French Quarter

fall fieldwork weekend in nola

I’m just returning from a productive weekend of fieldwork in New Orleans. I have several of these short weekends planned in the next few months – an unfortunate necessity that would be much better served if I could just spend a week straight on the streets. Shocker here – I can’t.  The ten years I did spend walking them is certainly an advantage, and I’m now realizing how much access and information I have that’s allowing me to complete this project – I’m grateful.

Saturday was highly productive. My partner and I systematically roamed throughout the quarter for several hours so I could make recordings, take photos, and note locations on my map.  I won’t write too much here (you’ll have to read the thesis to find out more), but suffice it to say that I’m surprised at how stationary these musicians are. The busking locations never deviate. It’s as if there are fifteen designated spots for these musicians to plant their feet and they come back to these spots, day after day (often switching between them) – of course, a lot of it is based on foot traffic.

Sunday was less productive, but I learned a lesson. It’s an odd thing to return to the city you call home and think of it as a research project. I never noticed before that during a Saints [football] game, the streets are empty – probably because I was always on a bar stool during the games. A game started at noon yesterday, so by eleven the streets were clearing out. For street musicians this means less foot traffic, less money, and less overall exposure. There’s no reason for them to be out there. As I was seeking them out, they were packing up to find a bar stool in front of a TV. The musicians that were out and about (such as Doreen’s band) were plastered in Saints regalia. My lesson? For future fieldwork trips, I need to consider game times (or at least talk about the game time phenomenon in my work).

In place of hanging with the musicians, I went down to the Louisiana Music Factory and Beckham’s bookshop on Decatur and spent a stupid amount of money on books and albums related to my work. I was slightly disappointed at the response from LA Music Factory when I asked “Do y’all carry any Bounce titles?” (The answer was no)…

Below are some photos from the weekend. I spent the majority of my time with two specific groups of musicians, as is evident in the photos:

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NOLA Notes Pt. 1: Amzie

We were at a cafe on Saturday morning. Amzie’s black top hat was dusty around the rim – you’d leave a starkly contrasted trail with any finger swipe.  He had his winter jacket on; rust-colored with gold buttons – it reminded me of the jacket Bette Midler wore in her “Oh Industry” scene from Beaches shown below – without the frilly shoulder cuffs.

(Note that my favorite quote from this movie is also in this clip – can you guess which one? When I was young I had this entire scene choreographed and my dorkiness came through over this past holiday season when I accidentally remembered it)

His pants were tight black leather with alternating black & red star cut-outs from ankle to knee.  On his right thigh, a weathered black leather fanny pack.  He wore red doc martens which looked like they’d been traipsing the Quarter for months. His thick white beard wrapped from ear to ear – mustache to match.

I dumped copious amounts of honey into my tea as I glanced over at him reading the “A Section” of the Times Picayune while Om Lounge soared over the cafe space, complete with scratch beats.  As for the rest of the soundscape? Tips (change) being counted behind the counter, a barista ripping receipts as he takes orders, coffee chatter, the cappuccino machine frothing, two dogs barking at each other from opposing sides of the room, and a calliope from the steamboat Natchez announcing its lunch voyage on the river.  A tall thin black guy in his late twenties leaks a sonic glimpse from his headphones as he checks Facebook on his Sony Vaio.

This Week's Ambush Cover

I glanced over and Amzie was perusing the front page of Ambush, a local queer publication.  On the cover was a giant advertisement for “Big Freedia’s Big Gay Birthday Bash”, a Sissy Bounce show I had plans on attending later that evening (and did). He squirted ketchup on his hash browns.

It was good to see Amzie (my partner calls him ‘The Wizard’). One of my facebook posts over the weekend involved a metaphor of my soul as a wilted fleur de lis (the symbol of New Orleans) – Amzie is one of those characters that rehydrates it.  Several months ago I made a post about him and the homemade bass he brought in my living room while I was having a yard sale.

After breakfast at the cafe, I was walking down Decatur and my partner and I did a double-take when we saw a homeless guy picking through the trash. Normally, people do a double-take when they’re not used to seeing them, when they’re culture-shocked, or when they’re doing something “odd”. We did one and simultaneously said “he’s new”. That’s a good reminder for me that New Orleans is home. We can be in a neighborhood crawling with thousands of residents and tourists and still distinguish when new migrants/homeless folks are in the area – it means they aren’t part of  the group that we [as a neighborhood] collectively watch over. That reminds me – I didn’t see Bill or James this weekend (my two homeless friends). I hope they’re both okay.

Losing NOLA: Donna’s

New Orleans is my holy city. The soundscape of it is a spiritual practice, a place to reflect, to create, and to commune.  Each musical venue – perhaps a sidewalk, a bar, a stoop, the length of a street, a high school band room, under a bridge, or the stage of a jazz club – has earned its story of veneration. When a musical site fades, New Orleanians grieve.

Today we’re grieving for Donna’s Bar & Grill, the last live music club on North Rampart Street.  It faces Armstrong Park, the site of Congo Square. For those of you into television, Rampart divides the French Quarter from the Treme neighborhood, where the HBO show Treme is based.

Offbeat, New Orleans’ music news resource, has just published an article about the closing of Donna’s. Read it here.

On her site, Donna gives us a farewell notice as seen below. You can click on the image through to her website:

I am very saddened by this. Donna’s was the first place I saw Mardi Gras Indians perform.  It was also the first place I had REAL red beans and rice (which I always thought was appropriately across from Louis Armstrong Park). It was a place I saw so many friends have their first ‘real’ gigs, especially after my favorite dive closed down (The Funky Butt – which closed right before Katrina).

As an aside… when things like this happen, as they do so often these days, it only reinforces what I want to do after I have that PhD under my belt. Someone needs to step in and create a cultural space to disseminate grants to keep these places alive, a place to archive the stories, objects, and traditions and to foster tourist expectations, a place to sell the music, to offer tours of our sacred musical spaces,  and to teach a new generation of New Orleans musicians. So many of the above organizations exist as separate entities, and none of them work together to become a strong enough voice on a National level.  If someone gets to putting it together before I do, I’ll raise a glass to them.  In the meantime, I’d wager that a jazz funeral for Donna’s is in the midst…

Who IS that guy? If you lived here, you’d know.

Amzie Adams (photographer/”politician”/sculptor/musician/filmmaker/poet) is a French Quarter fixture. I met him for the first time several years ago when I was working in Jackson Square, as he was/is good friends with my boss over there. Many ‘Quarter Rats’ (established French Quarter residents) don’t know what to think of him, however he’s just as much a part of this city as the jazz, the streetcars, Ruthie the Duck Lady, or red beans & rice on a Monday. He’s part of the backdrop we’ve all been woven into, a functional character akin to seeing Mickey Mouse at Disney World – without the paycheck, with less clothes, and probably a little more frightening to little kids and their suburban parents.

So check out the instrument he has in this photo (taken 6/27/10). He stopped by our moving sale this past Saturday, and wanted to show K.D. (my wife) his new upright bass. He built it out of an old wooden dresser. The strings are weed-whacker line, and it sounds just like, well, a bass! Apparently he had purchased a new (traditional) upright, then liked the sound of his own better so he sold it and gigs around with the axe you see here.

You can read more about Amzie Adams here:
All Amzie All The Time
New Orleans Art by Amzie Adams

Have you seen this pelican?

I took this photo today in a French Quarter cafe bathroom, where it lingers on the wall.

This week has been about rediscovering my autonomy, musical independence, career goals, blocking creative crazies, inhaling support, bridging networks, and squirrel-watching on a park bench in Washington Square. It’s also been about the environment. Some say the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that is spreading a few miles south of here will, among other things, effect the music of Louisiana. Really? How so?

Why I love New Orleans, Part 1

I moved here in 2002 – the goal was to get a degree and pull out. Now, a few degrees later, I’ve mixed in some hurricane skin, two spicy fur-children, a new vocabulary, some grits, and the occasional bottle of Abita which is a requirement for stoop-sitting… and I find myself having these “I love New Orleans” moments. (more…)