This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.
Contact: tomsancton@yahoo.com

Saturday, March 27, 2010

BUNCHY'S SENDOFF

We said farewell to drummer Bunchy Johnson this morning, New Orleans style. The place was Trinity Episcopal Church in Jackson Avenue--traditionally the church of the city's old-line, Garden District establishment. Having grown up in this church, I can safely say it has never seen a service quite like this one. The congregation—African-American in its majority, but including Bunchy's friends, admirers and fellow musicians across the board—was on its feet much of the time, clapping their hands, singing along with the hymns, and applauding the music provided by such local legends as Deacon John, Dave Bartholomew, the Dixie Cups and Joe Saulsbury, and Wendell Brunious.

Family members took turns reading some of Bunchy's favorite passages, a delegation from Saint Augustine High School, Bunchy's alma mater, shared some reminiscences of him and presented his family with a commemorative plaque. Trinity's assistant rector pronounced a heartfelt eulogy.

But the emotional highlight came when Bunchy's elderly father, Charles E. Johnson, Sr., stepped up to the pulpit in his black suit and yellow tie to thank the large crowd that had turned out to say farewell to Bunchy. "I can see my son looking down at us smiling," he said, "giving me that high-five, saying, 'Everything's goin' fine,' and I say, 'Son, back at you! Everything's going good.'" Johnson's voice trembled over the last words as he raised his hand in a high-five gesture, and the crowd burst into applause. Bunchy would have been proud of his dad. (A few months ago, he begged off a gig I offered him saying, "It's my dad's birthday, and I gotta be there for him. He's gettin' up there and I don't know how many more he's going to have." Thing is, none of us ever know.)

Once the flower-covered casket was carried down the steps and placed into the hearse, the Tremé brass band, dressed in their proud black uniforms, played "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," followed by "Just A Little While to Stay Here." The band marched ahead of the slowly advancing hearse for two blocks, until it turned on Prytania and headed on to the cemetery. Once the body was "cut loose," as we say here, the band played raucous versions of "Fly Away" and "The Saints." Here on the edge of the Garden District, the second line was not exactly the get-down crowd you get in the back-o-town neighborhoods, but three grand marshals in full regalia danced and writhed enough to get everybody's spirits moving.

Having just seen advance review DVDs of the first three episodes of the upcoming HBO series, "Tremé," I could not help thinking that this was the real thing that the TV version was mimicking in fictional form, down to and including the dirges performed by the Tremé Brass Band. The main difference was the ironic fact that Bunchy Johnson was playing in the brass band in the opening episode's funeral sequence. Today, Bunchy was in the casket.

This is for Bunchy:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvXEh_nVcO4

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

GROOVIN' ON 'OZ

What a kick. This morning pianist Lars Edegran and myself were guests on Tom Morgan's traditional jazz show on WWOZ from 10:30 to 11:00. We talked a bit about how we got into the jazz business--Lars via Stockholm, Sweden, and myself via Preservation Hall in the 60s--and flagged some future events we will be taking part in. Among them, the Tennessee Williams Festival, during which we are putting on a presentation called "The Making of a Jazzman," featuing drummer Jason Marsalis, bassist Kerry Lewis and trombonist Ronell Johnson in addition to Lars and myself. That will take place on Sunday, March 28, 1 pm, at the Palm Court, 1206 Decatur. Also some Jazzfest appearances (I have two sets in Economy Hall on Friday, April 23).
The other big event I was happy to talk about is a stage show based on my memoir "Song For My Fathers," which is coming out in an updated, expanded paperback edition later this month. The show, directed by Ron Rona of Preservation Hall, will take place at Tulane's Dixon Hall on Monday, April 19, at 8 pm. Free and open to the public, it will feature yours truly and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in a multimedia presentation based on the book and the story it recounts about a young middle class white boy's apprenticeship with a group of aging black jazz musicians in the 60s. (For more info, see http://tulane.edu/news/releases/031510pr.cfm#)
But the part of the WWOZ show that I found most moving was the hymn we played for our fallen brother Bunchy Johnson, who passed away last Sunday. With Lars on piano and myself on clarinet, we played "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." Here it is:
video

Monday, March 22, 2010

A REQUIEM FOR BUNCHY

I was stunned and saddened to hear that Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson, one of New Orleans’s top jazz and R & B drummers, was found dead at his home on Sunday morning, the apparent victim of a heart attack.

Bunchy was one of my happiest discoveries after returning to live here in 2007—not that he needed me to “discover” him. He was one of the city’s best known drummers and had worked with a Pantheon of New Orleans greats, including Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew, James Booker, Aaron Nevile and Dr. John. He was also a movie and TV actor—he played the sheriff’s deputy who evicted Halle Berry from her house in “Monster’s Ball” and appears in two episodes of the upcoming “Tremé” series on HBO.

I didn’t know any of that when I met Bunchy on a gig in the Maison de Ville courtyard two years ago. It was a wedding reception as I remember. The band was a pickup group put together by trumpeter Clive Wilson. As soon as we started the first number, I was enthralled by Bunchy’s playing. His style was loose and easy, a seemingly effortless swing that just flowed from him in a way that was both driving and unhurried. I never saw a drummer who looked so natural and comfortable when he played, sitting low on the stool and barely moving his arms. The sticks seemed to grow out of his hands. And his personality was perfectly suited to his music: jovial, warmhearted, laid-back.

I got Bunchy’s business card that night and resolved to call him on future gigs. But I was rarely able to get him: he was one of the most in-demand musicians in town. He had a regular Saturday night hotel gig and often went out on the road. Every time I called him, he would tell me, “I can’t make that one, but keep trying me, hear? I want to play with you, man.” We did manage to get together at the Palm Court a few weeks ago, and again, I was delighted and amazed by his smooth swing and flawless timekeeping. He was one of those drummers who made a horn man play better—made the whole band sound better in fact. When we parted that night, I told him, “Bunchy, we got to get together again. You’re such a kick to play with. ” He chuckled and told me to keep calling him. “I want to play with you, too, man. You know my number.”

Well I can’t call that number anymore. Bunchy played his last gig Saturday night. A fellow musician came to pick him up for a brunch job on Sunday morning and found him dead in his bed. The news spread quickly among his fellow musicians. When I showed up to play at Preservation Hall last night, the mood was somber. But drummer Shannon Powell said what we all thought: “When they take Bunchy to the church, we all got to be there for him, you know what I’m sayin’?” Yes, we’ll be there with our horns and our drums, just as Bunchy would have been there for any of us. That’s the New Orleans way.

Rest in peace, Bunchy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

VIVA PAQUITO!

I am a passionate clarinetist, but I have no illusions about being the greatest. There are thousands of clarinetists around the world who are better than me, and that's okay. But every once in a while, I hear a player who makes me want to give up the horn--or practice a hell of a lot more. I encountered one such this morning at the Mahalia Jackson Center in New Orleans: Paquito D'Rivera. Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra had invited me to attend a rehearsal for tonight's concert featuring the celebrated Cuban clarinetist with the LPO. I knew D'Rivera only by name. But when I heard him play, I immediately recognized him as one of the world's anointed greats. The purity of his tone, the dazzling but seemingly effortless technique, the lyricism of his phrasing, were stunning. The one thing I could claim to have in common with him, aside from playing on Vandoren reeds, is that we both have rosewood clarinets. When the rehearsal was over, I resolved to go straight home and woodshed.

Friday, March 5, 2010

FRACTURED FRENCH ALERT!

Le Foret, a new upscale restaurant on Camp and Common boasts an elegant décor and French-inspired haute-cuisine. What it cannot boast of is any proficiency in the French language. In their effort to sound, well, chic, whoever named this establishment apparently intended to evoke the romance and mystery of the "forest." However, the word for forest in French is feminine, so it would be "La Forêt." By masculinizing the name with "le," the good folks at this proud new establishment actually named it for a "drill bit." (le forêt, in French). That's a rather unfortunate name for a restaurant--unless the chef is actually using a drill back there in the kitchen. Once again, you'd think folks would consult an actual French speaker, or at least a French-English dictionary, before they put such a ludicrous name on their menus.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

RETURN OF THE NATIVE (3): PARLEZ-VOUZ CORRUPTION?

Within days of my return to New Orleans in August 2007, after a long residence in France, the popular City councilman Oliver Thomas pled guilty to taking $20,000 in bribes and kickbacks. Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson was then under investigation—and has since been convicted—for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in connection with various business deals in Africa. The papers were full of stories about corruption. Which prompted the following thoughts, written in September 2007 and updated as warranted:

One thing that seems all-too familiar to this returning native is Louisiana’s celebrated penchant for political corruption. This part of the local culture has long roots. Huey Long famously boasted that he had “the best legislature money can buy.” His brother Earl once said that “the governor of Louisiana doesn’t have to steal money. As soon as he’s elected, a million dollars is going to fall into his pocket all by itself.” From the Longs to our jailbird ex-governor Edwin Edwards, to the current crop of pilfering politicians—Oliver Thomas, William Jefferson, among others—our state has produced an unbroken string of ethically challenged public servants.
Is this unique to Louisiana? Certainly not. Lord Acton’s famous “power corrupts” aphorism sadly applies to the entire human race. My experience as a journalist in France for 10 years bears that out. When it comes to corruption, French politicians can make our boys look like amateurs. None of this penny-ante $20,000 under the table and $90,000 in the deepfreeze stuff. The French play for higher stakes--and at the highest levels of power.

Here are just a few cases I covered as a Paris-based correspondent for TIME Magazine:

•Former Communication Minister Alain Carrignon was sentenced in 1996 to five years in prison for pocketing nearly $3 million in bribes and kickbacks while serving as Mayor of Grenoble--then tampering with trial witnesses for good measure.


•Former Interior Minister and Senator Charles Pasqua was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in a $790 million black market arms sale to Angola. He was earlier indicted (but not convicted) for illegally trafficking in Iraqi oil during the Saddam Hussein regime.


Roland Dumas, the wavy-haired, silver-tongued ex-Defense Minister, was accused of setting up his mistress with a cushy job at a state-owned oil company, then sharing in the multi-million dollar kickback she got for lobbying his own ministry to okay a controversial $2.8 billion warship sale to Taiwan. (She spent five months in prison over the caper; Dumas himself was acquitted but forced to resign from his seat on France’s highest court.)

•In 2004, Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé was convicted for his role in an illegal party-financing operation while serving as an aide to then Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. His 18-month suspended sentence sidelined him from electoral politics and paved the way for his rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, to win the presidency in May 2007.


•Finally, there is the case of former President Jacques Chirac. Forget about the accusations that he used government employees to maintain and staff his private country home, the Château de Bity, or that he and his family enjoyed thousands of dollars’ worth of free vacation flights on a private airline owned by a friend. No, the real rap on Chirac is that, as Mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, he allegedly oversaw an elaborate scheme of public works kickbacks and fictitious city jobs that poured millions of dollars into the coffers of his Gaullist party, and ultimately helped finance his run for the presidency in 1995. Though Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution while president, his lawyers have been working overtime ever since he left office in May 2007. In December 2009, he was formally indicted for his role in the false jobs scheme. It is possible—though unlikely--that the former President could go to jail over the affair.

So the next time we are tempted to tout the historic bonds between Louisiana and France, let’s not forget the bail bonds.

© 2010 by Thomas A. Sancton