For this series, we’ll be following Geoffrey Himes as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. In this installment, he continues his stay in New Orleans. (You can check out part two here.)
In Louisiana, Mardi Gras is not one day; it’s a month-long season. And during that season, few institutions remain unaffected by the spirit of frivolity, self-invention and celebration. Not even the Baptist church.
So it was Sunday at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, which was conducting its 20th annual Jazz Worship Service. It’s a big, old-fashioned Protestant church with a plain-white interior, wrap-around balcony and barrel-vault ceiling. Despite the early hour, though, the pews were full of both regular attendees in church clothes and folks already dressed in gold-green-and-purple shirts for the afternoon parades.
Sitting in front of the pulpit was a better band than any of the parades or the city’s nightclub would offer later in the day: Dr. Michael White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band, seven seasoned veterans of the city’s traditional-jazz scene. Dressed in dark suits, white shirts and colorful ties, the musicians clearly approached this annual event as much more than just another gig; they were eager to prove that their syncopation and improvisation could thrive as well in this liturgical context as well as anything by Bach or Handel.
In honor of the occasion, the church’s ministers agreed to forego the usual sermon and limit their participation to a poem, a short scripture reading and a few prayers. That way the jazz septet was able to play seven full songs. They were all African-American hymns, but they were imbued with the blues and swing.
The first number, “Lord, Lord, Lord, You Sure Been Good to Me,” for example, was taken at a finger-snapping pace with ingenious embellishments on the melody during the solos by clarinetist White, trombonist Maynard Chatters, trumpeter Gregory Stafford and 87-year-old pianist Lawrence Cotton. At the end of the song, the three horn players stood up from their chairs to solo simultaneously, and as they rose, so did the intensity of the music.
Stafford sang “Sunday Morning” and “In the Sweet By and By”; Chatters sang “Over in Gloryland” and “Near the Cross.” During the collection of money-filled envelopes, White took a long, ambitious jazz solo on the slow processional number “In the Upper Garden,” his clarinet crying on in yearning for a better world. The service concluded with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and for once the overplayed tune sounded fresh and vital again, as not only the horn players but the entire congregation rose in jubilation.
New Orleans is built on a swamp, and there are still areas of the city where that fact is wonderfully obvious. From the church, my friends Jim and Julianna and I walked across Audubon Park, through the golf course, beneath the giant live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and along a bayou full of wetland animals.
Thirty turtles sunned themselves on a log in the water; a flock of white ibises, with their curved, straw-like orange bills, skimmed across the water; a snowy egret perched in a tree; two double breasted cormorants spread their black wings to dry. And thousands of black-bellied whistling ducks from Mexico leapt off the shoreline cypress knees and revealed the white stripe through their wings as they flew.
We came out on the opposite corner of the park and walked through the Uptown neighborhood of blooming magnolia and cherry trees to a pre-parade party with a smoked trout dip that quickly disappeared. Two blocks away was the staging area for the Thoth parade, which featured floats with an ancient Egyptian theme. But it also made room for the Pussy Footers, a troupe of women in pink wigs, pink tights and pink bras strutting their stuff, and the 610 Stompers, a company of men in matching gym outfits doing a hilarious blend of calisthenics and modern dance.
“If you’re going to live in the city,” my friend Elaine said, “you should live the life of the city. Why be a bystander when you can be a participant?” Why watch parades when you can be in one?
It’s very expensive to be in one of the big parades: thousands of dollars in dues to join the krewe and another $1000 to buy all the beads and toys to throw off the float to the crowd below. But there are dozens of smaller parades, often run by the city’s large bohemian community to both mock and pay homage to the larger parades. One of the largest, oldest parades is Bacchus, named after the Greek god of wine, but it has inspired such affectionate parodies as Chewbacchus and Boxes of Wine.
It was the latter parade I was invited to join Sunday afternoon. On Saturday morning, the secret location for the start of the parade was sent out by email to everyone who had paid the $30 fee. Everyone showed up at Pop’s House of Blues at Dryades and Sixth Street in a homemade costume and a box of wine. Some of the costumes were perfunctory, but most of them were striking examples of how creative people can be if you give them a challenge and an outlet.
Finally, after milling around for two hours, the blue lights and siren on the cop car started up; the Free Spirit Brass Band lit into a marching tune; the float carrying the queen on her wicker-chair throne and the go-go dancer in a cage was pulled out by a muscleman; we all hoisted our grocery-store boxes of wine, and we headed down Sixth Street to St. Charles Avenue.
There the crowds were still thick, for Thoth had recently passed through, and Bacchus was soon to come. But they were taken aback by this parade of strangely dressed weirdos, and were taken further aback when we offered to pour our wine into their cups or open mouths. A lot of folks waved their raised hands in demurral, but many held out their plastic cups or tilted their heads backwards to expose their tonsils.
More than any other parade, this one offered very personal interaction between krewe members and spectators. When offered a free drink by a man in a wedding dress, a young girl in a nun’s habit, a woman in a pink wig and striped face, a man painted all in green with vines in his hair or a wolfman sprouting long, twisting horns, a bystander had to decide just how willing they were to feel the Mardi Gras spirit. I quickly got the hang of twisting the knob on the wine box on my shoulder just enough to deliver a good swallow without spilling any on their chins. By the end of the day I had peered into so many open mouths that I felt like a dentist.