Sunday, April 21, 2013

From the French Quarter to le Quartier Latin

My trip to New Orleans was inspiring and revelatory. Some of the mystique of that city was stripped away - contrary to popular belief, Bourbon St. is not where it's really at. There were also some very stark lessons to be learned from that city, compared with my hometown of Montreal. One could argue that these are similar lessons to be learned from New York as well; maybe it's the French connection but they hit home a lot harder on this trip.

The most striking thing is that every club I went to in New Orleans was a pleasant listening experience, on multiple levels. Every club had a diligent sound man on hand. I think I heard feedback once at d.b.a, and that was it. Every club also had great sightlines and a layout that directed one's attention to the stage. Even from the very back of Maison, where I couldn't see much, I could hear the band clear as a bell. None of the clubs ever felt cramped or hard to navigate. Only a handful of venues had the stage at the front, in a window (which seems to be the trend in Montreal for some inexplicable reason). Even d.b.a, which has a bar that extends into the show room, didn't feel constrained, and it didn't bottleneck the way Montreal clubs can. There was also an etiquette among most audience members - outside of one late-comer who planted himself in front of everyone else at Jon Cleary's set for maybe two songs at the most, people were very aware of their surroundings.

All the clubs were open, in the sense of being able to sit if you wanted to sit and being able to stand and dance if you should so desire. I didn't go to Snug Harbor or Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, the more conventional jazz clubs in town, so I can't vouch for whether that's universally the case. It's a great feeling as a listener, because it's not dependent on keeping the dancers on their feet, nor does the setting of the club impinge upon people's instinct to dance.

Contrary to the perception of New Orleans running way behind the beat, most shows (the Open Ears set at Blue Nile and the Trio at Maple Leaf excepted) started more or less on time (given a margin of error). Jon Cleary's set was called for 7, and he started at 7:15. Same with "Wolfman" Washington and the two outdoor shows, and the jam at Maison. Even at the Leaf, guitarist June Yamagishi was running late, but since the sound guy had already set everything up (and George Porter Jr. and Terrence Houston were ready to go), he only needed to plug in. Minutes after his arrival (and very close to the 11:00 hit time the bartender told me), they were onstage playing.

The amount of focus and respect that New Orleans and Louisiana place on their local artists is astounding. The French Quarter festival is almost exclusively local acts (with one stage devoted to "locally-inspired international groups"), and Louisiana Music Factory is devoted to their homegrown music, with a dedicated "NEW ORLEANS" vinyl bin or three. There is a New Orleans Jazz Historical National Park - complete with rangers in their hats - that direct you towards all things New Orleans jazz. The Old Mint on Decatur & Frenchmen has been converted into a museum and concert hall. The current exhibit celebrates 50 years of Preservation Hall, including Louis Armstrong's original cornet. This support of local artists is almost too much. The New Orleans Jazz Fest website states: "The Festival respectfully limits applicants to bands living and working in Louisiana," which frankly is a joke, looking at the full programming of the festival (Le Vent du Nord, from Quebec? Eddie Palmieri? Billy Joel? Fleetwood Mac?). While I take issue with that statement because it's patently untrue, the Jazz & Heritage Fest's dedication to local artists is admirable, with artists from Louisiana accounting for the vast majority of the programming.

Some of these are more easy to achieve than others. It's definitely a wake-up call for Montreal. I know musicians have griped about these issues in private for generations. We can do something about it.

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