Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Band

I grew up knowing about Preservation Hall. My grandfather, Percy Smith, owned a bazillion records, then a bazillion cds, of rare jazz, blues, swing and big band tunes from every generation. His people, my people, are from Mississippi, and he felt connected to the music on an almost compulsive level. I knew “Dream a Little Dream” before I knew “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

So of course, we stopped by Preservation Hall. Right off Bourbon, this small square, wooden bench setting acts as a one room schoolhouse for those about to be taught some real music. On our way to line up for entrance, the rust colored sky broke open, and soaked us with a cold November rain. It was the first sign of weather since our arrival. We ducked under an awning and watched water shoot out of gullies and downspouts, silently imagining what had been. By the time we found our spot on the floor of Preservation Hall, the room smelled like damp basement, cold metal, and German tourists.

We stayed as long as our cold jeans allowed. They played “Petit Fleur” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “St. James Infirmary.” The drummer spent the 60’s and 70’s in Ray Charles’s band, the trombonist kept pretending to knock the front row squatters in the head, and the bassist worked with his eyes closed. The clarinet player’s cheeks puffed like a puffer fish, then flattened out, showing layers of intricate muscles. The lead for the night, a kid named Mark somebody, spoke with reverence and humility, and played trumpet with power and speed.

It whet our appetites enough that the next night we decided to go track down the next generation of New Orleans musicians. On a tip, we headed out to Frenchman Street, behind the French Market. We found a little dive called the Spotted Cat, and walked into the year 1928. A slender brunette and her loose tie wearing partner waved and swung and kicked and swirled around a tiny little space on the concrete floor, while a five piece band played fast and loose with swing tunes. The lead singer snapped her suspenders on her slim frame; when she threw her head back to belt out a note, you could see tattoos covering her torso. More and more souls wandered in the open bar door. A jaded bartender flung beers at patrons while hiking up her strapless bra. “These things are a bitch,” she said. No one in the room (minus us) appeared over 30 years old.

When my grandfather lived, he loved to buy me music. One of his favorite gifts to me was a copy of the first Squirrel Nut Zippers cd. Because I was in this town, and because I miss Percy, I asked Husband to go over to the trombonist and request a song from that album. He looked at me with those “don’t get sappy on me” eyes, and walked over to the edge of the platform. I saw the trombonist lean close to listen, then lean back and laugh. I saw him come in to Husband and say something, and then Husband leaned back and laughed.

“Wisconsin Trade Federation?” I asked when Husband returned.
“He won’t play that song,” said my love. “He said he only plays that song with his other band.”
Okay, I said “What’s his other band?”
“The Squirrel Nut Zippers,” he said.

Oh, Percy, I thought. Glad you could join us.

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