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Some Where on the Far Side of Eisenhower January 12, 2013

Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Fortin Street, Jazz, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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Eric and I are the oldest people in the room I think, the only ones who might have heard these ancient swing tunes coming from the cloth grill of a hardwood hi-fi set or or on some long-reprogrammed station from a Solid State AM Radio in the Chevrolet dashboard of 1960. We stand up at the front of the bar because every seat along the bar and wall is taken by a crowd born in a time when the guitar was the undisputed king, when trumpet and strings meant Peter and the Wolf. Linnzi Zaorski stands willow-sapling straight at the microphone, the swing mostly in her sweet-tea voice with just with just a bobble-doll accompaniment from her head and shoulders, her hips and one hand keeping time as softly as brushes on a snare. Her publicity photos like those of the other jazz standard singers in town suggest sultry but under the spot tonight she is all wholesome blond and smile, ready for the pageant judges.

The band of trumpet, violin, hollow-bodied electric and upright bass doesn’t need a drummer to swing. Close your eyes when they start “Lady in Red” and you would swear there were two trumpets instead of Charlie Fardella’s one and a violin. Matt Rhodi’s fiddle reminds me that somewhere between Carnegie Hall and Church Point there is a whole other sound, that nothing swings quite like a violin. The bassist is late and through the first set Matt Johnson’s hollow body drives the band, comping Kansas City swing warm and bright as the glow of antique amplifier filaments, taking delicate solos that complement Zaorski’s voice. Once Robert Snow sets the dance floor thrumming its just a matter of time before the dancers peel off the wall and start to take the floor. I don’t have a notebook and I’m too beer-tipsy fascinated by it all to keep a set list in my head. The sound is almost too clear. You expect the wandering modulation of a distant short wave station broadcasting from somewhere on the far side of Eisenhower like the RKO tower. These songs were growing old before most of the band was born but here tonight they are fresh again. The seated players lean into the songs, intent as surgeons, while the base player’s eyes close and off he goes where ever the hell it is bass players go when they are mounted by the melody. The dance floor fills by fits and starts, one couple at a time at first as if by prearrangement, the jitterbug and Lindy Hop couples each taking their turns, inviting the crowd to marvel at their steps like the first Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy in Harlem most of a century ago.

“Can you believe this? That we’re here listening to this?” Eric asks. We are like two old vaudevillians between shows grabbing a glass of beer and of course I answer as I always do. “Yeah, this sucks. Cleveland. That’s where we should be tonight. I bet it’s happening in Cleveland.” We both laugh and the people around us give us the slantwise eyeball and edge away a just-visible inch. Cleveland. Right. Somewhere in Cleveland in a Holiday Inn there may be a quick-silver blond with Betty Grable legs crooning with a pianist who misses his ashtray more than his youth, but I don’t think you would find a house full of kids and wish-they-were’s leaning in toward the singer just as the band does, swept into Zaorski’s updo and baby-doll vocals. The whole room–band, dancers, audience– is titled slightly toward the singer and you can almost see the energy flicker by spark jump from the crowd up to her and come back in a brilliant million candle-power flood of Forties poise and song.

I first heard Zaokrski sitting in with the Jazz Vipers at the Spotted Cat, before the big split in the band, before HBO’s Treme packed that place like the last dry room on the Titanic and they moved the stage and took away the old wicker chairs and couch where non-dancers like me could wait for a chance to collapse and just get lost in the sound. I’m not about to Google a lady’s age but Zaorski started a dozen years before that in a barroom called Southport on Bourbon Street. Between songs she talks about singing over the football game, of the bartender vacuuming around the bands’ feet during the last set. Swing has come a long way since bands like the Jazz Vipers took swing out of the dance-class and wedding ballroom and brought it back to the smoke and mirrors of the barroom where it was born. Half a dozen bands work the trade now to fill all the dance cards of the jitterbug-crazy retro fedora and nylons crowd. Its impossible for a stand-and-drink man like myself not to watch the footwork of the dancers but when singers like the sparkling Zaorski and pin-up sulty Ingrid Lucia and the fiery Meschiya Lake with her updo and tattoos take the stage the real magic is straight up center over the microphone. The magic of all the swing cats–men and women, singers and players–is the magic of jazz, the ability to bend space and time like notes, to take you out of yourself and toward another time and place, in this case to a scene out of some Ronald Reagan Rest Home dream, where the syncopation of music and feet among the sharp hats and shapely gams made old cats like us first twinkle in someone’s eye.

Bad Apples December 16, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in A Fiction, cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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The Apple Barrel is a trip hazard with a liquor license, 500 square feet maybe counting the superfluous jukebox I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard. In front Kenny Claiborne in once-white Western boots sings Indian Red like a Seventh Ward Kaddish over a mournful dobro. Momma Cat passes the tips spittoon while keeping time with a tambourine stick she says she got at church. Marco and Monica who painted the mural behind the band are in from Sarasota and as we talk Claiborne calls “Coldplay. Because we can” and the dobro hollers its own metal voice into the song. Piano Dave says the tattoos at Electric Ladyland are overpriced but I still contemplate Bukowski and Maddox on my forearms and think anyone I have to explain them to is probably not worth working for. The tourists sit mostly in the back, as expressionless and obvious as tinsel Christmas trees in a bail bondsman’s office, nursing incongruous Stella Artois until they give up or get a table at Adolfo’s upstairs. Photos of Coco Robicheaux watch over us with a Bodhisattva’s Cheshire serenity and I write and have to scratch out Kenny Holladay instead of Claiborne when I start to jot these notes but as long as there’s a band I am half right: Coco and Kenny and a host of others whose boots will never pass through these door again are as palpable as the smoke from the musicians’ cigarettes. I contemplate my bottle and think that if I have another Jockamo there’s no telling what’s going to happen but we are prepared to exercise the uncertainly principle until we raise Schrodinger’s cat from the grave. We order Reposado shook over ice and tell J.D. to make one for himself, then pour the first taste onto the floor. Somewhere outside the door is the heart of Saturday night and Apple Maps will never get you there. You have to follow the woman dressed in wrong-holiday rabbit ears through this door and never be afraid to drink what’s in front of you.

Going Home July 16, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in Dancing Bear, New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
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When I pitched face down on the floor of The Barrel with no assistance from the tricky step up to the bar, I knew it was time to go look for the second line. Sam and I split a sandwich from the grocery across the street earlier, I think, but clearly I needed movement, fresh air in my face. “Purpose,” I shouted as people helped me up from the floor. “I’m going to scout for the second line.” I glanced at half a Jockamo on the table but decided I was fully prepared to reconnoiter over the broken sidewalks leading to St. Claude and Elysian Fields. “Are you su..?” “YES. I’ll text you when I see them.”

Outside the overcast broke for a moment, a good omen for Uncle Lionel’s sendoff I thought. The glimpse of blue, the air on my face as I moved up Frenchman, focused on Royal Street just ahead, my artificial horizon, a dancing bear balanced on the balls of my feet, I moved through a lucid dream, wide awake and walking through an invisible gelatinous substance. Right at Frenchman, a glance at the old folks’ apartments where Uncle Lionel spent his last days at which the second line would stop soon, then a left at Elysian Fields, St. Claude just ahead. Purpose, I thought, walk with purpose, my internal gyroscope, leaning forward at the precise angle that converts the lifting of feet into momentum, a swagger stagger as straight as a swizzle stick.

At St. Claude there were hot sausage and cheese po-boys $7, two women waiting for the bus and no sight or sound of a second line. When I came to a stop purpose got all wobbly and I leaned against the newspaper machine, shielding my eyes. Someone switched on the sun the moment I stepped out onto St. Claude. Nothing. I sent a text back to The Barrel: “638 no sifn od daocid/or/Wnd/lon @ Stclaude/and/ukusian.” The newspaper machine did not seem particularly steady so I crossed the street into Walgreens and bought an energy drink, and took out some more cash. I was on the route and I knew the second line was somewhere down St. Claude so I crossed to the neutral ground and headed in their direction. Purpose, gyroscope, horizon, movement.

The worthless sun-sensitive lenses in my glasses finally adjusted and I could hear but still not see a band in the distance. I stopped and sent another text: “Indinana hwew ehwy comw.” I managed the two blocks down to Touro and saw the second line, police in front. “Police comin 2ns line c”5 +3 %!e+32&8”#,” I wired back to The Barrel. “Drums comin’,” I managed two minutes later. The second line had come to a halt at Touro Street, the scheduled end of the route. “Srtopped at tojro,” I sent back at precisely 7 p.m.. The parade was to come up to Frenchman Street, past the bars where Uncle Lionel spent the last evenings of his long life, dressed in smooth, perfect suits, diamond stick pin and cane, a sharp hat. Everyone was waiting on Frenchman Street not realizing the parade permit had expired at seven and the police forced a stop, that the second line had managed six blocks in two hours and was over. I noticed a group of tubas above the crowd turning down Touro. A piece of the crowd peeled off and followed and so did I. It didn’t matter that the official second line had shutdown at Sweet Lorraine’s and the police didn’t seem to notice the impromptu parade escaping on a side street.

I lost my artificial horizon but was caught up in the flow and the music, just another fish in the school, swinging and swaying in time with the crowd, and no thought of how or where to go. No point to counting blocks or moments. What thought does the fish give to the river except to drink deep and follow the current? I took a few camera phone pictures and three seconds of video. Later I liked the ones of blurry feet dancing in second line in particular, and the two that are upright and in focus. I had abandoned the thought of another text message. We would be there soon enough, the high, bright tubas trumpeting the herd toward Frenchman.

No one expected a parade to come up Kerlerec and hook down Chartres. We were coming from the wrong direction and found no one on the street but the usual crowd you might watch from the Barrel’s bench. The now silent tubas moved as a group toward d.b.a, the crowd scattered and dissolved into the bars. I lurched toward the Apple Barrel where, according to the one reply text message I stopped to read, there was whiskey and Herbie and the umbrella I’d left behind. I arrived just in time to save tee totaling Herbie from the devil whiskey and recover my umbrella, apparently not as attractive as the vanishing Zippo I’d once left on that bar for a minute. I managed my way to the table without another fall and someone slapped a Jockamo in front of me. The Marigny had their parade for Uncle Lionel and no one noticed, except the lucky hundred-and-some who followed the tubas home.

Uncle Lionel July 8, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in Jazz, je me souviens, music, New Orleans, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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NEW ORLEANS — Legendary Treme Brass Band leader and drummer Uncle Lionel Batiste passed away Sunday morning. He was 81.

04 – Gather by the River

The Last Mardi Gras February 4, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, French Quarter, ghosts, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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As I did last year, I’m going to just re-post a piece I wrote in the fall of 2005 on Flood Street – Dispatches from an Imaginary Disaster, and then for Carnival 2006 and 2007 on Wet Bank Guide called The Last Mardi Gras.

If I don’t see you at St. Anne’s or on Frenchman, I’ll see you on the other side. As I once heard a Mardi Gras Indian chief say on WWOZ one Monday night in the long ago, “don’t be fallin’ outta yo’ house with no needle and thread in yo’ hand.”

The Last Mardi Gras

In this city, people talk incessantly of past pleasures and of those to come, even as they regard the meal or the drink or the parade in front of them. We live in a stream of memory as dark and deep and powerful as the river. Memory’s currents clutch at us and steer our lives, must be compensated for just as the ferry pilots must at every crossing, must be feared less they take us down into an eddy from which no body returns.

Some of my earliest memories are of Mardi Gras. I remember as a child of perhaps five seeing Indians dancing at the corner that might have been Galvez and Canal as we drove to my great aunts’ on Royal Street. Later that day or perhaps a year before or after, I can clearly recall watching Rex passing down Canal from atop my father’s shoulders. Half a life later, my girlfriend and I slouched outside a hall in Arabi in the lost hours before dawn on the night of MoM’s Ball, and a famous photographer took our picture. I’ve never seen this photograph, but I will go to my grave easier knowing that years from now, on a wall or in a book, someone will see us in our motley glory, dissolute and unrepentant and utterly glorious in the moment. They will see us and say: this is what Mardi Gras was like back then.

Twenty years separate those moments, and another twenty separate that MoM’s Ball from the first postdiluvian Carnival. For all that span of years and a century before, Mardi Gras has been as reliable as high water. No one really needed to tell me there would be a Mardi Gras this year as there has been every year in my living memory, and as I am certain there will be a Mardi Gras when no one remembers what it meant to sit on the lawn of the Wildlife and Fisheries building of a certain winter Tuesday. No disaster leaving behind life more complex than the cockroach could prevent it.

Just as certain, at some point of during Tuesday;s twilight people will begin to talk of about last Mardi Gras, and of the Mardi Gras to come with the certainty of the sanctified they are most certainly not. The last time in living memory Carnival was interrupted was during World War II. Frankly, I don’t understand why. The soldiers and sailors on leave wandering Perdido Street drunkly in search of women wouldn’t have been harmed by the tableaux of paper maiche floats lit by the dripping oil burners of the flambeau. Carnival was probably canceled by somebody from the wrong side of Canal Street, whose father before him decided Storyville had to be closed to protect the doughboys of World War One from dissipation. There always a Do-Good Daddy looking to tone the city down.

I don’t think anyone with the city in their heart understood the cancellations, but I’m sure those generations accepted those losses the way we accept the closing of a favorite restaurant: by finding a new and equally good one to sit in and eat and drink and discuss the loss of the old favorite, remembering what we ate on such a date and with whom. Until, of course, we discuss where the owner or the cook of the failed place is expected to return, and start to anticipate the day we will sit at that as yet unset table, and remember what we ate on such a date and with whom.

Of course there will be a Mardi Gras. I might need to ask which krewes would roll on what nights, to inquire of friends where the MoM’s Ball might be. But no one needed to tell me that Mardi Gras would happen, especially the one hidden inside private parties in bars or in courtyards, punctuated by forays out into the streets to parade. The year the police went on strike and the parades all fled to the suburbs and the Mardi Gras of the hoteliers and the airlines was canceled, we dutifully assembled at the Wildlife and Fisheries Building on Fat Tuesday.

Suspicious National Guardsmen and out-of-state troopers warily regarded the ragged parade of the early intoxicated, smelling of burnt leaves and breakfast screwdrivers, dressed in ways only the part-time preachers among them could have imagined, and then only in a place warmer than the city in February. We were not about to let a simple thing like a police strike spoil the party. Several among us dressed as the National Guard in uniforms from the surplus stores in Gentilly, armed with perfect replica rifles by Mattel. When we went to buy wine and beer at the Walgreen’s on Canal, and our friends burst into the door yelling “secure the beer cooler,” clerks fell to the floor in fright, fearing perhaps that the Guard had had enough, and were about to shut down carnival.

I fled the city a few years later, and did not return for Mardi Gras once for almost two decades. The few Mardi Gras that followed the police strike were colored by my reasons for leaving the city, memories rent by heartache and drowned in drink. Those last few years did not yield the stories I would tell my children if they fed me too much wine at some holiday dinner years from now. For many years, the police strike was the Last Mardi Gras. My children, a boy ten and a girl fourteen, grew up knowing Mardi Gras through the Disney film fairy tale filter of the stories I dared to tell them, from the magazine that came with the king cake from Ma Mere every year, in the music I played them from Twelfth Night until the day. We ate jambalaya and king cake, and donned masks and beads to dance wildly to Mardi Gras Vol. 1 in front of the large plate glass window of our home in a small Midwestern town. Neighbors across the street peered through their curtains intermittently at the scene, but no one ever worked up the courage to ask us what we were doing.

I have taken my family to New Orleans. The kids had sneezed powdered sugar all over each other at the Cafe du Monde, fondled baby alligators on flat boats out of Barataria, had learned to eat seafood and gumbo and jambalaya, had even wandered with me through Storyland in City Park. I took them to the exhibit at the Cabildo to learn about Mardi Gras. It’s a wonderful set piece but, like a high school health film on sex, it is not quite the same as the actual experience.

So we piled onto an airplane bound for New Orleans the year before the Flood, and went to Mardi Gras. I took them to St. Charles and Napoleon, and my son waved his deftly caught spear with complete abandon. My daughter was bashful about begging trinkets from strangers in a strange land, until I flung myself stone cold sober on my knees in the middle of the Avenue and begged as loudly as I could for a female horse posse rider to give me a purple, green and gold flower for my daughter on her first Mardi Gras. After that, she got the idea. No pretty girl on St. Charles Avenue should go home without her weight in beads. She only needed to ask.

We stood for hours all weekend, parade after parade, never tiring of it, interrupted only by a friend’s party Endymion party on Saturday night. After Endymion, I left them with Ma Mere and set out after midnight to return to the MoM’s ball for the first time in two decades. MoM’s had always been one of my favorite things about Mardi Gras, a gathering of all who chose to live in the fabric of Mardi Gras and not just inhabit a costume for a few hours, a party only the resolutely dissolute can enjoy, or survive. MoM’s is what I hope Saturday night in Hell will be like, should I find myself stuck there between planes. But thousands in a shed did not hold up to the memories of hundreds in a hall in Arabi decades before. I don’t know if I will return to MoM’s, preferring this one true memory of carnival’s past. And then I can say well, I don’t go anymore, you know, but back when…

I agonized for weeks and months before we went: should I take the children to the Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, or back to St. Charles? As I child, I spent most Mardi Gras at my great aunt’s apartment on Royal Street, now the Hove’ Parfumier. I decided they should have a glimpse of the secret heart of Mardi Gras, or as least as much as they could handle. So we rose up early on the day, donned our costumes, and boarded a cab bound for Frenchman Street. We waited endlessly across from the R-Bar for St. Anne’s, not knowing those marchers had chosen another route. Facing a rebellion, we took off and made our own way up Royal, stopping to sit a moment on Tante Gert and Sadie’s stoop, making Canal just in time for Zulu.

After Rex, I left them in my sister’s care for the endless truck floats, and retired to friend’s places in the Quarter. I stopped briefly in the Abbey, a place that had never been the same since Betz sold it. Instead of the usual motley crew of bikers or transvestites or other folk I had often encountered on past trips home, I found it full of drunken twenty somethings who looked frighteningly like the crowd I remember from my own days, as if the Abbey were haunted for the night by the spirits of the place of my memories. I bought a round of snakebites for a familiar seeming couple and then the currents swept me back to Frenchman Street, a mad Green Man second lining with a huge palm tree totem given to me be someone who knew just how to complete my costume.

Now I have a new last Mardi Gras. We are coming back to the city to stay, to march again and again, so that there is no longer a Last Mardi Gras, just the last Mardi Gras. I will march until my time is done, and then I will borrow a ritual from St. Anne’s, in this city of borrowed rituals. I will have my children scatter what remains of me into the river on Fat Tuesday. For me, it will be the Last Mardi Gras. For them, it will simply be a moment from last Mardi Gras. They will say a few words, shed a tear, and then all of us will be swept away by the currents. They will turn away from the river, while nearby a drunken trumpeter will perhaps blow a few bars of Oh Didn’t He Ramble, and I will march in their hearts back into the Quarter once more.

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