Blues on a Sunday Afternoon

Max at Preservation Hall 061117About this time five years ago we were planning our move from St. Croix back to the mainland, and we had picked New Orleans as our landing spot.

It wasn’t the “safe” choice – we could have headed back to the Northwest where we have friends, know the lay of the land, could have blended right back in. But we wanted the adventure to continue. So we picked a city we’d visited once and found interesting and started getting ready.

We also wanted to give Max a chance to explore. He was 14 years old and really getting into music. What better place to scratch that itch than New Orleans?

And Sunday that all paid off! On Sunday, Max got a chance to perform in the legendary space of Preservation Hall, one of the cradles of traditional jazz and the blues. Pretty much anyone who is anyone in the New Orleans jazz world has played in that very modest space. And now Max has too.

Max has been taking lessons at the Guitar Center almost since we got here. Back on St. Croix he took lessons from a teacher at Good Hope School. This fall he’ll continue his study as a music major at the University of New Orleans.

Preservation Hall is not a grand concert space on the order of Carnegie Hall or anything like that. It’s actually one of the shabbier buildings in the French Quarter, and that’s a place that has some shabby buildings. The hall’s exterior is a muddy brownish color with streaks of other hues – it’s almost impossible to describe the color except for “old and weather beaten.” Inside, the paint is peeling, the plaster is cracked and falling. It’s maybe 25 feet square, with a couple of rows of benches in front of the performance space. I leaned against the wall in the back – but only after checking to make sure it wouldn’t collapse under my weight.

But it’s not about the state of the walls. It’s what has happened inside those walls, in the air, the enclosed space, that matters a great deal. It was started in the 1950s as a place for the city’s traditional jazz musicians to gather and jam. It became the place to hear traditional New Orleans jazz, and grew into a band that traveled the world, turning people on to the joy of their music.

That joyful music was starting to fall by the wayside in the ’50s, along with the musicians who had lived it all their lives. Preservation Hall became the place where it was collected and treasured and performed and revived. And now Max has a part of it.

The Guitar Center holds a regular performance time – I guess you could call it a recital – and the woman who organizes it happens to be married to the guy who does tech for Preservation Hall, and one thing led to another and there we all were Sunday at 11 a.m. Instead of cramming into the performance space at the center, we were cramming into one of the hallowed venues in the city.

Instead of the Guitar Center’s electronic keyboards, the piano students played the hall’s old upright piano – battle scarred but still with a bright sound. Several of the drummers, playing on the Preservation Hall kit, did very well. And there was a woman, I’m guessing in her late 30s/early 40s, who a year ago decided she wanted to play sax. She got up there and did fine. Got a ways to go, but I marveled at the guts she showed.

And then there was Max. He was playing “Graveyard Playboy,” a blues song he wrote that displayed both very good musicianship and his weird sense of humor. Over the years all our kids have all displayed humor that the more rigid, stodgy types might sniff at and call “inappropriate.” It comes from being raised in a largish theater family where the influences included a lot of hanging around with adults. And Max, being the youngest by a good many years, has it in spades.

Max is very comfortable in his skin, he knows who he is, isn’t afraid to show that to the world, and isn’t interested in judging or being judged about it. He just got up and performed – he’s a good musician, can play the hell out of that guitar he got as a high school graduation present, and perhaps more importantly, he’s becoming a very good entertainer. (You can see his performance here.)

So when he sang about meeting a woman in the cemetery who was there to bury her second husband (who had died when she fired a bullet “and he got in the way,”) he paused and said, “I like ’em crazy,” it was pretty funny. The woman sitting next to me paused, cocked her head then said, “OK” and laughed.

Max had a couple of things the other kids didn’t. It wasn’t just the musicianship. There was a pretty wide range of that. But most of the kids, you could see them thinking, could almost hear them counting, worrying more about getting the exact right note than keeping the flow, the rhythm. Max was just up there playing, relaxed and confident. He had stage presence. He missed a couple of lines, jumped a couple of places, but if you’d never heard him practice the song you’d never have known it. He just smiled and kept playing. He had fun with it, and the audience did, too.

And now, no matter where he goes in life, no matter what he decides on for a career, he’s always got that on his resume. “Oh yeah, I played Preservation Hall.”

 

Max, Poor Minn and the Holy Martin

Max takes guitar lessons at the Guitar Center. The last Friday of each month they hold a jam session, open to the public, where people just sign up to perform. Friday there were a couple of dozen people there, I’d guess, including three or four who were really good, the kind of guys who are always in at least one band, sometimes several at once, depending on the gigs.

They’re the kind of guys who, if someone said they were going to sing “Red House Blues” and not everyone knew it, they could huddle together for a minute and figure it out, then go ahead and play it.

Max jamming There were also kids, the students at the center. One 14-year-old girl who could really sing, just tore it up on “House of the Rising Sun.” And a kid about 8 or 10 who sat in at the drums and was really good. Another young guy who played keyboard for a while, just making it up as he went along, then switched to drums.

Max played guitar for a while, then sat out. Then he got up and sang, and – oh man!

My 17-year-old son sang “Minnie The Moocher,” Cab Calloway’s signature 1931 song! With growls and “hidee hidee hidee hi” and scat and everything. And unlike most of the people who sang while reading the lyrics on their smart phone screens, Max knew all the words! (I mean, really, how could you decide “I’ll get up and sing a song” if you don’t know the words?)

Kind of thing that makes a parent feel like it hasn’t all been in vain. Couldn’t be prouder.

Speaking of the Guitar Center

The Guitar Center is a great place for musicians, no matter what your instrument. LOTS of stock, a large staff of very knowledgable people who can’t wait to talk to you about the instruments and equipment. You can even rent rehearsal space from them.

In the back of the store there’s a small room, tastefully decorated and lit with guitars on the wall, each illuminated with its own track light. A hushed air pervades the place. We call it the church.

The cheapest instrument in the room is an $800 acoustic. In the picture below, the least expensive guitar you see is $3,000. The one in the middle, that Max is bowing down to, is a handmade Martin for $15,299.

“In the name of the Gibson, and the Fender, and the holy Martin, amen.”guitar church