Way Down Yonder

“I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.”

—Ernie K-Doe, 1979

There are some loves that are meant to last a lifetime. You can tell the first time you feel them. That’s the way it is for New Orleans and me. In 1971, I had made a pact with a pal that after Louis Armstrong died, we would go to his funeral there. Three months later, just that happened. The only problem was that Armstrong wanted to be buried near his home in Queens. Deciding to blow off that one small detail, we jumped in my friend’s Oldsmobile 88 in Austin and headed for the Crescent City, determined to pay our respects.

It’s probably the best decision I ever made, because the day we arrived a huge Armstrong celebration had taken over the whole town, sending out rolling waves of excitement in every direction. In the late afternoon, three different second-line jazz parades hit the plaza in front of City Hall at the same time, exploding in a heart-rushing sea of humanity and sound, with what seemed like 100 musicians all playing the same soul-lifting songs. You could almost reach out and touch the electricity. If this is how good everyone feels after someone dies, I thought, imagine what could happen for the living.

I spent that whole night roaming the French Quarter, finding little bars with incredible bands or jukeboxes, where everyone seemed to welcome a newcomer. Riding the St. Charles streetcar back uptown to my tiny third-floor perch in a huge old mansion, I crawled out on the balcony to watch the sun come up and fill the lush neighborhood with a proud pink dawn and the promise of a brand-new day. For my first 21 years, I hadn’t left Texas except for mad dashes down into Mexico, but now I felt like I’d finally found freedom in a place right next door. Little did I know just how right I was.

All the things I’d seen and heard in New Orleans kept dancing in my head, not to mention the mesmerizing records by people like Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Meters, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner and so many others. The next year, Dr. John’s new album, Gumbo, never left my turntable, becoming a case study in everything great about New Orleans music. There was such an easeful attack in those songs, while the intensity never let up. The percussion was more seduction than propulsion, while the horn players had tones that spoke of some kind of secret society. The whole thing seemed like sonic surrealism. Listening to that album convinced me that the sound of the Big Easy had been reborn inside me, and someday soon I would do something about it. But it would be six long years before I made it back.

In May 1976, some friends came back to Austin raving about the Jazz & Heritage Festival they’d just been to in New Orleans. Pressed for specifics, they simply said I had to see it for myself. In spring 1977, I decided to do just that. A buddy and I hit town on a Friday morning and went straight to the Fairgrounds racetrack, where the daytime festival is held. Walking onto the infield, with seven different stages all operating at once, was like walking into the greatest concert ever held in full swing. To the left was Clifton Chenier, and 100 yards away Snooks Eaglin was playing. At the other end of the track, the Zion Harmonizers were saving souls in the Gospel tent, while one stage over Gatemouth Brown held forth. Bongo Joe beat his upside-down oil barrels in the middle of this fine mess.

As amazing as all the music was, the crowd was easily its equal. It seemed like half of the city had turned out, and all were intent on getting down as quickly as possible. At that time, out-of-town tourists hadn’t really discovered Jazz Fest, so the racetrack had the feeling of an extremely large local house party. During the last set that day, as Bonnie Raitt played with Allen Toussaint sitting in, a skydiver parachuted into the audience with colored smoke coming out of both shoes. As if that wasn’t enough, at night the S.S. President riverboat rolled down the Mississippi with Professor Longhair, who helped invent New Orleans rock & roll, performing. Later, my friend and I swore the only way we’d miss another festival was if we were dead or in jail.

If ever there was any doubt that New Orleans possessed the magical keys to the musical kingdom, Jazz Fest sealed the deal. Twenty-seven festivals later — I did miss one in ’89, when my first son was born that weekend in April — the same wave of amazement hits me the second I walk into the Fairgrounds, and there is always a head-shaking moment when life simply feels too good to be true. Looking and listening in every direction, you know that what surrounds you is absolutely the most perfect place to be on the planet at that particular time.

Like any true zealot, I decided at one point to try to bring some of the Crescent City’s best singers to Los Angeles. In early 1984 at Club Lingerie, we kicked off a series called Friday Night in New Orleans for seven weeks, rounding up a house band of expatriates that included bandleader Harold Battiste, John Boudreaux, Lenny McDaniels, Henry Butler, Leo Nocentelli, Tami Lynn, Jerry Jumonville, Ivan Neville and Ike Williams. Every week a different singer would fly in, and we’d rush them from LAX to rehearsal, and then blast off at 10 p.m. that night. There is no greater kick than watching an L.A. audience see someone like Lee Dorsey, Johnny Adams, Frankie Ford, “Frogman” Henry, Art Neville, Aaron Neville, Benny Spellman or Ernie K-Doe for the first time, or listen with open mouths as legends like Lee Allen and Earl Palmer sit in, playing with a majesty that doesn’t exist anymore. It proved to me beyond any unreasonable doubt that New Orleans music not only has the power to transport listeners to another land, but it can cure emotional problems and straighten bent relationships with a single song. I saw it happen many times those gyrating nights at 6507 Sunset Blvd., laughing at its sweaty effect.

Now that I had some new musical friends living in New Orleans, I found myself there as often as job and money allowed. We’d hatch plans to make a documentary of the city’s rhythm & blues history, or record a series of live albums at our favorite spot, Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge, where a tear-soaked Johnny Adams set with Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar and “Dogman” on drums would sometimes start at 3 a.m., if the musicians decided to show up at all. Or we’d scour the city for live James Booker tapes alongside Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, with the trip including more eating and antique shopping than true tape-scouring. No problem. There were always surprises like seeing the early Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the 9th Ward’s Glass House, or watching Tennessee Williams walk around the French Quarter with Dizzy Gillespie. Of course, the films and the album never quite got off the ground — the city has a way of laughing at ambitions — but even in those dashed dreams, there was never anyone to accuse you of failure. That word didn’t really exist there, and even if it did, no one ever bothered to use it. Besides, the spring fling at the Fairgrounds forgave everyone and everything, rain or shine. All you had to do was get there and be ready to groove.

On the final day of Jazz Fest this year, I left the racetrack after the last note was played, and made my way over to Lopez Street for the stroll to where I was staying near Bayou St. John. In my path was a huge street party, spread down several blocks and ending at the Splish Splash Laundromat on Esplanade Avenue. A band was setting up on the sidewalk, and hundreds of people were milling about, all smiling and in the throes of knowing that life had granted them this gracious place to enjoy yet another day. We were all living beyond time, beyond worry, beyond anything except the smile of the person next to us. The band started, then cords strung into a house got pulled out of sockets, so only the drums could be heard, until someone noticed and plugged the cords back in. The smiles never stopped.

For an hour I sat alone on the curb and felt that finally, almost 35 years after my first visit, I had truly learned the lesson of New Orleans. We are here to breathe together, spread whatever joy we can, and hopefully hear the holy sound inside us. Then, in a ray of divine thought, I remembered how critic Jay Cocks once described the music of the Crescent City: “endless antics of absolute insignificance.” Inside those antics, as in all great art, we are able to find a way to immortality. Whether it’s Picasso, Bach, Faulkner or even Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Tuberculosis and the Sinus Blues,” each can take us to a spiritual place where we live forever. Underneath a banana tree on a street I’ve walked a hundred times, as the sun started to set over the swamps out past the edge of town, a secret is revealed: Matters of the heart are all that matters.

Bill Bentley was music editor of L.A. Weekly 1980–81, and has worked at Warner Bros. Records since 1986.


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