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A Viper Night on Frenchman Street December 27, 2009

Posted by The Typist in Jazz, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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The Spotted Cat has always been a bit of a hole, with feeble A/C and bathrooms that make you wish there was a yard out back. It has none of the brick-back-wall, cocktail-waitress ambiance of the Snug Harbor across Frenchman, the city’s bastion of two-set, two-drink minimum traveling jazz artists, or the Tremé cache of Sweet Loraine’s on St. Claude, but the Cat is where New Orleans goes to swing.

The new management took out the beat couches and the high-back Caribbean wicker chairs which is a damn shame. The barmaid insists they moved the stage to make more room to dance but I doubt there’s enough room for one more couple than there was before. If you’re like me and don’t dance you will miss sinking into the cushions for a set but the Cat is as much about the dancers as it is the music. I’m there to listen to that old New Orleans jazz but you can’t beat the free floor show of Lindy Hoppers crowded onto the tiny dance floor. The barmaid isn’t very attentive but it’s clear she’s not there for the tips. She will spend half the night at the stage-end watching the band and as often as she can will vault the bar and dance.

You don’t have to be a dancer to be drawn to the Cat. This isn’t the sedate cocktail music that New Orleans jazz turned into when we were growing up, the sounds of Pete Fountain or Al Hirt that we smirked at in the 1960s. There is such raucous energy to these bands I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone pogoing lost among the swing dancers or be shocked to see one of the band members stage dive into the crowd. And at the same time it’s incredibly cerebral in an Odd sort of way like chess on crack, not the mathematical dance of Classical music but a Stravinsky opera-house riot of syncopation climbing up the lizard brain stem to light up your cortex like a Captain Fantastic machine with the ball trapped in a rapid ricochet between two bumpers and you find your wildly illuminated mind getting away from you and floating out with a soaring trombone solo over the dance floor filled with leering bishops and galloping knights swinging their queens in the complex moves of Lindy Hop and suddenly you realize (a comforting thought at age fifty-something) that maybe your parents or grandparents weren’t as square as you thought they were when you were a kid.


I set out last week with my buddy Eric who follows the dance bands when he’s in town (I’ve seen him and he’s good, having inherited his swing from parents he tells me were champion dancers in their day) to listen to the Cotton Mouth Kings, the band that came out of a split between members of the old Jazz Vipers. I don’t know the details first hand but the rumor outside between sets is that front man, tenor player and vocalist Joe Braun is a bonus baby, living off his New York money, and was not willing to take the Vipers to the next level as a working band. That’s a damn shame, because Braun’s Pops-like gravelly voice and spirited playing always seemed to be the heart of the group. But Braun is out, and the Cotton Mouth Kings now rule Friday night’s at the Cat.

The Kings swing every bit as hard as the Vipers. I don’t know who the titular leader is but guitarist John Rodli now is listed as vocalist in lieu of Braun. You may have seen Rodli sitting in with the Django gypsy Grappelli influenced Hot Club of New Orleans (and the new Cotton Mouth Kings have picked up violinist Matt Rhody from that group). Clarinetist Bruce Brackman (who was conspicuously absent from the last months of the Vipers and much missed; this music needs a clarinet player) not only plays with the Kings but with the Tremé Brass Band as well and “anywhere else I can” he told me one night after the Tremé were interviewed as part of a Louisiana Humanities Center series on New Orleans brass band.

One thing you notice about the New Orleans jazz scene, both parading and the swing dance scene, is the way the players overlap in the bands. That’s the way it’s been since Jack Laine picked up players on Exchange Alley to fill the bandstands of the 1920s. It seems a small world, but the number of working dance bands and the clubs that book them keeps growing (but keep in mind that in most of these clubs the band often plays just tips so don’t let the jar pass you by. There are a half-dozen groups playing on Frenchman and the Bywater regularly: the Vipers, the Cotton Mouth Kings, the Loose Marbles, the Hot Club of New Orleans, Zazou City and that list doesn’t include all the ensembles playing Preservation Hall, Fritzel’s Jazz Club and a half-dozen other venues.

It seemed for a time that jazz was a dying art, something staged at Sunday hotel buffets for the tourists but in the last generation that has changed. It’s not just the allure of swing. The chance for the dancers to dress out in their Forties finery as many of the dancers do is irresistible to people raised on Carnival. Its also the blossoming of the latest generation of parading bands into a nightclub phenomenon which has trained another generation’s ears to move past the guitar and hear the magic in a trumpet, the soaring wall of sound in a wailing ensemble playing from the perfect muscle memory of their grandfathers.

The Vipers had been noticeably absent from the listings for the last several months, so we were surprised as hell and secretly pleased to walk up Frenchman around eleven last Friday and hear Braun’s mellow growl and Jack Fine’s coronet spilling out into the street from the doors of the Cat. There is just something about Braun that stands out for me above the rest. Others have the look (Rodli in his slicked back hair and dark suits would not look out-of-place backing Stephene Grapelli in 1950s Paris) and the city is filled with talented players. There is just something about Braun that rolls it all up the way a practiced band pulls their disparate parts into a perfect song: the look of him slumped in his chair in a rumpled brown suit and flat cap cradling his sax, the satanic intensity of his up-tempo solos and the languid cigarette gargle of his vocals.

I don’t lament the passing of the old Jazz Vipers. I will always be able to say I was there, to travel back to the old Cat in memory when I hear their CDs. Where there was one band there are now two, just another reason to slip out of the house whenever I can and head down to Frenchman Street in the city where jazz was born and where it will never die.

(Drawing of Joe Braun lifted from PaulFayard.com. If you’re wondering what to get me for a 12th Night present this would be swell).

Comments»

1. Barb Johnson - December 27, 2009

Mark–So well-written and right on the mark. My love for the Spotted Cat and Frenchmen Street and the bands makes me all verklempt, so I can never get across the feel of it to someone who’s never stood outside and danced on that street until 2 or 3. But you got it just right. Thanks.

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2. Charlotte - December 27, 2009

“chess on crack” ~ an inspired term, that. I like it a lot.

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3. candice - December 29, 2009

I think, that the reason jazz was for a while a dying art was it wasn’t presented to the kids in the right way.

For me, being say ten years older than your kids, jazz was the boring art music your parents listened to – and my parents, they are nerds. I think jazz tried too hard to make itself into high art and lost its soul for a time. I used to hate the stuff.

Now? My brother-in-law in a boston rock band has even seen Rebirth on tour. Took them to the spotted cat and d.b.a some time back on a weeknight and they were amazed to see that many people out on a Tuesday.

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D Millsap - January 26, 2010

True, it looks like it has never been cleaned (EVER!), but I much prefer the Spotted Cat to Snug Harbor. I’s a totally unique place that you won’t forget. You sit so close to the band, you are almost a part of it.

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4. Scattacatcat - March 12, 2011

Thanks for writing that about Joe. All of them are very dear to me, and when I visited New Orleans this past year, I saw the Kings, and they were great–but it’s a shame they had to split. You put it so well. Joe Braun is always singing for his life, like there’s no other way to bear it.

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mf - March 13, 2011

Yeah, there’s just something about his voice, not just the gravelly echo of Pops but it comes from deep in the diaphragm nearest the heart.

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