Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

Ten years ago, on a hot mid-August day, I gazed out of a top floor window in the Marriott on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. I had been lucky to visit New Orleans several times, often on business attending conventions with a nice expense account to entertain clients. I had come to love the city, so usually I stayed a few extra days to enjoy its pleasures on my own dime, sampling wonderful restaurants, finding treasures of music off the beaten path, and indulging myself with a stroll down Bourbon Street.

Yes,  this now ranks among the tackiest streets in the world with crowds chanting for college girls to show off their assets in exchange for a string of plastic beads. Regardless it’s the place where I once heard Al Hirt blow his horn, where with several friends I stumbled into the Absinthe Bar for an amazing show by blind bluesman Brian Lee backed by an exhilarating horn section – we stayed for three sets, and where just around the corner I sat in a small box of a room thrilled by the old timers in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  One night in 1968 Joe Pitt and I even saw a woman balance two champagne glasses on her…well I think they were real, and I know they were spectacular.

So I had seen New Orleans many times, but never from such a lofty perspective. As I took in the view of the French Quarter down Decatur Street toward Jackson Square and Cafe du Monde – ah those beignets, I noticed how incredibly high above the street level behind the levee the mighty Mississippi flowed. Startled by what I was seeing, I commented to a friend standing with me, “geez, look at that! If the levee ever fails this city would would be washed off the face of the earth.”

Two weeks later in the wake of hurricane Katrina, another of New Orleans levees did fail. While the French Quarter was largely spared, other parts of the city – an area several times the size of Manhattan – were quickly submerged. Among the victims were some of the city’s treasured musicians. Those in town that week scrambled for their lives as well as their possessions. The great Fats Domino was feared lost, then was happily found among those rescued from their rooftops as the waters rose around them. Others who were away on the road performing lost instruments, priceless charts and arrangements and memorabilia as the waters surged through their homes. The musicians were just a fraction of the lost or displaced, of course, but to many they were like the soul of the city. I watched on television as New Orleans clung to life. Forget the political finger pointing blame game. Anyway you cut it, Katrina and her aftermath were an unmitigated catastrophe.

I sought solace in my music collection and listened to recordings like Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” and “Basin Street Blues.” I thought about Jerry Jeff Walker meeting an old dancer in a New Orleans jail who “drinks a bit” yet still can “jump so high, then lightly touch down.” I listened to Pete Fountain, Sidney Bechet, and Wynton Marsalis. I danced a little to Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Ernie K. Doe, and of course Fats. I even pulled out an old CD I had bought from a band playing guitars, kazoos and washboards on Royal Street just off Jackson Square. The I remembered I had a compilation CD with some zydeco and cajun music by the likes of CJ Chenier. And I thought, where would American music be without New Orleans? To hell with thinking, though. I wanted to listen, to hear the full spectrum, to savor every taste in the New Orleans musical gumbo. (Yeah, I know that’s a cliche, but it’s earned.)

I did what any collector might do. I rummaged through my library and built a playlist. The only criteria was that the performers must be either from New Orleans or have spent an important phase of their career there. In many cases, the tunes would be about the city, but this was not a hard and fast rule. Initially, the playlist had to be limited to 80 minutes in order to fit onto a CD. Devices today, however, allow playlists to be practically unlimited in length. Still, I feel that somewhere around an hour and a half is about as long as anyone will ever spend with one batch of music, me included.

I shared my original playlist with several friends as a Christmas gift in 2005. Here is my slightly amended list as a Hurricane Katrina – Ten Years After gift to you. (I’ve checked and all of these recordings are available on iTunes, and I’m guessing they’re on Amazon as well.)

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

“Louisianna 1927,” the opening video, by Aaron Neville from the album Warm Your Heart, is a tale of the aftermath of a different flood, this one in 1927, written – and previously recorded, by Randy Newman, who spent many boyhood summers in the “big easy.”

“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” is this time recorded by Charmaine Neville on Live At Bourbon Street Music Club, although it does include a Louis Armstrong impersonation either by her or a band member.

“Goodby Charlie” by the Kitchen Syncopators, the street buskers I mentioned earlier, is the tune I originally used, but I can’t find it anywhere except my closet. I did find on iTunes a song called “Satisfied” by a similar sounding band of the same name. It’s on an album called Pickathon Music Festival 2003.

“Little Old Town Called New Orleans I Know” has the old street singer Jerry Jeff Walker from his album Gonzo Stew accompanied by tinkling piano, trombone, 4-string banjo, clarinet and maybe a tuba in there somewhere. Dixieland meets cow jazz.

“Drop Me Off In New Orleans.” Kermit Ruffins is one of the most popular trumpeter/singers working the French Quarter the last twenty years or so keeping the old style New Orleans jazz alive. The tune is available on multiple albums. You’ll find the images on the video more pleasant to see than on the opener.

“Jambalaya.” I found this Cajun flavored version by CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisanna Band on Alligator Records 30th Anniversary Collection.

“Mother – In – Law” is of course the R&B classic by Ernie K. Doe written by the great Allen Toussaint.

“Time Is On My Side” is performed here by three legends: Irma Thomas with Allen Toussaint  and the orchestra featuring Dave Bartholomew for the HBO show Treme. It’s on the soundtrack album, Treme, Season 1 (Music From The HBO Original Series.) Of course you can include anything from Irma Thomas, and I’m happy.

“We Are One” is from a collection of new recordings done in June, 2005, by Rhino and Starbucks’ Hear Music called I Believe To My Soul. Allen Toussaint’s vocal here brings a spiritual quality to a song that seemed in the post Katrina context to be a kind of reconciliation between mankind and a mother nature who reeked such havoc.

“In The Court Of King Oliver” is performed by trumpet star Wynton Marsalis with help from his father Ellis on piano from the album Standard Time Volume 3: Resolution of Romance. King Oliver was, or course, the first great trumpet star to be recorded. He move up river from New Orleans to Chicago and later recruited his protege Armstrong’s mentor.

“The Blues Are Out Of Town” is an upbeat contemporary jazz vocal by New Orleans native Laverne Butler from her album Blues In The City. Love her album.

“West End Blues”  written by King Oliver is arguably the song that made Louis Armstrong a star with its soaring intro that leaves other trumpeters breathless. He recorded it several times over the years, this one in the fifties.

“Black and Blue” by Fats Waller and popularized by Armstrong is done here by Sidney Bechet on the Blue Note album The Fabulous Sidney Bechet. Bechet is featured on the soprano sax here and also played the clarinet. As a pioneering soloist, he did for the sax what Louis did for the trumpet.

“Mardi Gras In New Orleans” is an iconic New Orleans tune written by Professor Longhair done up this time in big band jazz style by Harry Connick, Jr. from Chanson Du VIeaux Carre.

“Red Hot Pepper” was written by Jelly Roll Morton who often claimed to be the inventor of jazz. Whether he was or not, he was one of the first great jazz composers. This version is by his fellow New Orleans master Wynton Marsalis from Mr. Jelly Lord: Standard Time Vol. 6.

“Mack The Knife” brings together two New Orleans contemporary greats featuring Dr. John vocalizing with Nicholas Payton and his 14 piece band on the trumpeter’s admirable tribute album, Dear Louis. I could have chosen any of several pieces from Payton’s album.

“New Orleans Stomp” is found on McCoy Tyner’s album Illuminations. On the one hand, this selection is an exception to the rule because Tyner is not from the Crescent City, but the tune captures the feel of a New Orleans second line, and Tyner’s trumpet player is New Orleans born and bred Terrence Blanchard.

The medley “Bye and Bye and The Saints Go Marching In” is the second selection on the list that I discovered on Putumayo Presents: New Orleans. Featuring Dr. Michael White and Greg Stafford these tunes are quintessential New Orleans.

“Basin Street Blues.” I know Satchmo pervades this list as influential player and singer, songwriter and muse, but I had to have one more serving from the master himself.

“Walking To New Orleans” by Fats Domino – could the list end any other way? When Fats was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter from Katrina’s waters, he was evacuated to Baton Rouge. It took awhile, but eventually Fats was able to return home to New Orleans.

To paraphrase Fats’ lyric, “New Orleans is our (musical) home, that’s the reason why we’re gone, walking to New Orleans.”

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