Living in New Orleans changed how I listened to music and tasted food, and I thought I’d gotten pretty smart when I said to Lou Donaldson one day in 1987 that my students, mostly freshmen at ECU, didn’t know the difference between blues and jazz. “Well, they’re pretty smart,” he said matter-of-factly.
Donaldson, long-time New York resident, was back in his home state, in Fayetteville for filming of a documentary about “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” the 1947 musical comedy featurette in which he’d made his professional recording debut. We were shooting him in an occasionally busy lobby of a motor inn on Grove Street and, as coming-and-going guests interrupted our shoot, he kept chuckling about being on Groove Street. Riffing on that, he talked about how easy it was to get stuck in a groove you thought was cool, you got it, unable to escape it, so that you’d be digging your own grave right there on stage. The groove/grave conundrum. Later that night, he’d perform with his quartet at a local club where Thomas Gavin, one of his old pals from a Greensboro-based 1940s dance band, would sit in for a few numbers. But on Grove Street, he was explaining to me how the 12-bar blues progression and his basic jazz form were basically the same–news to me. But Donaldson, Gavin, and the other members of the Rhythm Vets had been upgrading the musical education that I’d started getting in New Orleans, where I had moved not long after Professor Longhair died, in 1980, and about the time that WWOZ signed on the air. I lived for a year on the Esplanade end of Bourbon Street, near Cosimo’s (the bar), long-gone Buster Holmes’, Sweet Willie’s, the Port o’ Call, Molly’s at the Market, and the Verti Marte, all good spots for food and drink, but Snug Harbor and the Dream Palace were the best for neighborhood musical adventures. Ellis Marsailis, Jr. played regularly, for free, sometimes solo but often with some of his kids or any of a host of talented locals at Snug Harbor, and the Dream Palace, with its 12′ gator behind the bar, was often jumping late with the Neville Brothers, the Radiators or the Subdudes. My friend Steve Smith, who with wife Phyllis had taken me in for the few weeks it took to find a job (teaching English and U.S. history at Chalmette High School) and that Bourbon Street shotgun apartment, introduced me to James Booker, then playing, also for free, as the lounge act prior to performances of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Le Petit Theatre on St. Peter Street. We spent several excellent happy hours there before showtime, standing a couple of feet from Booker, bought him drinks that he’d set on his piano, and sometimes caught him at the Maple Leaf, where I’d also go on Sundays to wash clothes and listen to poems–regular readings there organized by Everette Maddox.
After New Orleans, back in NC by August 1981, I gave up fast food and listening to pop music, even though, before New Orleans, I had felt sort of like the pop I listened to was better than what most Americans heard on their radios: alternative rock, say, compared to country or top-40. I hadn’t really known how dense the deeper worlds of music ran, how fascinating their stories were and how pleasing and original their sounds, until that year in New Orleans.
But writing about all that seemed another story indeed. Just the idea of New Orleans music seemed as dense and foreboding as going into English with an idea to write about Shakespeare, where you’d have to be familiar not only with all that he wrote but also all that anyone had written about him on whatever subject you chose to address–far too much to ever imagine getting through in just one career–that’s why I often said, we got so saturated with theory in English departments everywhere in the 1990s. Let’s talk about talk, not the thing itself.. My little contribution to that larger New Orleans music story began with the construction of histories of the two black Navy bands that worked bases there during World War II, in one of which Lou Donaldson served for the last year of the war. Eventually, it became necessary to try to figure out the larger world the Navy men had lived in. Some, of course, were from NOLA, and their roots took the search much deeper, and complicated it, and made it seem sometimes like it can’t ever end. But that’s also some of the fun of it, especially with such incredible on-line resources as Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archives and, especially, Music Rising at Tulane.
Doors began opening while I was researching “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” and the world behind the veil I found there, and it somehow makes perfect sense that finding the New Orleans-sounding band the Lemon Sisters and Rutabaga Brothers in Greenville–the band’s founder, Mike Hamer had moved to Greenville from New Orleans about the time I was moving to New Orleans–would lead me to the reggae singer Bill Shepherd, who’d show me his nitrate reels of “Pitch,” which would lead me to the Rhythm Vets (and Donaldson and Black tented vaudeville and black cast film made for black audiences only), and they to B-1 (and dozens of interviews in the homes of kind men and women who might just as well have kept closed the door between them and a stranger asking questions about their long ago lives) and to black Navy bands and bop being explained to me in a lobby in Fayetteville in 1987. And so on. . .
Today, thanks to the wonders of the internet and Bluetooth, I still listen to WWOZ (from Fountain, or wherever I travel), the best radio station in the universe with DJs whose knowledge of their music is daily impressive and varied, and I read old New Orleans newspapers from the 1940s, the Item especially, thanks to the New Orleans Public Library,
The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy. Fountain, NC: R.A. Fountain, 2013.
blues & jazz articles
“Mose McQuitty’s Band and Minstrel Days, 1899-1937.” Bandwagon: The Journal of the Circus Historical Society 60.3 (2016): 6-47.
“Noon Parade and Midnight Ramble: Traveling Tent Shows in North Carolina, 1900-50.” Good Country People I.1 (Spring 1995): 61-90.
“Classic Blues under Gigantic Tents.” Living Blues 24.3 (June 1993) 46-49.
“The African-American Traveling Minstrel Show” Living Blues 24.2 (April 1993) 36-41.
“Mose McQuitty’s Unknown Career: A Personal History of Black Music in America.” Black Music Research Bulletin. 11.2 (Fall 1989): 1-5.
“Boogie Woogie Jams Again.” American Film 12.8 (June 1987): 36-40.
rev. of I Remember: 80 Years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, and the Blues, by Clyde E.B. Bernhardt. Greensboro News & Record. Sept. 27, 1987: E5.
rev. of I Remember Jazz, by Al Rose. Greensboro News & Record. Oct. 25, 1987: E5.
“Coming into Freedom: The End of the Civil War in Eastern North Carolina” (one-woman show starring Louise Anderson with the NC Symphony, the Badgett Sisters, and the Hometown Boys). Writer, producer, director. Creswell, NC: Dept. of Cultural Resources (1 Sept. 1990).
“Boogie in Black and White.” (television documentary) Chapel Hill, NC: The Center for Public Television. February, 1988 (writer/producer). Broadcast Feb. 1988: UNC-TV network (Arbitron ratings: 25,000 viewers). Re-broadcast Feb. 1989, UNC-TV; also broadcast on PBS affiliates in 26 states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands. Watch it.
–3 December 2023