28 December 2011

New Orleans Three Jazzy Nights


During our stay, we went to three different venues for live jazz. We could hardly have experienced more variety, or a better cross-section of the historical and current styles of jazz, in such a short time. I'm going to write about them in the order that makes most sense for the points I'm making, rather than in the order in which we went to them.

The Davenport Lounge at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel
The Ritz is, fittingly, a very beautiful, stylish hotel. The public spaces—lobbies, reception, etc.--are all made of white marble. At this time of year, they were resplendent in gold and glass decorations, adding to the glitz and glitter of the place. The Davenport Lounge is a kind of glorified sitting-room and bar combination, with live music most nights. It is nicely decorated, as well, in mostly gold-and-white Victorian and faux-Georgian armchairs and loveseats.

But neither the music, nor the crowd, befitted its environment.

I haven't spent much time around drunks, and certainly not well-dressed drunks in an expensive hotel. They're really, really stupid. When the band played swing, they slowdanced. When the band played blues, they tried to swing. When the band played cha-cha, they cha-chaed to some beat other than the one the band played: flamboyantly, foolishly, with a kind of pathetic sensuality that made me rather ashamed of my species.

And the band was of that most watered-down kind of slightly syncopated pop that calls itself “jazz” mostly because there's a saxophone in the ensemble. It was the hotel's headliner group, Jeremy Davenport, and was about as spicy as iced tea sitting in the sun with all the ice cubes melted. Sappy, smooth, a little too loud, a little under-talented, very under-trained, but the kind of music that goes down easy when you've had a few (I suppose) and when conversation means more than music. So much for the classy venue.

The Spotted Cat night club

One evening, we walked all the way down Decatur Street through the French Quarter and beyond, where it turns into Frenchman Street. This is, apparently, where the locals hang out for real jazz and maybe some dancing. Um-hm, it was real jazz! And there was some dancing, too. The band was called “The Orleans Six” (quite original name for drums, bass, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, and piano, eh?), and they were hot. They were just playing standards, nothing original as far as I know, but they were a tight group, and they were swingin'. For most of the time we were there, locals were also swinging: swing-dancing in a tiny space between the band and the bar. It was a small, smokey, cramped place, but full of good feelings and great music.

So that was an example of the best of what jazz can be today: the old songs, still just as lively as ever, with some creativity in the instrumentation and a little bit of an update to the sound.
And how many clubs sport a piano in the ladies' room?!

Preservation Hall

All week we kept saying that we had to get to Preservation Hall to hear the old-time jazz. Finally we stood in a long line, then crammed into the back of the tiny hall with its stripped plaster walls, where we stood on weary feet to hear the best of the jazz that there is to be had in that city of the best of the best of jazz.

This band of sax, trumpet, tuba, trombone, snare, and drums might as well just have been put into suspended animation in about 1940, then woken up just long enough ago to practice up to their peak again. Man, were they good! They played the oldest of the traditional stuff, with other lively, silly tunes mixed in: “You Are My Sunshine,” “Jambalaya,” “Jingle Bells,” “Summertime,” and others I didn't know. I've always hated the saxophone, but that old guy cured me. His saxophone was the sweetest, smoothest, most crooning sound I've ever heard. It was more like a string instrument than any sax I've ever heard. And he could flutter his fingers and hold out a note, and just play that thing for all it was worth. Indeed, each player was just having tons of fun with his instrument. The trombone player drew out his slides as long as he could; the tuba player made noises like an elephant, or like a rude kid; the snare player crashed on his neighbor's cymbals when occasion called. It's impossible to describe the sheer fun of this concert.

Part of the joy came from the requests that the audience shouted out, accompanied by $2.00 for each song. They passed the money forward, and the trombone played draped it lovingly over a tin hat. Sometimes the band didn't know the songs that the audience requested, because the audience was a bit ignorant of the provenance of the tunes they wanted to hear. A young boy asked for “anything by Duke Ellington,” but they said, “We don't play the Duke. We only play the real traditional stuff: the beginnings of jazz, the stuff that got the Duke going.”

They ended the concert with a parade of the brass instruments through the audience, around that tiny crowded hall, with much cheering and delight.

If you ever go to New Orleans, then, you can experience Jazz as it is, as it was, and as it should be!

No comments: