BAYOU BY THE BAY:TALKING WITH QUEEN IDA IN BERNAL HEIGHTS, ELLIS MARSALIS IN BERKELEY AND DR. JOHN BEYOND THE ELYSIAN FIELDS, MARK FREEMAN FOLLOWS THE MUSIC BACK TO ITS SOURCE. SF WEEKLY MAY 16, 1990
The SF Bay Area loves New Orleans music. This was the first place outside the Crescent City that really welcomed the Neville Brothers. It was here that the national Dixieland revival began in the late 1940s. Even in the days of the Barbary Coast our whorehouse pianolas, like those of New Orleans, had the hottest ragtime rolls.
When fundamentalist and other “decent” folks had their say, genteel ways got foisted upon both cities. Crusaders closed the Coast in the 1870s and left San Francisco with a lot of empty alleys named after beloved madams, and a city full of horny bachelors dressed in Levi Strauss’ best. New Orleans’ Storyville district– from its elegant “gens de couleur” houses to the lowliest of “cribs”– wasn’t closed down until 1917. This left a slew of disreputable but brilliant piano players unemployed, most notably Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton . These barrelhouse and haute brothel musicians were the “professors” and with their students—Joe “King” Oliver, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and a hundred others—created jazz in New Orleans, then carried it up the river to Chicago and on to the East (in Harlem) and the West (SF, Oakland and Los Angeles).
Before going off to New Orleans this May for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival with its plethora of performers with influences from Africa and the Caribbean, to Quebec and Vienna, I spent a month excavating for New Orleans jazz and Louisiana roots music right here in the Bay Area. It proved easy diggings.
Lessons from Papa Ellis
Ellis Marsalis Jr. was just visiting UC Berkeley for the Pacific Coast Collegiate Jazz Fest. Marsalis enjoys working with young musicians, which isn’t surprising. Not only is he director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans, he’s also papa to star jazzmen Wynton and Branford Marsalis, producer Delfeayo Marsalis and 13-year old drummer Jason Marsalis.
The Marsalis patriarch teaches by doing, and by using the Socratic method of asking challenging questions. I got to see this in action at the Cal campus, and then had a talk with the teacher.
“We fall into this trap,” says Ted Avery, a 19-year old tenor saxist from Solano College, “where we try to play like someone we admire so much. Like John Coltrane. I tried to play like him and found it nearly impossible.”
“Nearly?” Marsalis queries.
“Well, impossible. Other musicians told me to listen to the people ‘Trane listened to –- Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt—to get all the history into my horn, then to play something bad, my own.”
Ellis Marsalis has some definite opinions about his music, and all music. “What do you mean, jazz is dying?” he demands. “Its better now than it’s ever been. I get into arguments, discussions really, with my son Wynton about the same thing. Even in the heyday of jam sessions, most of the guys didn’t know anything about the music; they were just trying to get the attention of some girl at the back table.”
He is getting around to the source of his optimism: any honest musical curiosity will always lead back to the roots, like the blues, and on to the future. “I remember trying to get Wynton to listen to Miles Davis [one of the times Miles visited their house] but he only wanted to go play baseball. Then when he was 12 he was studying classical music, but he and Branford played an elementary school dance, their first job in ’71, singing whatever was popular then.”
Marsalis doesn’t think you have to be black to play black American music—“if you’re New Orleans.” His case in point: “Dr. John is 100 percent New Orleans. I think it’s a learned process, but if your acculturation and experience has different roots to it, I don’t know if you ever overcome it. But then, racial lines have been proven to be bullshit in so many other ways. Having a black sound was not considered a plus for white musicians, but Dr. John’s been playing that way for a long time. Until recently, it was just a little too strong for Midwestern white teenagers.”
Talking to A Guy Named Mac
Dr. John seemed to emerge out of a swamp sometime in the confusion of the ‘60s. He was this holy hoodoo apparition, black beard and bangled walking stick and all. Behind that incarnation lurks a real guy named Mac (short for Malcolm) Rebennack, and the whole natural history of New Orleans Mardi Gras.
All that myth and history appear right here in San Francisco, when Dr. John walks out on the stage at Slim’s on Folsom Street in his black beret trimmed in silver alligators and sits down at the piano to play style after style after style. He starts off with “Iko Iko,” one of the two-beat Mardi Gras Indians’ anthems full of Creole patois which dates from the days when escaped slaves were taken in by simpatico Cherokees, whose own men could be grabbed for U.S. government work gangs.
Then it’s a Ray Charles tune, “Doing That Mess Around,” with a left-hand stride he credits to old recordings of Pinetop Smith, plus boogie-woogie triplet beats from Cow Cow Davenport, leading to long discordant Thelonius Monk-like runs. He follows with sweet jazz modulations on “(I Call My Sugar) Candy,” sounding like Mose Allison on a gravelly path. Promising to “whip out another oldie but moldy on your ear,” it’s his lizard-lidded laconic delivery, in that distinctive 13th Ward Noowollins accent, of the Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson 1928 chestnut “Makin’ Whoopee,” but one that owes nothing to banjo-eyed Eddie Cantor’s original vaudeville version.
Next on the playlist is one by “the man who taught me all I know.” This is Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd’s iconic “Tipitina,” played with seemingly endless musical resources. Fess, as other musicians called him, was a piano hero but unsung outside of New Orleans’ circles. Jelly Roll Morton reportedly added tango and habanera to 16-bar ragtime (“That latin tinge,” he called the clave rhythm of “shave and a haircut–two bits”.} Longhair put 12 or 8 bar blues to a rhumba rhythm. Dr. John started on guitar in Fess’s band, before he got shot in his string-bending finger and had to switch to piano and organ.
Dr. John tells me he remembers first meeting Fess in Harvey, Louisiana; he had accompanied his furniture-dealer father (who also installed jukeboxes in hotels and clubs) to the Pepper Pot Lounge. Out back was this man, “sitting on a tree stump, smoking what they called a boomalatchie. I was a nosy kid, asking him stuff about what he was playing—double-note crossovers and unders. He just fascinated the shit out of me. After that I didn’t see him for a long time, but I remembered what he was telling me.”
Mac Rebennack learned piano from James Booker, a brilliant R&B innovator and wild jazzman who straw-bossed bands on New Orleans’ famous Bourbon Street. “Back in ’61 and ’62 they were still segregated. He had to teach me keyboard so while he ran the black bands I could run the whites. We couldn’t jam with each other, unless it was at Papa Joe’s afterhours. At the other gigs, none of that, cause the turistas were there. But from 4am to 9 or noon, whatever, at PJ’s it was for the pimps and the whores and hustlers and all the street characters who worked Bourbon.”
Rounding out his set at Slim’s, the Doctor carries the house band through a rendition of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” which put shame to those plastic-hat Dixieland imitators seen at Super Bowl halftimes and at Disneyland’s Main Street, and then goes out with the Mardi Gras song, “Me Big Chief.”
This last was one of the classic challenges sung by the “Indian” tribes as they parade from their home turf toward downtown on the days leading up to Mardi Gras Tuesday. The big Big Chief, says Dr. John, is Tootie Montana, dressed in a fabulous feather costume and a belt “made with cowrie shells and glass beads, representing five nations of man (blue, yellow, white, red and brown) with blood mingling at their feet which actually, seen close, is a snake swallowing its tail.”
Dr. John says drawing too strict a line between jazz and R&B, old-style and modern, is nonsense. Musicians played all the idioms wherever there was work. He mentions Salvador Doucet gigging at both blues and bebop, and old-timer Danny Barker playing on Wynton Marsalis’ next album. Dr. John’s next album, in fact, will feature monster bop drummer Art Blakey.
“You’re Gonna Squeeze My Leg”
Danny Barker, though, goes back about as far as anyone. An octogenarian, he played banjo and jazz guitar with Jelly Roll Morton and both the Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong ensembles, along with filling literally thousands of sideman recording jobs and a dozen times that many live pick-up gigs. He has backed up Ethel Waters and Dexter Gordon, more than a couple decades apart. And when the jazz market dried up in New York in the ‘60s, he and his wife moved back to New Orleans, to a house on Sere Street. A phone call got me an invitation to visit there, which involved taking the streetcar past the Desire Projects (yes, it was the streetcar named Desire) and then a walk into the Creole 7th Ward to the house where he lived with his wife, singer Blue Lu Barker, most famous for her song “Don’t You Feel My Leg” (later recorded by Maria Muldaur).
Blue Lu was feeling poorly, and so could not come downstairs, but Mr. Barker talked about how important it was that the old jazz traditions be kept alive, especially among black youth who were likely to see it as old folks’ music. So he had started up a new band in the old tradition, the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band. And that led to training a slew of others, including the Dirty Dozens Brass Band. Mr. Barker got a lot of young people into professions into jazz, including some members of Harry Connick, Jr. and Jazz at the Philharmonic—an indirect return to his own gigging days in NYC. He was full of nonstop story, some of which can be found in his historical book, A Lifetime In Jazz, Oxford University Press 1988.
[Blue Lu passed in 1998; Danny Barker had died in 1994, which I only discovered on a return trip back to NoLa’s Jazz & Heritage Fest after the 2005 storm called Katrina. You can see them both in one of Les Blank’s great music/food documentaries, “Always For Pleasure”.]
Zydeco By the Bay
So do you have to be male and live in N’awlins to play that way? Ida Guillory proves it’s not so, though she is the first to tell you that her style, the Creole zydeco based on French Cajun music, was “little fries. It wasn’t sophisticated like the jazz music of New Orleans.” In the big city, there were the brass bands in the streets and string bands in the dance halls. But in southern Louisiana towns like Lake Charles, where Ida lived until she was nine, and in adjoining parts of Texas where they moved after that, the clarinets or fiddles of the rural dance bands were slowly being replaced by button accordions, along with a percussive bib instead of a an old-timey washboard.
But you wouldn’t catch Ida listening to the old folks “musique Acadienne”. Like other teenagers of her day she was into Country & Western music via crystal radio, and “boogie woogie—Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway and then, when we moved to California, Billie Holiday at Civic Auditorium.” Still, her parents returned with them yearly to Eunice, Louisiana, for the local Mardi Gras festivities.
And Ida’s brother Al Rapone was responsible, along with Clifton Chenier, for bringing electric instruments to his zydeco band right here in San Francisco, as well as adding salsa sounds picked up in the Mission District. Like Santana, Al and Ida lived in Bernal Heights. The family was part of a transplanted Louisiana community mix: Creole, black and white, all part of a long migration from the South to the West that had been happening since WWII, when airplanes dropped leaflets fromTexas to Georgia advertising good-paying jobs in the shipyards of San Francisco, Richmond and Oakland.
It was in San Francisco that Ida overcame her aversion to what she called “chink-a-chink music,” picked up an accordion, began listening to her mom’s 78s and 45s, sat in with Al’s band for the first time in Hunters Point and got “discovered” by a writer at a parish hall. Then “they all wanted to hear the lady who plays the accordion.”
Before long she was “Queen” Ida, did 189 dates on the road last year and is in Switzerland right now. She played a few weeks ago at Ashkenaz on San Pablo wearing a green sequin and drop-pearl top, while holding her own on a stage with seven large men. One of them is her 41-year old son “Freeze” who came to zydeco via jazz and funk music in 1976.
Most of the folks on the dance floor are young enough to be the children of ‘60s parents and are doing that extended shoulder twitch that passes for dancing in Berkeley, or at a Dead concert. Others move separately to a modified samba rhythm, and some even couple-dance to the waltzes and Cajun two-steps. Along the stage’s skirt are black and tan fans of Queen Ida’s who smile when she introduces “the bayou national anthem, ‘Jolie Blon,’” insisting it is “dedicated to all the ladies [and not just the blonde ones].”
Although the band was born in California, it has all the elements needed to go right into some let-the-good-times-roll Louisiana music, and is no longer shamefully “chicken-scratchy” or old fashioned. “As soon as the media accept some kind of music,” Ida Guillory notes, “ even its own people come back to it.”
Congo Square Is Just Across from The Funky Butt
It was in New Orleans, once called The City That Time Forgot, that this music first came together. On Sundays in Congo Square during slavery days, African drum rhythms encountered the French mood, Spanish dances and Italian melodic traditions. Then, half a century after the damn Confederacy fell, Creole classical and ragtime piano met lowdown gut-bucket blues in the work of rural guitar pickers. There are differences of style or technique between the two Fats, Waller and Domino, between Chuck Berry and Chu Berry, Charles Parker and Charles Brown. But the roots they all have in common are deeper still, and this locale is a place to find them all.
A hard-rocking bar, The Funky Butt is still inside the French Quarter, just opposite from Louis Armstrong park– the site where the slave market once existed. [Alas. the Funky Butt and Donna’s, the last live music venues on North Rampart both lost their licenses by 2013. R.I.P.] Across the boundary of North Rampart, a few blocks past Congo Square/Armstrong Park into the Tremé District, sits Sidney’s Saloon on St. Bernard Ave. Sidney’s is a screen-door place that sells liquor by the bottle and setups to its regulars, along with cold Abita beers and pounds of boiled crayfish, served on newspaper.
Owner Burnell and several of his cronies sit on chairs outside and recall past Jazz Fests. Inside, on Tuesdays like tonight, the augmented Treme Brass Band holds forth. Now it’s made up of old-timers plus up-and-comers from Rebirth Brass Band—some of them high school marching band players who found that by learning jazz style they could play for tips on Bourbon Street. And earn a lot more scratch than working at Popeye’s.
Rebirth is now getting famous (even doing commercials, like Dr. John did for that now national fried chicken chain). At the moment they are in Paris and Cannes for a pick-up gig. And the Treme Brass Band’s usual tenor sax player, “Stackman” Sidney is off touring with Fats Domino’s band. But other originators of the band are present, including Benny Jones on snare drum, vocalist “Uncle” Lionel Batiste (another famous New Orleans music family name), and Butch Gomez, playing his rare 1920s curved soprano sax.
The band plays the back of the bar around a plywood-covered pool table in the narrow glare of a Bud Lite lamp. They jam on standards like “Chinatown My Chinatown” from Kid Ory’s day, and Gershwins’ “Lady Be Good,” leading into a frantic version of “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up”. Featured along with the elders is a superb young trombonist named Revert “Peanut” Andrews , who wears a leather cap in the African national colors. His cousin Troy is known as “Trombone Shorty”– both were mentored by Danny Barker, by the way.
As if to widen their notion of New Orleans’ musical miscegenation they break into a Latin beat for a hot version of Hank Williams country-cajun “Jambalaya.” By this time several of the more intoxicated men in the bar are dancing, loose-limbed and free form by the pool table. But when Professor Longhair’s classic “All On Mardi Gras Day” is introduced by the horns, women and couples join, dancing between the stools, and then everyone is following the now-marching band out into the street to finish the set a plain air..
A week later the members of Rebirth have returned to New Orleans and are playing a free date at Tower Records. “We got the Michael Jackson treatment in France. This was something they’d never heard before,” says 25-year old trombonist Keith “Wolf” Anderson (“They say I make the horn howl,” he explains). The band plays “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You”– lead trumpet Kermit Ruffins has been compared to Satchmo—and follow it with two new songs of their own, the anti-crack anthem “Leave That Pipe Alone” and “Free My People” about South African apartheid.
Wolf is not surprised to hear that in the band’s absence their rival the New Birth Brass Band has been boasting they’ll be better than Rebirth. “That’s how we want them to feel,” Wolf says, noting that many of them are relatives or school pals. “Nowadays things have changed,” he remembers when he was 15 and played with the highly competitive old-timers of the original Olympic Brass Band, back in the day when some players turned away from the crowd to hide how they did their fingerings. “We learned by listening hard, rather than by asking questions. But if older guys don’t encourage younger guys, this thing is going to die. That’s the only way we can keep the drive alive.” Judging by the young crowd at Tower Records making like Mardi Gras on the store floor, as clerks and customers lean over the railings from above, this music is far from deceased.
Finally at the Fest, for 3 days worth of Fun
By the time we actually arrive at the jazz festival, it seems almost superfluous. It really is too much. The event takes place on a racetrack in huge tents (such as the Gospel, which is damned hard to leave) and over a dozen outdoor stages that surround booths selling irresistable good stuff to eat, such as BBQ alligator po’boys, stuffed artichokes or mirlitons/chayotes, crawfish etoufee and other delicacies, all in the $2-$4 range. There is also way too much music to hear, all happening at once, for $10 a day. [Needless to say, ticket prices were now up to $70-$85/day for Jazz & Heritage 2019 .]
Among the myriad music alternatives on Friday are Bo Diddley, D.L. Menard & the Louisiana Aces (a Cajun Hank Williams), and Bobby Marchan (not quite as loud but even more fey than Little Richard) who saves his hit songs for last: “The Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and the original version of “(I Wanna Take You On a) Sea Cruise” that he recorded with Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns back in the late 1950s. When the hits dried up in the ’70s he went back to performing and MC-ing in drag. [He is still producing New Orleans hiphop and Bounce, including its exponent Big Freedia who is loud and proud proof that “We’ve come a long way, baby!”]
But the nattiest ensemble of the day (probably thanks to daddy Ellis, who insists jazz musicians demand respect and dress for it in suits and ties) are Delfeayo Marsalis’ band, featuring an incredible young soprano saxophonist named Donald Harrison, and guest drummer 13-year old Jason Marsalis. Their mentor father is beaming from a seat backstage at the Jazz Tent. The audience ranges from teens to 70-year olds, of all colors, with everyone just intent on listening hard.
Saturday the lineup includes groups as diverse as a Memphis band, Mudboy & The Neutrons, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians, Ashford and Simpson, plus Casselberry-Dupree. The latter are two dreadlocked and braided black women, along with Marita Rojas on bass and Annette Aguilar and drums and congas, who came out of Women’s Music a decade or so ago. A huge audience responds wholeheartedly to their soul-sister combination of liberation lyrics and roots melodies.
But today’s climax definitively belongs to the National Dance Company of Senegal. Starting with quiet African “blues” licks by a master of the 36-string kure, then drums lead us through a panoply of tribal dances as a dozen dancers crouch and leap in joyful, spiritual (and in a word unbelievable) ways, moves that later on would become the Black Bottom and flossing, jitterbug and the Funky Chicken, break dancing and Bounce. Now even New Orleans has gone home.
Sunday’s crowds are in full force for the biggest names; today it’s impossible to get into many tents without a backstage pass. Dr. John is playing at the same time as Harry Connick Jr.— they both studied piano under James Booker. In the gospel tent Aaron Neville sings Sam Cooke-style gospel songs backed up by the Zion Harmonizers.
But the day’s big mystery is “Champion” Jack Dupree, at last returned from a life-long exile in Europe to the city that once orphaned him (like Satchmo, he was put in a waif’s home) and never let him earn a living. “Here is a number I learned from ‘44’ Kelly in 1924,” he says, hammering out some big thick chords. He plays “Everything’s All Right” the way he taught both Ray Charles and Professor Longhair. He sings “Oh Marie” in the Italian operatic tradition of Orleans Parish, then “Drinkin’ Wine (Spodee Odee),” a 78 rpm I once happened to collect when I was a teenager. Another “Winin’ Boy” is back home.
People say of Jazz Fest that it’s like dying and going to music heaven. I found it to be more like a bar where everybody appears unbearably attractive, which is rather painful in a way, but it’s a good way. I’m glad I got there for my first time, but it’s also nice to be back in the Bay Area, where we can hear a lot of this music throughout the year—and demand of local club owners that they bring us more of it.
cover article, SF Weekly, May 16, 1990
[Here in the Bay Area, Slim’s, Great American Music Hall, Cyprian’s and The Lost Church in San Francisco, Ashkenaz and Freight & Salvage in Berkeley were still playing roots music some nights, as does the SF Jazz Festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for free every summer in Golden Gate Park’s Helman Meadow, and small festivals like the Accordion in Cotati in September, plus all those rainbow-y ones in the Sierras. At least until the pandemic shut them for now.
But hell, we keep losing the older performers. Most recently it was Dr. John’s time to go. I must say that he did look like a heart attack about to happen back in 1990, but then thankfully cleaned up his act enough to be with us for another 30 years. Thanks for all the music, and for sharing your stories with me so I could pass them on, Mac.
Almost as sad during this Pandemic Summer was news that Slim’s, a great SF roots club originally founded by rocker Box Scaggs, will close permanently, to be replaced by a Hooters-style men’s hangout.
And lastly, news just in that on April 1, 2020 Ellis Marsalis Jr. died of pneumonia due to Covid-19 virus. A tribute by his son Ellis III can be found at: https://www.wsls.com/entertainment/2020/04/02/new-orleans-jazz-patriarch-ellis-marsalis-dead-at-85/ ]
Mark Freeman August, 2020