“God gave us the streets—it’s a true blessing,” praises clarinetist and vocalist Doreen Ketchens. “We can play what we want, we can control who comes into the band and who goes out of the band. People hear us from all over the world and call us and they want us to come and play for them.”
Blowing a clarinet on the corner of Royal and St. Peter streets for some 32 years as the leader of Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans band is a far cry from Ketchens’ ambition of being the principal clarinetist in the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. The long, winding musical road that ended with Ketchens performing just nine blocks from her home in the Treme wasn’t well-trodden by most young artists from the 6th Ward—although they did often head to the French Quarter to hone their chops on Jackson Square. The clarinetist, whose smiling face is recognized around the globe, took an educational route, which would eventually help to create her unique style, technique, and sound.
Not coming from a musical family like so many of her Treme neighbors, as a young girl Ketchens, now 52, actually had no real desire to play a musical instrument even though she was exposed to jazz music by the second line parades regularly passing by her St. Philip Street home. As is true for most of her musical journey, happenstance led to her musical future.
How she began playing clarinet is a story she’s repeated many times throughout her career. When she was in the fifth grade at nearby Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, she heard there was going to be a pop quiz. To get out of it, she quickly responded to an announcement asking students interested in being in the band to come and sign up. Her first choice, selected from the photographs lining the walls, was the flute—but many girls before her had chosen the instrument, so she opted for the clarinet.
“Thank God,” she now declares of her fate of taking up the clarinet. “The clarinet projects far more than the flute does. The clarinet was my beacon, it was my guiding light because it set me in the place I was going to go every time.”
Ketchens’ ability to strongly project each note from her instrument has played an important role in her ability to attract listeners to her band’s regular street location in front of the Rouses on Royal Street. The call of her passionately-blown clarinet and her signature “pose,” which finds her lifting the bell of the clarinet towards the sky, also lures folks and their sustaining tips. It emerged years ago when she was determined for her instrument to be heard.
“That came from playing in Jackson Square with a whole bunch of musicians who were trying to play over me,” she explains. “Usually when someone would take a solo, the other instruments would just riff underneath. When I got up to do my solo, they were playing loud, almost drowning me out. Necessity is the mother of invention. What happened was I just brought my clarinet up and played it high. I would just dance up on top of all that noise. That was character-building too.”
From attending and playing clarinet at Craig, where she declares, “I was good,” she moved on to Bell Junior High, where she also succeeded as a member of the concert band. A glitch came when she was about to enter high school. “I actually wanted to go to St. Aug,” Ketchens says and remembers herself thinking, Why all boys?
The nearby Joseph S. Clark High School was in her district but she says that she was adamant about not going to the school. “I had a lot of good friends that went to Clark, but it just wasn’t for me at all,” she recalls. Ketchens was aware that Kennedy High School had a really good band but because she didn’t live in the right school district she had to apply for a permit. “They turned me down,” she remembers out loud, with the disappointment of a young girl facing rejection still in her voice.
Fate stepped in again when one day Ketchens accompanied her mother—“just to hang out”—when she went to clean a client’s house. The woman was a school-teacher and observed that Doreen was upset about something. She asked her what was wrong and Ketchens explained the situation. When the woman—who was knowledgeable about New Orleans public schools—found out how much Doreen wanted to attend Kennedy, she told her that there were only two schools that taught Latin. Her sly suggestion: “Just apply for another permit and tell them you want to take Latin and they’ll have to take you.”
“And I got in!” Ketchens exclaims. “Regular people just don’t take Latin, but I knew I had to pass the class to stay.” Fortunately, Ketchens was blessed with a wonderful Latin teacher, Miss Sparks, who totally transformed what might have been a difficult situation. “She was so patient and understanding and talked to you like you were the only person in the room.”
Ketchens not only passed Latin, but also really enjoyed it. “I was even thinking about taking it in college,” she recalls. When Miss Sparks fell ill, the class was canceled and Ketchens had “a free ride at that point. When I didn’t like it [Latin], I had to take it. When I loved it, I had to give it up.”
Doreen also attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA); Its curriculum naturally included jazz, although her heart remained in classical music. During high school, she auditioned for and had the opportunity to perform as an intern with the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra at the Municipal Auditorium. She continued her education at Delgado Community College and then Loyola University, where she met her future husband, tuba player Lawrence Ketchens II, a vital musical influence and the love of her life. Both attended Loyola on scholarships, but as the annual tuition rose, the money they received did not.
Lacking the funding to continue at Loyola, Doreen sought out alternatives and received a scholarship to the University of Hartford Hartt School [a performing arts conservatory] that was later supplemented by a scholarship from the New York Philharmonic. This fits, she remembers thinking, but I didn’t want to leave him. “I really didn’t,” she sincerely adds, referring to Lawrence, who went on to attend Xavier University.
“It was really a good thing,” Doreen admits of the move. “It’s amazing how small my world was. I lived right down from Craig and Bell schools and went to church at St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church on Ursulines Avenue. But the Hartt School opened up a whole new world for me,” Doreen says of her experience in the northeastern university. Complaining that sometimes New Orleans was like the proverbial bucket of crabs with each trying to climb over the front one to get to the top, she found it different in Hartford. “In Connecticut all they did was share.”
At first Doreen lived on campus but, because it was cheaper, she found a place to rent away from the university. Apparently, as she soon discovered, the rental wasn’t in the safest area of Hartford, and it wasn’t long before her car, with her clarinets inside, was stolen. “You’re young and you’re not really realizing you’re in the ‘hood,” she admits. The car was found and luckily, when the thieves opened the old double clarinet case in the trunk, its contents—10 clarinet pieces—fell to the ground and the obviously not musically savvy thieves left them right there.
That was enough for Lawrence, whom she would marry in 1987, to head to Connecticut and join Doreen, as he believed she shouldn’t be up there by herself. He borrowed a tuba and would practice in the school’s rehearsal room, and even played some concerts along with the students at Hartt.
“Then we started doing our ‘New Orleans thing,’” Doreen relates, recalling performing at corporate gigs. “Jazz was Latin all over again,” she says with a laugh, in comparing the two very different pursuits that she—like many a musician—was forced to do to make ends meet. “I was in love, so that’s what I had to do.”
Doreen also found success and a much-needed means of support in the culinary field. “All you had to say was that you were from New Orleans back then [to spark interest],” she says. She started out as a waitress at a “fancy” French restaurant located in a museum, began filling in making sandwiches and salads, and impressed folks when she would make lunch for the crew. “They really liked it, you know. Then I got a job as the cook, and later as an executive executive chef. It really worked out.”
When both Doreen’s and Lawrence’s fathers passed away, leaving their mothers on their own, the couple decided it was time to return to New Orleans “for just a little while,” Doreen relates. “We were already homesick and we were struggling.” The couple never did go back, and Doreen still hasn’t earned a degree, lacking just six credits.
Doreen found that in New Orleans “chefs were coming out of the woodwork,” and the pay was far below what she was earning in Connecticut. Meanwhile. Lawrence used his skills as a painter and contractor. “We started selling suppers from my mom’s sweet shop [on St. Philip Street], Doreen’s Sweet Shop, which she named after me. We were running suppers all the way to Michoud.” At five dollars a plate and free delivery, the business was a lot of work and far from lucrative. “Though we weren’t struggling like we were up there [in Connecticut],” she said.
Ketchens clearly remembers the day in 1987 that forever changed her and her family’s life.
“We were walking out on the street one day and we saw some people playing and Lawrence said, ‘You know, we could do that.’ I said, ‘You must be crazy. I’ve been to college. I’m not playing no music on the street.’ But I was in love, you know, so we started doing it. The rest is history.”
Ketchens has found that many people have a skewed perception of street musicians and think that there must be something wrong or lacking in them—“drug addicts or something”—to end up performing for tips on the street.
“People think less of you when you’re on the street,” she complains, and adds, “that goes for some folk in the general public and even some festival producers. When they call you they think, ‘Oh, let’s have her come play our festival, she’ll be cheap.’ I’m cheap if you come and stand there and don’t tip me. If you want me to go where you want me to be, then you pay. It’s about geography and economics—you take me from what I’m doing, have me play for an hour or so and pay me more than peanuts. We’ll go almost anywhere if the money is right.
“You need to look at us as being self-employed for over 30 years. We’ve had our own business, we’ve employed people, we’ve traveled and built up a great reputation, we’ve put out 28 CDs and three DVDs. That’s a lot of work. That’s a business, a very successful business.”
Ketchens explains that the reason for the abundant recording output by Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans is simple. “There are people who come here and the first thing they say is, ‘What do you have new?’ So we try to do an album every year.” The collection, all on the Ketchens’ independent label, DJNO, begins with Volume IV, Taipei 94, one of several live recordings of the band, although the majority were studio recordings. The earliest volumes were only released on cassette and are no longer available. Sold primarily at the band’s gigs and online, the albums are filled with classic traditional jazz numbers like “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home” and “Jeepers Creepers” mixed in with a few originals. “That’s what people ask for, so that’s what we try to do—what people expect to hear.
“We have some respect now, which is wonderful, and the world has changed a bit which is absolutely fabulous, but man, back in the day it was terrible. There were some hard times on the street. We had to deal with the bums and we had to deal with the police. They’d harass you and they lied to you to shut you down. And then you’d realize that’s not the truth, that’s not the law at all. You learned after a while not to take them for what they’d say.”
That Doreen gets to play jazz and travel the globe with her family may not be the dream she initially envisioned for herself; nonetheless it’s a dream come true. Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans band includes her husband Lawrence on tuba, her 16-year-old daughter, drummer Dorian, who is a student at NOCCA and appeared in Beyoncé ‘s video, “Lemonade,” shot in New Orleans. Guitarist and vocalist Dave Hammer has rounded out the group for the last three years. Ketchens’ band has performed in such far-off locales as Africa, South America, Europe, Russia, and Asia.
Doreen and the band certainly can be considered New Orleans ambassadors and while on tour, they also hold clinics and workshops that acquaint students worldwide with their accumulated knowledge of this city’s authentic traditional jazz. Locally, Doreen also offers a few private lessons and aspires to perhaps doing more teaching down the line. After all, she reminds us, she didn’t go to college to become a street bandleader.
“I’d want to be a Miss Clark,” Doreen says. “She showed me that you can do things that you don’t think you can do.”
Doreen never considered herself a singer and didn’t participate in the church choir because, she says, “I didn’t sing like the other girls.” About 30 years ago she was listening to the radio and the station was playing vocalist Sam Cooke’s version of “What a Wonderful World.” “I started singing with him and thought, ‘I can hit all the notes with him.’ Then Louis Armstrong came on doing “What a Wonderful World”—there must have been a special or something—and I could sing with him too. I thought, ‘Wow, I think I just found my voice.’ So instead of trying to sing like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Billie [Holiday], I started trying to sing like Sam and Louis.
“Louis is everything—the way he phrases, the way he speaks,” Doreen exclaims enthusiastically. “I was kind of shy so I would close my eyes and feel like I was right there with Louis and he was egging me on. Thank God there’s a festival celebrating Louis, thank God they named the airport after him because [the city] made him so mad that he didn’t even want to be buried here. He was the essence of New Orleans.”
Ketchens throws a bit of shade on some of the local jazz clarinetists she heard when she was digging into the music, deciding their tone was not up to her standards. “I listened to and was impressed with the clarinetists who performed with Armstrong like Edmond Hall and Barney Bigard and particularly Buster Bailey because of his classical background. In a way, that made me want to jump in the [jazz] water.
“The last time we played the festival [Satchmo SummerFest], I said I was going to do things that Louis Armstrong did. This time I think I’ll do what Doreen do—Louis will shine through it for sure anyway. If it weren’t for listening to Louis, looking at Louis, falling asleep to Louis, I don’t think Doreen would be what she is.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh Doreen, she could play anywhere in the world but she’d rather be out here on the streets.’ That’s not true. I’d love not to have to play the streets anymore. I mean, we’ve been doing it for over 30 years. I think it’s a wonderful gift and everything, but until better things come along, that’s where we’ll be.
“There were a lot of obstacles, but they were strengthening tools too,” Ketchens relates in a softer tone. “It was character-building, it was relationship-building, it was music-building. There’s something to be said for just sitting out on the street and making somebody stop and listen to you and then give you money. It makes you a different kind of performer.” Occasionally, she admits, the energy zone that Doreen’s New Orleans Jazz creates fails to draw an audience. Just recently she remembers a day when, figuratively speaking, she called out, “Hello, hello, hello!” and thought, Who the heck is in town because they sure ain’t into us.—another day in the life on the streets.
When Ketchens performed last year at St. Louis Cathedral with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the clarinetist’s two musical passions came together as one. Graciously introduced by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, Ketchens entered the stage to a wonderfully warm ovation, wearing a sparkling black evening jacket and a shining smile. On this poignant night, she was the star in the Philharmonic’s “first clarinet chair,” as well as the determined woman from Treme blowing the traditional jazz classic “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” that she’s played hundreds, if not thousands, of times on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets.
Ketchens again lifted her clarinet–the instrument that she calls her “beacon” and “guiding light”–just blocks away from that familiar corner as well as her St. Philip Street family home.
Though her talents have taken her around the world, the heart of her spirited clarinet springs forth from New Orleans. “It goes deeper than the music, it goes into the family, it goes into the culture.”