If you want to be cool in New Orleans,
you don’t play jazz—you make music
I visited New Orleans at a point in my life when I was struggling to determine how music would be a part of my life. This piece is an attempt to answer that question as well as an experiment in writing with an improvisational mindset I learned from the New Orleans jazz musicians I met.
Nonfiction Seminar, 2016
Jazz is its own language in New Orleans. It flows like jive from the hepster’s instruments, carrying through the crowded streets of the French Quarter where some stagger around with Hurricanes in their hands and others on the overhead galleries look at the commotion below with touristy fascination.
I jumped right into the madness my first day in New Orleans. I followed behind as my parents and three sisters pushed through the mob on Bourbon Street, eventually stopping at a blocked off intersection where a brass band played loudly in the middle. Six or seven old black men played trumpets, trombones, and other brass instruments while another man kept the rhythm on a snare drum that was tied around his back, resting on his bulging belly. They all shouted “yeah” and “that’s right” to each other and to the crowd as they played.
The old, frail looking trumpeter jumped forward during a song and danced for a while. His head swayed like long, looping brush strokes and the gold chain around his skinny neck hopped about as he moved. He skipped back into the line just in time to take a roaring solo, tipping his newsboy cap to the crowd as they hollered.
This was what I had hoped to see in New Orleans. I had been obsessive about listening to and playing music since I was a kid, and my parents had promised me that you couldn’t walk down a street in New Orleans without music coming at you from all sides.
I slipped away from my family and zigzagged through the crowd to get a better view. When I got to the band’s side, I saw what looked like an arm coming out of one of the player’s stomachs. I moved my way to the band’s front. The arm belonged to a little black trombonist standing in line with the rest of the brass players. I laughed at the sight of this little boy, half the size and one-sixth the age of the other players, playing hesitantly alongside his well-versed and seasoned band mates.
He looked up to the old trumpeter every now and then, hoping for some sign of approval or guidance. At a certain point, the trumpeter turned to the boy and motioned with his trumpet for the boy to step forward and take a solo. Fearfully, he did. He just played the raw melody, leaving out the fancy tricks the others had learned through their years. Halfway through his solo, the melody called for a big low note, produced on the trombone by extending out the player’s arm and pushing a sliding brass tube. The boy held out his arm and blew but played the note too high. His arm was too short to push the slide out far enough, and he immediately dropped the trombone to his waist and looked at the trumpeter with defeat and embarrassment on his face.
With all the people shouting and the other instruments blaring, few if any could hear the mistake, but the boy was embarrassed anyway. The trumpeter moved his brass away from his mouth and smiled to the boy with big, white teeth, more pronounced by his dark skin. I couldn’t hear his voice, but I tried to read his lips and look at his hands as they gestured to figure out what he was saying.
“Don’t got to be right,” I think he said. He took a hand off his trumpet and circled his finger in the air in front of his chest. “Just got to keep it movin’.”
In jazz, improvisation is key. It’s not enough to know scales and chords and such, you need to make it seem natural. People call it all sorts of things—feel, groove, vibe—but it all means having the confidence in your playing that you can experiment and be open to the idea of being wrong but being able to make something of your mistake.
I started playing music in fifth grade when my elementary school required all students to join either band or orchestra. Being one of the taller kids in my class, I was asked to play bass. I liked the bass because it seemed that the lines were less complex and because of how low and booming the sound of the instrument was. On my first day in orchestra, I must have been yelled at by the conductor every two to three minutes for pulling the lowest string as hard as I could just so I could feel the wood shake in my hands and hear the gong-like sound ring throughout the room.
I created a routine for the three days a week we had orchestra. Five minutes before my class before orchestra ended, I would ask to go to the bathroom, insisting that I couldn’t make it until the bell. Then I would race to the orchestra room so I could grab the best of the three basses before the other bassists got there. I got myself a small electronic tuner at a music shop and kept it in my pocket so I wouldn’t have to wait for the conductor to get to class to help me tune. Then I’d take the folded up sheet music out of my back pocket, put it on a black stand, and practice my parts.
When my conductor had first seen me take the folded sheet music out of my pocket, she lost it.
“Why would you ever treat the music in such a way?” she yelled through her teeth. I lowered my head, scared I was going to get in trouble, but I told her the truth.
“So I could read it during class,” I whispered.
“What? You read it during class?” I shot my head up at the chance to explain how well thought through my little act of deception was.
“Okay, so I fold up the sheet music and put it in my pocket. Then I take it out during class and put it in my textbook so I can read it without anyone seeing. The folder you gave us for the music is too big and the teacher would see it, so I just fold it and keep in my pocket.” She looked at me dumbfounded.
“You read the music during class?” she asked. I didn’t understand why she looked so confused.
“Well, yeah” I said sheepishly.
“Do you understand it?”
“Well, it’s the song from Harry Potter, and I know that song. And you told us that each of these marks on the paper is a different note, so I know what sound these notes make. And you told us how to play each note, so I can play the song. Mostly.”
“Play it for me,” she said. So I did. It wasn’t perfect because I still wasn’t fully confident in reading the music and finding the notes on the bass, but the tune was there and she saw that. She also saw how eager I was. I knew the song long before I started playing bass and it was so exciting that I could be the one to play it. I could hear the music in my head before I played it and I knew how to make it happen.
I enjoyed playing in orchestras as a kid, but the excitement faded as I got older. By the time I reached high school, orchestra had become a chore. I had since learned to play guitar, bass guitar, ukulele, mandolin, harmonica, and a few other string instruments, and I enjoyed learning songs off my parents’ records. I would sit and listen to artists like The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix and teach myself the parts by ear, then play around with the parts and add licks I thought sounded interesting. In orchestra, I was bound to what the sheet music read. There was no room for improvisation because there were other bassists who were all expected to play the same part. I had become so disinterested with orchestral music by the time I went to college that I had no hesitation in giving it up.
In college, at the suggestion of an advisor, I joined the bluegrass ensemble. The ensemble was always in need of bassists and so they were eager to hear that I would be joining them. I had never listened to bluegrass before and I wasn’t sure what the bassist’s role in this type of band was, but I was ready to try something new.
At first, I had a lot of fun learning a new kind of music and a new style of playing. Rather than playing with a bow, I plucked the strings with my right index finger, giving the notes a warm, woody tone. I learned to play traditional American folk, old time, and bluegrass tunes, but again, there was little room for me to introduce my own flair into the songs. A bluegrass bassist’s job is rhythmic. I played to keep time for the band—anything too complex or flashy would only throw off the others.
I thought I caught a break in bluegrass when we chose a tune that sounded more like swing jazz or blues than it did like traditional bluegrass. During the first few rehearsals of that song, I found ways to experiment and have fun with my part. I tried “walking” bass lines—playing the notes of a chord one by one so that the line sounded like it was moving up or down rather than just playing one note repeatedly. It was fun because it was different. Rehearsing the song with my band didn’t feel like we were just trying to get through it without messing up, it felt like we were jamming on it for a while and having fun with it. Some of the girls in my band even started to dance around while we played. We all seemed to feed off of each other’s energy and we wanted to keep pushing the song forward and see what we could do with it.
Our instructor and guitar player, Casey, had a different idea of what we should do with it. Because he had to check in on the other bands in the ensemble in addition to playing guitar for our band, he could only meet with us once a week. When he asked us to play through the swing song, I was excited to hear what he had to say about it and about me playing those jazzy lines. I thought he might have even been impressed by it.
“You know, Rob,” he said, “I really dig what you’re doing and it seems like a helluva lotta fun, but I think it’s just too much for what we’re doing. It sounds too much like jazz.” I smiled.
“We’re not playing jazz.”
“Isn’t it a swing jazz song?”
“Yeah, but I think if we make it too swinging, it’ll seem out of place in our set.”
“So, back to root fifth?” I asked.
“Back to root fifth.”
Casey started walking away and I sarcastically, unexcitedly vocalized my new bass line for the song. “Bum. Bum. Bum. Bum.”
New Orleans was the first place I heard the bass be used melodically or percussively rather than just rhythmically. Nearly every song featured a bass solo or “slapping,” a technique in which bassists pull a string hard enough that when they let go, it smacks back against the fingerboard. Then they slap the strings down again with their hand twice, making a boom chick-a boom chick-a sound.
While walking around the French Quarter one morning with my family, I noticed a man holding a clarinet in the middle of a relatively empty street talking to two other men about his own age and style. In the shade of the salmon colored café behind them sat an accordion and a bass. When they saw people start walking down the street, the two walked to the building, picked up their instruments, and started playing.
My family and I sat on the steps of the Louisiana Supreme Court and listened to their music. A few songs in, a guy with a guitar strapped to his back rode into the scene on a bicycle. He dropped his bike by the building, grabbed a milk crate and sat in between the accordion player and clarinetist.
“Where the fuck were you?” the accordion player snapped at him.
“Oh, just living life,” he said. “So what’re we playing?”
Just then a second guy with a guitar strapped to his back rode in, dropped his bike, picked up a milk crate, and sat next to the first guitarist.
“And just where the fuck were you?” the first guitarist joked.
“Oh, you know. Around.” He smiled to the first guitarist then to the accordion player who just scowled back. “Alrightly, shall we?”
Their appearance didn’t quite match what they were playing and I think that drew me into them more. They were hip and bizarre, all wearing welder’s glasses and cutoff shorts or pants four inches too short to show off their colorful, wacky socks. Though they were a classic example of modern trends, they were playing a style of jazz called, “gypsy jazz.” This music became popular early in the twentieth century when a Romani guitarist named Django Reinhardt met up with French violinist Stephane Grappelli to create an energetic, “hot” style of jazz no one had ever heard before.
I was somewhat familiar with gypsy jazz, but thought it was an outdated, forgotten style. What made this band so interesting to me was that they were playing an old style of music and they were sticking to the tradition of the genre, but they were introducing their own modern flair and energy to the music. Rather than arranging solo orders, they would look to each other during the middle of a song and nod to one another to decide who would step forward and when. It was also clear they hadn’t written their solos before hand. Instead, they were making up parts on the spot, using licks they already new but blending them together in a way that kept things interesting.
In between songs, I walked up to the bassist who had a cardboard box at his side with their CDs.
“Hey,” I said, “I really dig what you guys are doing.”
“Oh, hey, thanks, man! Means a lot.”
“How much for a CD?”
I pulled out my wallet and as I was counting out bills, I said, “You know, I wasn’t really expecting to hear you guys playing gypsy jazz.”
“No?” he asked. He took off his welder’s glasses and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shoulder.
“I don’t know. I just don’t hear it from young guys all that much.”
“Well, that’s kinda why we like it. We can mix the new and the old and have fun trying stuff out. Plus, like you said, no one’s expecting it so there’s almost shock value that draws people in. It’s good marketing!” We both laughed at that.
“Alright,” I said, holding up the CD, “thanks again.”
“Yeah, you too, man. Take care.”
It’s not a bad idea, I thought, to mix the old and the new. Every type of music has its go-to tricks and standard lines, and I figured there was a way to make them work together. I was getting bored playing the simple bluegrass parts but I knew that my instructor was right when he said I was doing too much when I tried to improvise, so I decided I would try to find a way to blend different genres together more subtly. That way I could experiment and have fun with my playing without taking away from the style of music I was playing.
It's not a bad idea, I thought, to mix the old and the new.
The next night at dinner in the French Quarter, a band played in the restaurant. A jazz banjoist, a trumpeter, and a bassist walked table to table and took requests. People asked mostly for pop tunes but when they came to my table, my family, knowing that I was the most passionate about music of all of them, let me choose.
“Do you know any Django?” I asked, already having it on my mind from the day before.
“Django?” the banjoist asked through his thick, curly mustache. “Django Reinhardt?”
“Yes,” I answered cautiously, unsure why he looked so confused.
“Why, sure we know Django! Don’t we, fellas? Just surprised to hear that name come from a young man such as yourself.” He was animated like a 1900’s carnival barker and had a voice somewhere in between that of Sammy Davis Jr. and Kermit the Frog. “How would you like to hear…Oh I don’t know—Ah! ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’?”
“That would be great!” I said. He looked past me at my parents and sisters who very clearly had no clue who Django was.
“Django Reinhardt,” he started in, “was a wonderful jazz guitar player from many, many years ago. Now, I’m no Django, but seeing as your boy here appreciates such an old soul, I’m going to try my best.” He turned around to his mates. “We ready, boys?” They nodded. “Alrighty!”
As soon as they started playing, I honed in on the bassist. An old black man with an under bite and a black fedora with a feather sticking out of it, he did something with the bass that I had never seen before. He gave it personality. Though fast and complex lines are impressive, he knew when being slow and simple worked better. He would even stop playing altogether for brief moments, making it even more exciting and noticeable when he came back into the music.
The band finished the song, nodded graciously to our applause, and moved to the next table. As they played for the other customers, I continued to watch the bassist.
While we were walking out of the restaurant, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see it was the bass player.
“Your pops tells me you play bass,” he said in a slow, cool voice.
“A little bit. Nothing like what you were doing,” I said with a smile.
“What do you play?”
“A lot of bluegrass. Some other stuff here and there but mostly that.” I felt almost embarrassed to tell him that. I never played anything as difficult as what he was doing and I felt like I could hardly call myself a musician in front of him.
“Well, it’s no jazz,” I said.
“It’s all music,” he said. “Whether you wanna play jazz, rock, bluegrass or whatever, it’s all music. Keep listening and learning. And have some fun with it. That’s what it’s all about.”
After dinner that night, my mom told me she wanted to take me down Frenchmen Street. She had gone there a few months earlier when she visited New Orleans with her mom and sister and told me how, at night, the entire street was a series of jazz clubs that people wandered in and out of, taking in the music.
Our first few stops were not what I was expecting. We walked into a few clubs playing ‘80s pop hits, top 40 songs, or electronic music for crowds of enthusiastic drunks. Leaving one club, my mom said to me, “There’s one place I know of down the street.”
“Is it like these places?” I asked.
“Not really. It’s hard to explain, but I think you’ll like it.”
We walked to the end of Frenchmen Street where an old wooden sign jutting out from a ramshackle yet homey looking place read, The Spotted Cat. With all the music playing from other clubs nearby, it was hard to tell what was playing in each place until we were inside.
Once inside The Spotted Cat, I felt like I entered an old saloon. A band cramped in a corner played while a young woman with a voice like Katherine Hepburn’s wailed away into the microphone. People were shouting and whistling. The crowd stepped back to give a couple enough room to swing dance. The energy of the whole thing was stirring. As the couple danced, the band played louder, encouraging them to dance more. They fuelled each other, which in turn fuelled the entire crowd to shake along to the music.
When I wasn’t watching the dancing, I was watching the bassist. Like the bassist at the restaurant earlier that night, he gave personality to his playing. At times, the band even played in a call and response style, playing a little lick as a full band then giving the bassist an equally short time to improvise quick riffs, letting him show off a bit.
Though a short man with no distinguishing features, he set himself apart in his playing. He played so smoothly and articulately that it came across as sassy. He laughed and grinned as he played, looking at the other instrumentalists and feeding off of their vibes. He, along with all his mates, was sweating profusely from the packed club and their lively playing. After every song, they clinked their glasses together, took sips, and nodded to the crowd before starting up again.
In that club, I found a sense of excitement with music that I had lost since I first started playing. I remembered how fun and new it all felt when I took out the folded up sheet music from my pocket in grade school and read it during classes. I remembered that feeling I got when I played along on bass with my parents’ Led Zeppelin records over and over until the vinyl became scratched and warped just so I could sound like John Paul Jones. I remembered how happy I was when my classmate brought his ukulele to school and I was able to figure out a few of The Beatles’ tunes and got everyone to sing along. I remembered how I felt a connection to music that I had never felt with anything else. It was something that seemed infinite in its possibilities. It was something I understood in a way I felt others couldn’t. It was something I loved and thought I would love forever, and I hated to see it fade.
Just before heading to the airport to fly back home from New Orleans, I went online and searched the name of the band I had seen at The Spotted Cat. I found them, “The Smoking Time Jazz Club,” and purchased one of their CDs online. The website gave me the option to send the band a message with my purchase. I wrote to tell them how much I enjoyed their music and how it inspired me to try out jazz for myself.
After making it to the airport and getting through security, I checked my email on my phone and was surprised to have received a message from the bassist of The Smoking Time Jazz Club.
“Glad to hear you were diggin’ the music,” he wrote. “It takes a couple of years to figure it out, but you’ll get it. So much fun. Enjoy.” I felt giddy like a kid.
About a month later, on the night of my bluegrass concert, I was nervous. I stood in front of the mirror in the dressing room of the chapel where we were performing, obsessively adjusting the cuffs on my blue suit and the collar on my white dress shirt. I must have retied my shoelaces ten times each foot. I held my hands in position and plucked at the invisible strings, practicing making eye contact with myself in the mirror because I had remembered someone telling me it helps with nerves. I thought to myself this night needed to be perfect. There were two seniors in my band and I needed to play well to make them look good for their last show.
As the first band finished up their set, I stood with my band mates by the doorway off the stage and waited for our time to walk out. In a moment of panic, I turned to my mandolin player.
“Grace,” I whispered. She turned to me. “Do you have a pencil and paper?” She looked confused and shook her head no. “Shit.” I ran into a small room backstage and rummaged through the drawers of a desk until I found a pen and a lone sheet from a stationary set. I ran back to my band and frantically wrote down our set list, confirming with Grace that I had it right.
“We’ll be fine,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”
“I just need to get it right.”
“You know it. Just relax. Have some fun.”
We heard the applause and saw the first band walk off stage toward us, meaning it was time for us to come on. I stuffed the paper inside my breast pocket and buttoned the top button of my suit jacket. My band walked on stage, starting with Casey, followed by the banjo player, mandolin player, two fiddle players, and me in the back. I walked over to the bass that lay on its side on the ground and adjusted the endpin to make sure the bass was the right height for me. I pulled out the pin, tightened it, and picked up the bass. I realized it was too short. I awkwardly sat the bass back down to readjust the endpin and cringed at the sound of the bass touching the floor as it echoed throughout the otherwise silent chapel. I picked it back up and nodded to my mates. The stillness that filled the chapel was killing me. I felt my shoulders rise and tighten up and my breath stop altogether as I waited for the first note. My fingers felt weak and trembled as they sat on the strings. I panicked and crazily thought to my self, “Oh Christ, what key is this in?” But then the two fiddle players looked at one another, counted off, and started playing.
Luckily, I came to my senses and started playing in the right key. I was hitting the right notes, but I quickly knew something was off. My playing sounded so stiff, so inorganic, so emotionless. I was still tense and nervous and I thought people could tell. The unfortunate reality of the life of a bass player is that audiences rarely even notice you unless you mess up, and playing so rigidly fell under the category of messing up.
The first song of the set came to an end and I breathed a sigh of defeated relief. “Just five more and I can get the hell off this stage,” I thought to myself. Next came our swing song.
When the guitar kicked it off, I started playing my simple part. I was almost more relaxed than I was for the first song because at this point I had already written off this concert. It started off poorly, so the pressure of making it perfect was gone and I was just looking to get it over with. I figured that if it was going to be bad, I might as well make it worse, so I decided to play the lines that Casey had told me not to do. I enjoyed playing them, so I was going to do it.
Once he began his guitar solo, I started walking. He looked at me over his shoulder and gave me a look that seemed to say, “right on.” What was that look for, I thought. I thought he would be mad at me for doing what he told me not to do. Maybe he was mad and the look was insincere. But it wasn’t insincere at all. He turned to me halfway into his solo and watched me play my lines and even improvised using some of the things I was doing in my part. He smiled and moved his head all around while he watched my hands move. He turned back at the end of his solo to receive applause from the audience before our singer came back in with a verse. He looked over his shoulder at me and nodded as he mouthed, “Good call.”
I let out a quick, uncontrollable laugh and smiled in disbelief. Just then I realized how smoothly I was playing. I thought that maybe while I was focused on the strange interaction with Casey, I messed up my part. But I didn’t. I didn’t mess up because I wasn’t thinking about the notes or the chord changes. I didn’t mess up because I wasn’t thinking about the audience. I didn’t mess up because I wasn’t thinking about the last song or the next song or about how I hated that music had become a chore for me when it was what I once loved most. I didn’t mess up because I wasn’t thinking—I was feeling. I was feeling the music the way the old trumpeter in the blocked off intersection wanted the ten year old trombonist to feel the music and the way the young hipster in street, the old restaurant player, and the nightclub musician had all felt it. I felt it and I loved it again.
I felt the pain between my shoulder blades fade away and the life come back to my fingers. I closed my eyes and I didn’t even feel like I was playing anymore. I was just sitting back and listening while my hands did all the work. My fingers dug in and pulled the strings harder. The notes felt so smooth and round. They felt so rich and natural, like the fingers that were doing the playing had been doing it longer than I had been alive. I heard a few people whistle and cheer and I felt they were doing it for me.
I opened my eyes just before the final fiddle solo to check in with the rest of my band. Casey was looking at me with a cool smile and he mouthed to me, “Do it again.”
I closed my eyes and fell back into it. I felt the notes pour out of my bass as the fiddle player wailed away. It seemed that solo went on longer than it had in rehearsals. It seemed like none of us wanted it to stop. We were too deep into it and we knew there was more we could do if we just had the time. I didn’t want to get off the stage anymore—I wanted to stay right there. I wanted to stay there with my band where I wasn’t playing for a grade or for an audience; I was playing for myself. I was playing because I knew that there were only four strings but an infinite number of things I could do with them. I was playing because it was what I loved more than anything else.
I let myself forget what music was about. It wasn’t about pleasing an audience or getting a good grade or earning a paycheck. Music isn’t a business. It’s a tool that lets musicians step forward and show who they are. It’s a confidant that understands anyone and everyone and wants only to help. It’s a voice for the timid that are too afraid to speak and it’s a voice for the brave who just can’t find the right words. It takes an entire lifetime just to scratch the surface, and by that time, you only want more.