OWP Update: May 9, 2012
Madness in a Steamy Box
Once, sometimes twice, a month, if you sit on the New Orleans riverfront at night, you can witness the full moon change from whiskey red to powder pale over the Mississippi River.
At night, the termites come out in fantastic clusters and flutter against the lamp posts like confused bats. Thick, round rats with rubbery tails and subtle charm scuttle across the sidewalks, chewing on gum wrappers and cupcake paper. The neons of Bourbon St. mask the night in a terrible sea of mayhemic tourism. Strippers stand outside clubs waving fannies and fingers. In the Marigny, the artists flock and flaunt their wares, musicians jam at every street corner, and the poets write in the shadows. (A short story about this is currently being written.)
The wails of dirty brass trumpets seem to linger in the streets even after all the musicians have gone to bed. The city is dirty, bruised, and the streets are cracked. But steaming up from the mud of New Orleans is an authentic masterpiece of robust culture, delicate grace, and the finest appetites that dominate all the six senses.
I stayed alone in a shotgun house in Algiers, a mile in from the free ferry that crossed the Mississippi River into downtown. Every afternoon, when the sun was more orange than hot, I would walk a mile to the ferry landing, cross the river, and walk another mile to bookstores, jazz clubs, taquerias, bars, and parks.
I lived about 4 streets down from where William Burroughs resided from 1948-1949. It was a lonely, eerie sight, even in the day. But only because I’d read about it in Road. In the novel, Sal and Dean visit the house. But, seeing it as a tangible thing, it was nothing like how Kerouac described it:
“It ran clear around the house: by moonlight with the willows it looked like an old southern mansion that had seen better days.“
I guess the description that got me was, “a southern mansion.” I pictured a big, white, decrepit farmhouse with a wide porch and nothing around but some trees and a road.
A typical day was this:
writing in the morning
ferry and roaming in the afternoon
jazz, swing dancing, and meeting people in the night
and ferry home to write past midnight about the people I met
At Mimi’s in the Marigny, late one night, a whole crowd of swing kids invaded the upstairs bar room where Mecshyia Lake & The Little Big Horns belted out swing tune originals. The bar was loud and crowded, though not all were dancers. The lights went down really low, a deep red glow highlighting the white brick walls. The place was completely full and shaking with at least 10 couples dancing in the face of the band.
As a couple, you’d pick a small space and stay put. There was not enough room to perform an extended swing out. Only modest Charleston, compressed Lindy Hop, and Balboa. It was like the bar rooms in Southern California where, in the 1920’s, Balboa (a close embrace dance that takes up very little space due to crowded dance floors) got popular.
But even in that tight space, dancing was as pleasurable as ever; even more so, maybe, with the whole building breathing with the raw, untamed energy of the jazz. New Orleans jazz, sweat, tattoos, and booze. Everyone was loose and shaking their shit. Madness in a steamy box.
New Orleans Musicians I Witnessed and Danced To. . .
- Storyville Stompers Brass Band
- Royal St. Gum Scrapers
- Miss Sophie Lee
- Zena Moses & Rue Fiya Allstars
- Tanya & Dorise (in the middle of the street, this quartet played the most elegant, velvet version of ‘Hey Jude’)
- Doreen’s Jazz
- Mecshiya Lake & The Little Big Horns
One of my first nights there, I met with a local swing dancer who lives in The Marigny, and we warmed up to Miss Sophie Lee with some Balboa and slow Lindy Hop at The Spotted Cat. After the night fell deeper, we crossed the street to The Maison, and ran up the stairs to the penthouse where, several times a week, dance lessons are held. It was soul night, and the lesson taught was a local dance that started in New Orleans in 1959 called the Jamaica. It had nothing to do with the country of Jamaica, but the bar where it originated– The Jamaican Lounge.
The lesson was taught by Ms. Hazel Addison (The Frankie Manning of the Jamaica, I dare say).
I also took a drag blues lesson and a solo Charleston lesson with Chance Bushman and Giselle Anguizola.
On the bus down to New Orleans, I met a couple (who scored a pair of round-trip bus tickets from Montgomery, AL for only $10) on their way to The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I knew about it, but didn’t realize I’d be there for half its duration. “$65 at the gate for one day,” they said. That was a lot for one day, but a grand collection of timeless music. I decided not to pay for it and miss it. There was plenty of music in the city anyway.
Strangely, a day later, I was handed a free ticket to the day of my choice (thank you, Coleen) and went to the Festival on Saturday. I met four kind folks from Alabama on the 58 street car ($1.25 fare), and walked amidst the festival with them, eventually splitting off to wander, meet more people, and witness these bands:
- The Pin Stripe Brass Band
- Steve Earle (for my dad)
- The Eagles (for my mom)
- Black Feathers Mardis Gras Indians
- Preservation Hall Jazz Band (with an incredible swing dance performance by Giselle and Chance)
- First Emanuel Baptist Church Mass Choir (one reason I’d attend a Southern Baptist church)
- Warren Haynes
- Herbie Hancock (he said, about a time signature of a song–and I’m paraphrasing, “sometimes we do 17 beats in a 16 beat phrase. 4, 4, 4, 4, that’s 16. But Sometimes we do 17.”)
Wanna hear a good depiction of New Orleans flavor from your computer? http://www.wwoz.org/
Did you know the jazz musicians created the drum set? Called it a ‘trap set.’ Drum contraption.
A few things I did that scared me (just slightly):
- asked half a dozen advanced swing dancers to dance on a crowded floor (my first time in such a crowded social dance like that)
- spoke Spanish to a fellow after months of no practice
- had developing conversations with over 30 strangers (made a few new friends)
- accidentally walked through the ghetto at midnight, got snarled at by pit bulls, then went back the next day just to say ‘hey’
The thriving roots of the culture of this city are as deep as the roots of the magnolias that break the sidewalks and streets. You don’t just find guitar jazz, you find bebop and Dixieland jug band jazz. You don’t just find Bal and Lindy Hop, you find the Jamaican and the Turkey Trot. And you don’t just find each other, you end up finding yourself.
Written in New Orleans, LA. 2012