current members include lead vocalist Washboard Chaz, trumpeter Will Smith, and trombonists Paul Robertson, Richard Anderson and Charlie Halloran. The band also features Bruce Brachman (clarinet), Robert Snow (bass), and John Rodli and Seva Venet (guitars). Snow and Rodli have worked together for many years as a team to provide a solid rhythm foundation for a variety of trad groups. In addition to his guitar and banjo work, Venet is one of the relatively few trad jazz musicians to play a Hawaiian-style steel guitar.
Other familiar New Orleans musicians seen and heard frequently on Frenchmen Street include drummer Gerald French; trumpeters Wendell Brunious, “Kid Chocolate” Brown and Jack Fine; trombonists Glen David Andrews and Steve Walker; singer Mykia Jovan; pianists John Royen, Steve Pistorius and Jason Butler; and tuba and bass player Matt Perrine.
No story about jazz on Frenchmen would be complete without a mention of gifted cornetist and pianist Ben Polcer, former co-leader of the Loose Marbles. Polcer started in New Orleans like so many others, as a street musician. His current band, The Orleans Six, is a regular presence at the Spotted Cat. Polcer is sometimes joined on the stand by his father Ed, a well-known cornetist in his own right, and his mother Judy, a singer. For many years Ed and Judy were co-owners of Eddie Condon’s Jazz Club on 52nd Street in New York, thereby providing a link between the Swing Street of yesteryear and the Frenchmen Street of today.
“I first came to New York in the 1950s,” Ed shares, “and Swing Street, which was 52nd Street, was alive and well… If you walked down Swing Street and all the doors were open and all that music was wafting out…you had the whole panorama. It was a joyous time. It was a wonderful surprise to me to discover within the past couple of years we’ve been living here that Frenchmen Street in New Orleans has the same flavor. It’s electric with jazz. I think when you have several clubs together on one street you get a good cross-pollination of styles, and it gives the public a wonderful opportunity to experience jazz in its many forms. It is exactly what Swing Street was 60 or 70 years ago. There’s a direct parallel.”