The Gist of My Talk At Harvard, 3/27

MY HOUSE

I’ve had difficulty tracing the history of 625 Hagan. A New Orleans map from 1878 shows a building about fifty feet away. The earliest written (notarial) record I’ve found dates from 1906, as part of a larger parcel, a square block of undeveloped land. By the 1930s I believe there was a building in place at 625 that either manufactured or sold tiles. At some time in the 1950s it became a nightclub, featuring African-American rhythm-and-blues, then at its peak. It continued as a nightclub until the late 1970s, under at least two names: the Silky Satin Lounge and the Club Suba. I am aware of four musicians, three of them well-known in New Orleans, who played there: the singer Ernie K-Doe (who had a #1 hit with Allen Toussaint’s “Mother-in-Law”), Walter “Wolfman” Washington and singer Carol Fran. There were surely hundreds of others.

I have searched the files of the main African-American newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, to little avail. Whatever clubs existed at 625 Hagan don’t appear to have received coverage, nor have I found ads. It was seemingly a place people just knew about, given its long (for a music club) history.

The house sits in an area that was largely African-American for decades. Today my block is mixed; one block away, across the urban waterway the Bayou St. John, are blocks and blocks of white neighborhoods; in the other direction, African-American neighborhoods, though this is changing as that area gentrifies.

I bought the house in 2014. New Orleans was in the early throes of gentrification in that year, but this worked in my favor. I was able to sell my first house, which I’d bought in 1998 for $69,000, for $235,000. The people who owned 625 Hagan were friends of mine, and divided the plot in two, severing a backyard parking lot from my house, so I could afford the building and even pay cash for it.

In the 2 1/2 years I’ve owned the house, I’ve put on approximately 50 concerts. Most of them have been duets with long-time music partners or first-time events with people I’d never had the chance to play with. I’ve also let others stage concerts when they need a place to concertize. The previous owners had tried to do something of the same, but it was difficult as they were running a bike shop in the same space. Fortunately they left behind a grand piano so I now have two, which has facilitated duo-keyboard shows. I was pleased to have Carol Fran, who played there over 50 years ago, participate in one event.

About 25 of these shows have been filmed with three or more iPhones; a partner and I have plans to turn these shows (with asides on other aspects of New Orleans) into ten 30-minute shows for broadcast in some form. In the meantime, it is gratifying to know I am returning an old club to its one-time music-making function.

THE STATE OF NEW ORLEANS MUSIC

I fell for New Orleans music as a St. Louis 14-year-old circa 1971 via pianist Jelly Roll Morton, jazz music’s first important composer. I began as a ragtime player, and the traditional jazz of Morton and others was a logical next step, close as it was stylistically. By the early 1980s I’d come under the spell of post-WW2 pianists Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and (especially) James Booker, and in 1984 I moved south. It was clearly meant to be; I left St Louis in near-pauperhood and now own the house-cum-club in my favorite neighborhood, the Bayou St. John.

I have made a point of learning the New Orleans repertoire, from the 19th-century innovator Louis Moreau Gottschalk thru traditional jazz and r&b to the funky stylings of today. Along the way I’ve learned about traditional music from Cuba, Brazil and many other countries. As a gigging musician and as a music-seeking tourist, I’ve done an absurd amount of travel (17 trips to Brazil for instance) and know the musical histories of important towns like New York, Havana, Rio de Janeiro, Paris as well as many other lesser cities.

New Orleans has since the 1820s produced musical innovators: the aforementioned Gottschalk (the first to mix Afro-Caribbean rhythms with European forms, harmonies and instrumentation in a substantive way); Morton (the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz” who was indeed its first great composer), Louis Armstrong (who single-handedly invented “swing”), the Boswell Sisters (fabulously inventive trio who created the “girl group”), Professor Longhair (who mixed Afro-Cuban rhythms with blues as a progenitor to funk), Fats Domino (not so much an inventor as a bridge for black music to cross over to white rock and roll audiences), the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (who funkified the New Orleans brass band genre) and the Meters (uniquely New Orleans funksters who were employed by many pop stars). It’s also had many figures who weren’t innovators per se, but very important in the flow of American music: Sidney Bechet, Louis Prima, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr, Lil Wayne.

And yet, New Orleans music has hit an impasse. The innovation seems to be over at least for now. Why?

Two reasons I think.

First: the rest of the world has caught up with New Orleans in the matter of African-American rhythm. In the 1960s while much of American pop was plodding along to country-rock rhythms and the like, NOLA musicians such as Dr John could create a stir and crack the top 40 with Afro-Cuban syncopation. That’s changed by now. There are funk bands all over the world, inspired by the Meters, as well as non-New Orleanians like James Brown or Parliament Funkadelic. New Orleans has lost that edge.

Secondly is the nature of radio and the creation of repertoire. The last musician with a body of work that is played all over town (and the world) is Allen Toussaint, and he stopped having hits, for the most part, in the 1970s. Even composer-players like Wynton Marsalis (the most eminent name in jazz since the 1980s) and Harry Connick, Jr (who led the retro-swing revival in the 1980s and is now a huge TV and movie star) have failed to create ONE standard that is played regularly around town, or anywhere else.

And what have been the local hits? Ditties like “Palm Court Strut” or the Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna.” Fun, but not in any way earth-shaking music. And bounce music, which I mention below.

I don’t know what happened to radio, or indeed much about pop music after 1980, but whatever happened has made it seemingly impossible for a jazzer like Wynton or a jazz-pop figure like Connick to have a hit. My friend the music critic Steve Hochman wrote me that “Artists can’t have the universal impact and recognition of the past because markets and media are so fragmented that there is no way to reach across it all. With some exceptions of course. But in the 60s a top pop station might have a 30 or 40 share of the market. Now it’s like 5.” And this has led to stagnation, and dilution of the local music. I meet young people in New Orleans who don’t know Professor Longhair or Allen Toussaint are, and that wasn’t the case when I moved here.

It is true that there have been huge rap hits, and hits from the local rap sub-genre, bounce. But are people going to be playing “Back that Azz Up” the way we play Toussaint’s “It’s Raining,” 40 years from now? It’s hard to imagine. But I must concede near-complete ignorance on the subject; it’s simply not my music, it’s not my world. This is not an apology but a statement of reality. Fortunately I’ve seen enough of the rest of the world to know that there are many other music cultures that will nourish me more fulfillingly.

According to one eminent music historian of long acquaintance, the bounce scene was largely washed away by Katrina. He knows New Orleans well, and has declared it a “cultural dead zone.”

As far as being innovative, that is probably true, for the time being at least. And yet, excellent new musicians are moving to New Orleans every day it seems, and the level of playing is often very strong. If there aren’t supernova-new genres being created, there is a lot of tweaking of the old idioms: Jon Cleary mixing Cuban music with funk, neo-trad bands putting their own stamp of a century-old music (and making a living doing so, rare in America).

The cultural armageddon that many worried would take place has not come to pass.  Core elements like brass bands and gospel choirs are still here, in reduced numbers; everything is in reduced numbers.  The Mardi Gras Indians got a huge boost from the HBO series, “Treme” (a show which also paid millions to New Orleans musicians in song-writing fees).  The second-line parades, once largely an African-American affair, has gentrified over the last few decades, but not, I believe, in a bad way.

As for me, I’ve tried within my limited palette to innovate. My first official CD, “All the Keys and Then Some,” was, as far as I know, the first foray thru the 24 major and minor keys to mix classical, New orleans and American and European vernacular music. “Choro do Norte” a collaboration between New Orleans and Rio players was recorded to show the connection between Brazilian choro and American ragtime (and reviewed favorably in the New York Times and Rolling Stone). I co-founded the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, which is still the most progressive New Orleans brass band that’s ever recorded. There are others…and I’m not done, I hope.

ESOTERIC SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES

I grew up Catholic in suburban St Louis in the 1960s-70s: Mass every morning in grade school and high school. I was glad to have been introduced to Jesus at this time, but all in all it the post-Jesus dogma didn’t make much of a positive impression, and the first chance I could (when I left home in college) I dropped out of that elaborate world of sacraments and rituals.

Like so many people, I did want a connection with God. I’d ask for a sign. But, as I learned, sometimes it takes years of asking.

In 1998 I was stricken with tinnitus, incessant ringing in the ears. It came, not from exposure to loud noise (the norm with musicians), but from an ear infection. It hit like an elephant stepping on me, threatening my livelihood, my very sanity.

For a few weeks I floundered, looking for a cure. Eventually I heard about Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. It would involve wearing headphones and many hours of reprogramming the brain, but it was going to be my salvation. I went to the doctor, 90 miles away and……….was found ineligible for the procedure due to loss of hearing in one ear.

I ranted all the way home: “What Will I do now?!?” I really had no clue. I laid down before a gig, and….the tinnitus went away for 30 minutes for the first time in months. Strange. But it came back, and I didn’t think much more of it at the time. I was at the end of my rope.

That night, I woke up in the wee hours, as I had every night for weeks. Heart racing, bed drenched with sweat, tinnitus roaring. Instead of wailing in agony as I’d been doing, I muttered a simple, “Jesus, help me.” At that point, a wave of energy washed over me, from head to toes. The tinnitus vanished, and my heart rate returned to normal. Divine intervention, as clear as could be.

The next day, the tinnitus came back. But the message had been delivered: don’t do anything drastic, there is cosmic help available.

Soon afterward a musician-friend told me of a book which I subsequently purchased. I jokingly refer to Michael Talbot’s “The Holographic Universe” as my bible. This work synthesizes the research of physicist David Bohm and neurophysiologist Karl Pribram to deliver this thesis: the universe is a hologram projected from the Godhead; and within this hologram we have the power to create our own holographic realities. Talbot then used this to offer possible explanations for all manner of paranormal phenomena.

Eventually I discovered that xanax, though highly addictive, is good for some tinnitus sufferers. So that brought the ear-ringing down to a tolerable, near-inaudible level for a few years.

A second divine intervention happened when I began chanting about six years later. I picked up Thomas Ashley-Ferrand’s “Healing Mantras,” which contains Hindu mantras for many situations. I picked one for health and proceeded in the classic manner: 108 repetitions in the morning and at night for 40 days.

As I recall, I made it to 39 days, then quit (?), with no tangible results. I tried a second, all-purpose mantra: Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha. “Hail Ganeesh, remover of obstacles.” 10 days into it, the tinnitus started dropping dramatically: if I were to quantize, I’d say 70 percent. It was enough to get me off the xanax. And got me interested in the whole Hindi cosmos. I read two books by Paramahansa Yogananda, including the classic, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” I recalled that when I had visited Bali -a Hindu island in an otherwise Muslim country- in 2000, the tinnitus went away. So there is some resonance for me with that culture. I surely need to visit India at some point.

All the while I was devouring religious literature, much of it “New Age.” Emmett Fox was the first Christian to show how the concepts of karma and reincarnation could be compatible with Christianity. Wayne Dyer (though derided as a lightweight by many) continued Fox’s idea that our thoughts create our reality. George Anderson and Robert Monroe explored life between incarnations, and travel outside the body. It all made sense to me, even if I couldn’t experience it directly. These books and others nourished the idea that works best for me: live by the words of Jesus (not the dogma attached later on) and overlay it with the wisdom of the East.

In 2005, the year of Katrina, I met a woman who would be as close to a spiritual guide as I’ll ever have. Elizabeth, a New Orleans reiki master, was brought in by a mutual friend to help work on Lisa, a friend dying of cancer. She ministered to Lisa, then talked to me about reiki. “I”ll send you a dose tonight,” she said, perhaps sensing my doubt.

That evening I was jolted out of bed by SOMEthing, an energy I now know was Elizabeth sending reiki. I told her about this the next day, and she said, “Good. I’ll send again tonight; I’d like you be in bed between 11 pm and midnight, but awake.”

I did as instructed, and at the appointed time a flash bulb of light went off in between my eyes (the third chakra). Like the other paranormal events, there was no denying it.

I’ve gone on to be inducted into the first two levels of reikihood (something that can be done fairly quickly; the third level, mastery, takes many years). Reiki is the handling of divine energy that originated in 19th-century Japan; you can transmit it by laying of hands and eventually learn to send it “telepathically” (though Elizabeth says that’s not really the right word).

I’ve had many treatments with Elizabeth, many wild rides under her hands on the reiki table. She has given me advice in all areas; has communicated with those who’ve passed on, including my mother; introduced me to HER reiki master, a shaman who has helped me explore past lives.

Elizabeth has introduced me to many healing modalities that I have used, despite tangible results (like the earlier healings mentioned). Australian bush flower essences, astrology, feng shui, and a particular Buddhist mantra she prefers I use over the Hindi ones: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. She has advised in many areas of health, prompting me to get old mercury fillings removed, given critical dietary and hygienic advice in fighting candida. Her job is to heal, and her goal is to make this her last earthly incarnation.

Eventually we will all get to the next level; and through Elizabeth and others I am learning as many tools as I can to help me on my path. The more open we are to all manner of religious and spiritual experience the easier our journey will be.

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