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.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Sunday, December 29: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Clive Wilson's New Orleans Serenaders. 8 - 11 pm

Sunday, January 5: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with the New Orleans Legacy Band. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, January 8: Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, January 12: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Lars Edegran All Stars. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, January 15: Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Thursday, January 16: Jazz at Twilight, Pavilion of the Two Sisters, City Park, with the New Orleans legacy Band. 6 - 7:45 pm.

Sunday, January 19: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with the New Orleans Legacy Band. 8 - 11 pm.

Tuesday, January 21: Columns Hotel, with John Rankin and the Classic Jazz Trio. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, January 22: Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Wednesday, January 22: Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, January 5: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with the Lars Edegran All Stars. 8 - 11 pm.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013


Photo by Tom Jacobsen
We held a jazz funeral parade for George H. Buck, Jr., on Saturday, December 20. The procession went from the Charbonnet Funeral Home on Claiborne and St. Philip, through the Treme neighborhood to St. Mary's Church on Chartres Street, then on to the Palm Court for a reception hosted by George's widow, Nina Buck and his son George S. "Bo" Buck.

It was a moving and stately event, reminding me of George Lewis's funeral in 1969, at which I played the Eb clarinet with the Olympia Brass Band. This band, put together by Lars Edegran, was composed mainly of musicians who play at the Palm Court and/or recorded for George's G.H.B. label. Here is a list of the personnel, as best  I can remember: Clive Wilson, Leroy Jones, Herlin Riley, Tobias Dolle, trumpets; Craig Klein, Lucien Barbarin, Robert Harris, Katja Toivola, trombones; Tom Fischer, James Evans, saxophones; Tim Laughlin, Evan Christopher and myself, clarinets; Kerry Brown, Walter Harris, Herman Lebeaux, Shannon Powell, drums; Lars Edegran, Seva Venet, banjos; Jeffrey Hill, sousaphone.

As the antique horse-drawn hearse advanced, the band played a medley of traditional hymns and dirges. Among them:  Closer Walk, The Old Rugged Cross, Bye and Bye, Lead Me Savior, In the Sweet Bye and Bye, Abide With Me, followed by the more up tempo Second Line. At the church service, which attracted a full house of attendees, the Rev. William Maestri gave the eulogy and Topsy Chapman sang "Amazing Grace" and "His Eye is on the Sparrow."
It was a fitting tribute for a man who shared his passion for traditional jazz with so many people and did so much to record, preserve, and diffuse New Orleans music around the world. R.I.P., George Buck, and thank you.

For more information about George H. Buck and the George H. Buck, Jr. Jazz Foundation:

Monday, November 25, 2013


With Charlie Fardella and Ronell Johnson at Palm Court. Photo: Eliot Kamenitz
Wednesday, December 11: Palm Court, with Lars Edegran's Palm Court All Stars, featuring vocalist Topsy Chapman. 8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, December 15: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Tommy Sancton's New Orleans Legacy Band. 8 - 11 pm.

Sunday, December 22: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Lars Edegran's All Star Band. 8 - 11 pm

Wednesday, December 29: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., with Clive Wilson's New Orleans Serenaders. 8 - 11 pm

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Had a ball sitting in with the Vintage Jazzmen of France at Maison last Friday. The band, led by trumpeter Dan Vernhettes, was in town for a series of appearances in connection with Dan's new book, "Jazz Puzzles," a beautifully illustrated and well-researched collection of essays and anecdotes related to the history of New Orleans jazz. The band played at the National Jazz Park in the Old U.S. Mint on November 12, at the Palm Court on November 14, and at Maison on the 15th.

I was especially glad to see the guys and jam with them because this was my regular band when I lived in France. My friendships with some of the musicians, notably clarinet/trumpet player Michel "Boss" Quéraud, go back more than four decades. In addition to being a superb musician, Boss is a talented illustrator, who drew the cover of Dan's book.
After the gig, we retreated to Fiorella's on Decatur for some down home New Orleans food.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Photo © 2013 by Sébastien Chaillot
Memorable night at Preservation Hall on Sunday. The place was packed with crowds so exuberant (or drunk) that the whooping and hooting from the front row sounded at times like a pep rally at a high school football game. The band, led by Lars Edegran, was in especially good form. Personnel included Ronell "Who Dat" Johnson on trombone, Clive Wilson on trumpet, Walter Harris on drums, Richard Moten on bass, and yours truly on clarinet. Among the numbers we played: There'll be some Changes Made, Who's Sorry Now?, China Boy, Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, High Society, Song of the Wanderer, Basin Street, Poor Butterfly, and, Ronell's specialty, Make Me a Pallet on the Floor. Things got really wild during the last set when members of the Kinfolk Brass Band showed up and jammed with us on a window-rattling rendition of The Saints. Quite appropriate, considering what was happening down in the Superdome last night.
Torn between my musical obligations and my devotion to the Saints, I kept ducking out during the breaks to watch the Saints-Cowboys game in the bar across the street. Every time I poked my hear in there, Drew Brees had thrown another touchdown pass. When I went over there after the last set, I couldn't believe the final score of 49-17. I got a little Saints lagniappe on my drive home: at the corner of Magazine and Napoleon, I spotted the Saints' silver-locked defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into the door of Ms Mae's all-night bar. Apparently this has become a ritual for Ryan after Saints home games. May he continue to have cause to celebrate.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Sylvaine was one of more than 200 authors on hand to sign their books at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge last Saturday. On a perfect fall day, the event attracted thousands of visitors eager to check out books, listen to storytellers and musicians, and sample the Louisiana fare—including shrimp po-boys, jambalaya, and red beans. Sylvaine chatted with readers and signed copies of "Some Birds..." at three different book stands: Pelican Publishing, the Alliance Française, and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

We spent the previous day in Saint Francisville and visited Oakley Plantation, where John James Audubon stayed while he painted his famous series on Louisiana Birds. Sylvaine felt a special kinship to the place since her book features photos of birds taken mostly in Audubon Park. In fact, we both sensed a presence in the room he once occupied. Could he be a ghostly fan of "Some Birds..."?

Sylvaine's next signings will take place at Barnes & Noble in Mandeville this Friday, Nov. 8, and at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street, New Orleans 70115, from 1:30-3:30 pm., on Saturday, Nov. 9. Here's a link to Octavia's invitation:

Friday, October 25, 2013


Took part in a "Speakeasy" panel discussion with New Orleans writers at Chickie-Wah-Wah last night, moderated by Susan Larson and recorded for WWNO. Other panelists included Cornell Landry, Greg Herren, and  Mona Lisa Saloy, who raised a few eyebrows and drew some spontaneous laughter from her mostly white audience by reading her remarkable poem on "the N word." Under Susan Larson's skilful questioning, I talked about my dual life as a musician and writer, and described my in-progress novel set in New Orleans. Chickie-Wah-Wah, which I had heard about but never been to before, proved to be  a very simpatico place—mainly because it was clean, didn't smell like a bar, and was not over-aironditioned—so I look forward to returning there to hear some music one of these days. And, who knows, maybe even to play some music.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Speaking on "Face the Nation" this morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced Obamacare as "the biggest step ever in the direction of Europeanizing" American health care. That remark was breathtaking in its arrogance, chauvinism, and abject ignorance about the rest of the world. Before waving the concept of "Europeanization" as a bogeyman–like the Soviet Union during the Cold War—Sen. McConnell should learn a few facts:

• The U.S. leads in only one category of health care: cost per capita—$8233 in 2012, nearly three times the OECD average. [Source: OECD Health Data, 2012]

• The top five countries in the World Health Organization's rating of overall efficiency of medical care are European, with France at the top of the heap. The U.S. comes in 37th, well behind every European country and trailing the likes of Colombia, Morocco, Chile, and Costa Rica. [Source: W.H.O.]

• On life expectancy, the U.S. ranks 33rd (79 years). Number one is Japan (83 years). Six of the top eight are European countries (average 82 years). [Source: W.H.O.]

• On infant mortality, the U.S. also ranks 33rd with 6.81 deaths/1000 live births (just behind Cuba at 5.13). The list is headed by Singapore (1.92), with every European country but Poland posting a dramatically better record than the United States. [Source: United Nations World Population Prospects Report, 2011]

• The U.S. ranks 53rd in the number of physicians per capita. Leading this category are San Marino and Cuba, with all the Europeans high up the list and well ahead of the U.S. [Source: World Development Indicators Database]

By nearly every measure, the European countries (among others) post results far superior to America's. All of the European democracies have had universal health care for decades—Germany has had it since the 1880s. The U.S. is virtually alone among industrialized countries in not offering comprehensive  medical coverage to its citizens. And you can forget the scare talk about rationing, death panels, lack of choice, and interminable waits for treatment. Based on my own experience in France, where I lived and worked for more than 15 years, I was able to choose my own doctor, see him on short notice (he even made house calls), get subsidized prescriptions, and even have major surgery for a nominal cost, thanks to the Sécurité Sociale, comparable to a Medicare-for-all system. The government doesn't interfere with the doctor-patient relationship in any way—except to pay the bills. Admittedly, the system works less smoothly in the U.K., but even there, the results are far superior to ours.

One thing is sure: not a single European country is lining up to "Americanize" their system. Europeans are astounded to learn how inefficient, costly, and inequitable U.S. health care is—just as they are baffled by the recent example of government dysfunction in Washington. Obamacare will improve our system in many ways, but we will still lag behind the Europeans and other industrialized in this fundamental domain.

"Europeanize" American health care? Mr. Minority Leader: we should be so lucky.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Sylvaine is preparing for an interactive presentation and signing of her new children's photo book, "Some Birds..." If you have a little one, love birds, dig photography, know Sylvaine, or all of the above, please join us at Barnes & Noble, 3721 Veterans Boulevard, Metairie, LA 70002, Friday October 18, 7 - 8:30 pm.


Diane Fehring Reynolds has sent an email correcting several facts in my post on Bob Greene (which has been amended accordingly):

"I am Diane Fehring Reynolds, daughter of Ray & Rose Fehring.
I've been with Bob "to help him down the runway" and will stay
for another month or so, to complete his wishes.

I've just responded to your blog, correcting this info:

He died on Sunday evening 21:00, on October 13, 2013.(NOT the 15th)

NOT of heart problems. He'd a very successful heart valve replacement
last year, which was an experimental procedure. His was "a textbook case." Strong and sharp.

He actually died of lung cancer, which was very recently diagnosed.
Chemo was unsuccessful, so he stopped and let nature take over.
Energy depleted rapidly. He was ready to leave on his next journey.

No services. Remember him personally by playing something pretty.

Thanks to Diane for these corrections, and for all she has done for Bob.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

BOB GREENE, 1922-2013

I was saddened to learn that my friend, pianist and writer Bob Greene, passed away on October 13. Bob was a specialist on the music of Jelly Roll Morton, a lover of traditional jazz and New Orleans culture, and a world traveler with friends all over the globe. I first met him at Preservation Hall in the mid 1960's when he came down for a visit while working as a writer for Voice of America. He sat in with the band and I played with him on a couple of jam sessions. I was a young teenager then and he was in his mid-40s, but we hit it off right away. On a subsequent visit he treated me to a memorable round of oysters at the Desire café on Bourbon Street; I think we went through three dozen apiece. Years later, when I lived in New York, Bob and I teamed up to form a regular Tuesday night quartet at the Cajun Bar and Restaurant on 16th street. We would also meet up for dinners at PJ Clark's from time to time. When I was assigned to Paris as a TIME correspondent in the 1990's, Bob visited our house and filled it with his music, his infectious laughter, and his stories, all fuelled by gin and tonics that he liked on the stiff side.
I lost touch with him for a few years—there were some ruffled feelings over my failure to acknowledge a book he had sent me—but we patched it up two years ago when he invited me to play with him, Sammy Rimington, and Stanley King at a "History of Jazz" show he wrote and performed at Preservation Hall. We had a nice reunion over lunch at Manale's on Napoleon Avenue, reminisced, and promised to reprise the show the following year. He never made it back to New Orleans. He developed a serious heart problem and underwent surgery for an experimental heart valve replacement. The operation was successful, but he was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year.The doctors gave him between 6 months and a year to live. He made 9 months.
My personal memories of Bob aside, he led a remarkable life as a writer and musician. In the early 60s he worked as a speech writer for the State Department, where he had occasion to encounter President John F. Kennedy. Several years later, he worked with Edward R. Murrow for the Voice of America. He spent many years working on a biography of his uncle Paul Blum, a founder of the OSS, precursor of the C.I.A. ( As a pianist, he worked with many of the best known musicians on the New York scene, recorded at Preservation Hall with trombonist Jim Robinson, and for a number of years toured with a show he wrote and directed called "The World of Jelly Roll Morton."
Bob was a larger-than-life character who touched the lives of many people around the world. I am happy to have known him. And I will miss him.

[A nice interview/profile with Bob appeared on the Sag Harbor Express blog in 2011:]

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Peggy Scott Laborde of WYES-TV(bless her heart) recommended Sylvaine's "Some Birds..." on her weekly culture and entertainment show "Steppin' Out" on October 11. It was great to get some media attention as this photo book for children begins to make its way into the bookstores. Word of mouth reaction has been great so far. Sylvaine has a number of signings and presentations lined up, and we'd love to see you at one of them if you're in the area. Here's her schedule so far:

Friday, October 18: Barnes & Noble, 3721 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, LA 70002—7pm-8:30pm

Saturday, November 2: Louisiana Book Festival on the Capitol mall in Baton Rouge, stand of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators—4-6 pm.

Friday, November 8: Barnes & Noble, 3414 Hwy 190, Ste. 10, Mandeville, LA 70471—3-5pm

Saturday, November 9: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street, New Orleans, LA 70115—3-5pm

Monday, November 11: Country Day Book Week, Metairie Park Country Day School, 300 Park Road, Metairie, LA 70005—10-11am

For more details on "Some Birds..." follow these links:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

MUSIC FOR THE SOUL: our meditation medley at Trinity Church

Last night, Lars Edegran and I played at New Orleans's Trinity Episcopal Church. The event was part of a regular Wednesday night series that presents live music as an accompaniment to prayer and meditation. There were no clergy present and not a word was spoken. We did a medley of 15 hymns, playing nonstop for one hour. Among our offerings: Abide With Me, Precious Lord, God Will Take Care of You, The Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace, Closer Walk, In The Sweet By and By, et al. Many of these numbers were previously recorded at Trinity and appear on our album "Hymns & Spirituals." Last night's rendition was especially moving because it was not a concert format, there were no introductions to the numbers, just music intended to communicate something deep to the fifty or so souls present. I love playing in this church because of my long family associations with Trinity and because the acoustics are so extraordinary. It feels like playing inside a Strativarius cello. The only slight mishap was that the piano had been left on its wheels and was too high for Lars to play on. He solved the problem by stacking three chairs on top of one another (see photo), which might be taken as one chair each for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Some idiot named Omar Üzit has been running around uptown New Orleans plastering his name all over public sidewalks in rock-hard globs of yellow epoxy. These sidewalks were recently re-done by the city and were in near-mint condition until Omar started his shenanigans. The crudely executed letters of his name are indelible: even of you chip them off with a chisel, they leave a dark stain on the pavement. I walk on these sidewalks almost every day to go get coffee at the CC on Magazine and Jefferson, so I guess I'll have to live with Omar for years to come.

Omar's ubiquitous moniker makes me think about the whole phenomenon of graffiti-writing. Why do people feel entitled to place their names and tags in public (and private) places, blithely defacing other people's property in the pursuit of some kind of self-assertion? It's true that graffiti is an ancient tradition and some of it is even useful to historians: gladiator scribblings on the stones of the Roman Coliseum, prisoner etchings on the walls of ancient cells, impromptu carvings on villas in Pompeii—all these things shed light on lives and times long past. As for today's spray-paint tags, some argue that they are a legitimate form of urban folk art, expressing the longings and frustrations of the voiceless and unempowered, bringing color and life into their otherwise bleak world. And some recognized artists began as graffiti sprayers—the most prominent example being the late, short-lived Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose paintings now fetch millions. Most graffiti, though, is just mindless, artless drivel, like a bad tattoo that you're stuck with forever.

How does Omar Üzit fit into this picture? Forget any pretension to artistic merit: his scatological, mustard yellow blobs lie on the sidewalk like petrified dog turds. Forget any historic or sociological information one might derive from them—apart from the assumption, based on his name, that he may possibly be a Turkish immigrant or a descendant thereof who doesn't have much respect for his adopted homeland. The only motivation I can see for Omar, like most graffiti-writers, is to affirm his own existence,  to glorify his own name in the place of any actual achievement that might merit anyone's attention. Okay, Omar, mission accomplished. Now that I know that you exist, I have one thing to say to you: I do not like you, Omar Üzit.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME: thoughts on Nicholas Payton's anti-"jazz" crusade

Interesting interview with Nicholas Payton in the San Jose Mercury News, talking about his new album "Sketches of Spain" and his views, opinionated as always, on many subjects. I was struck in particular by his vehement objections to using the term "jazz." Interviewer Richard Scheinin summarized his opinion as follows:

"Payton (a jazz-Grammy winner) argued that jazz died half a century ago -- and that the word "jazz" is a racist term imposed on black musicians by white marketers. He prefers to call it by another name: #BAM, or Black American Music."

Payton himself elaborates on this theme in the Q & A:

"Jazz is the white appropriation of black American music. It's a caricaturization of the music that Bolden and King Oliver and Armstrong and others created, and the first documented jazz recording was by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. And as for "Dixieland" -- we know the connotation that "Dixie" has to the Confederate South and slavery. And "jazz," the word itself, is of dubious origin at best...And a lot of the early musicians refuted the title. They didn't want the association with the word." [The whole interview is available at:]

My personal view on all this:

 It is totally pointless to get hung up on nomenclature--what you call a thing. "A rose by any other name..." as Shakespeare put it. Terms like "rock n'roll" and "rhythm and blues" were also coined by white marketers of essentially black music. So what? Are we going to rename those genres too? And if you're going to call jazz "Black American Music," you are implicitly excluding anyone who's not a black American from the club. Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and Django Reinhart wouldn't have any place under that tent. What if we decided to call Classical music White European Music? Where would that leave Wynton Marsalis's superb baroque trumpet recordings, or the operatic work of Jessye Norman or Leontyne Price? Jazz (a century-old term I will continue to use) is an inclusive music, a music that communicates across racial barriers, cultural boundaries, over oceans and continents. Today it is a world music. If that were not the case, it would have died in the 1920s. Whatever you choose to call it, the only thing that really matters is the music itself. And when Nicholas Payton lets his horn do the talking, all I can say is "Amen."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Got back to New Orleans late last night after a harrowing trip from Paris. The transatlantic flight was flawless, but on arrival at Washington's Dulles airport, the nightmare began. First, there was about a half-mile walk down a narrow corridor from the plane to the immigration area--no escalators, no courtesy cars, no pushcarts, no automatic sidewalks. After a cheek-by-jowl creep down the steps, we reached the bedlam of the arrival hall, filled by a serpentine line of probably a thousand travellers. Time from arrival to immigration control officer: 90 minutes. After collecting and transferring our baggage for the connecting flight, we hit another bottleneck at the security line. Time to clear security (which we had already done leaving Paris, by the way): 45 minutes. The walk (jog) to our departure gate, another half mile away from security, took 15 minutes. Not surprising that, after nearly 3 hours since landing in D.C., we missed our connecting flight to New Orleans. The United customer service desk re-routed us through Dallas-Fort Worth and we finally got home around midnight, nearly 24 hours after leaving Paris. We were not alone: from talking to folks in line, it was clear that hundreds of folks missed connecting flights because of the pathetic organization of this airport--the entry portal into the U.S. for millions of foreign visitors each year. I have had similarly horrific experiences at Dulles before, so I wouldn't ascribe this one to the government shutdown that, we are told, did not affect air traffic controllers, airport security personnel, customs or immigration police. It's just poor organization and inadequate infrastructure. I've been to airports in the Third World what were more efficient than this one. Was Ellis Island this bad?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

LET THEM DRINK (BURNT) COFFEE: The Starbucks invasion

The art of brewing coffee and the café culture that it engendered has long roots in France. The first café in Paris dates back to 1665. At the time of the Revolution, there were no fewer than 2,000 cafés in Paris. One could say that the Enlightenment was fuelled by caffein: Voltaire is said to have downed a dozen cups a day. During the Revolution, legendary establishments like the Café Procope (still in business) hosted stormy meetings by the likes of Robespierre, Danton and Marat. The nearby Café Les Deux Magots and Café Flore were favorite haunts of the Parisian intelligentsia—Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir wrote whole books while sitting at their sidewalk tables, sipping coffee, and chain-smoking Gauloises. Today, there are no fewer than 45,000 cafés in France. 

From all of this, one could conclude that the French know something about roasting, brewing, and drinking coffee. So why does an upstart, greedy, endlessly expansionist outfit out of Seattle—an outfit that burns its coffee beans  on the mistaken assumption that an espresso should taste like smoke, an outfit that commits the travesty of  serving coffee in cardboard cups, that adulterates this noble brew with soy milk and hazelnut syrup—why does such a company think it has a right to plant its all-too-familiar logo in France? 

There now some 50 Starbucks in France—the most recent one (pictured above) is located 200 yards from the chateau where Louis XIV was born in Saint Germain-en-Laye, just west of Paris. Where are the barricades? Where are the sans-culottes? Where are the legions of French cultural purists calling for boycotts and picketing these alien intruders? Nowhere to be found. The French will embrace this new outlet as they have embraced its predecessors. Like blue jeans, rock n' roll, action movies, and cheeseburgers, Starbucks will attract French consumers precisely because it is so...American. Not that the French particularly like Americans, or approve of American policies, or applaud American leadership of the so-called Western world. It's just that the American lifestyle is considered—especially by the young—to be modern, cool, hip, non-stodgy. And so the homogenization of world culture continues. 

Once upon a time, Napoleon's armies conquered most of Western Europe. Now the invasion is led by Starbucks, McDonalds and Disney. In Napoleon's day, at least, the conquered nations put up a fight. Now they blow down their own gates and line up for soy cappuccinos. Call me a snob, an apostate, whatever, I'd just prefer to sit at my local Café de l'Industrie, savor a real espresso, or express as the French call it, and read the papers.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Had a great time guesting with the Fondy Riverside Bullet Band in Klein-Willebroek, Belgium, on Saturday. This was the second year in a row that I teamed up with trombonist Camiel Van Breedam's group at their venerable jazz club, the Het Veerhuis. (The above photo is from the September 2012 concert.) A special treat for me this year was the presence of Brian Turnock on bass and the surprise appearance of my old friend Mike Casimir.

I first met Mike in New Orleans in the early 1960s, played occasionally with his New Iberia Jazz Band in England in the 70s, and last saw him the year of Katrina. He had taken the Eurostar over from London expecting to surprise me, but Sylvaine and I ran into him at a sidewalk cafe before the gig and we wound up having dinner together. Reminiscing about old times, we recalled playing at this same club together in...1977! Mike hung up his trombone some years ago to run the family brass business, but he remains an avid and knowledgeable follower of New Orleans music (check out his posts on Facebook).
     Apart from the music, we enjoyed walking around the village of Klein-Willebroek, located on a picturesque canal about midway between Antwerp and Ghent. Most of the houses are made from bricks formerly produced in the nearby industrial town of Boom, once a major worldwide exporter of bricks. There is a mix of prewar and postwar construction, with some buildings dating back to the early 1600s.  Most of the streets have their original cobblestones. We particularly enjoyed having a drink at the Sachetti cafe, overlooking the canal and the sunlit facades of the houses on the other side. In sum, a most enjoyable weekend. I'm already signed up for a return engagement in 2014.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND: As Sarkozy plots a comeback, the ex-First Lady underscores his bling-bling image

The night Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007, he set the tone for his presidency by holding a victory celebration at the très chic Fouquet's restaurant, attended by leading members of France's glitterati. The next day, he and his family set off on a Mediterranean cruise aboard the yacht of mega-rich businessman Vincent Bolloré. Those two events, along with Sarkozy's penchant for Rolex watches, gold neck chains and Italian designer suits, forever defined him in the popular mind as the "bling-bling" President, fascinated by the vulgar trappings of wealth and beholden to those who possessed and flaunted them.
     It didn't help matters when he exchanged his first spouse for a stunning trophy wife in the person of Carla Bruni, a Franco-Italian model and singer who proceeded to spend some $500,000 in public money to set up her personal website. Sarkozy, a centre-right politician with roots in the Gaullist movement, protested that he represented the interests of all the French, rich and poor alike, and that those who dared to harp on his celebrity frequentations and his love of expensive jewelry (not to mention the extraordinary tax advantages that he concocted for the super-rich) were guilty of character assassination and base political partisanship. The voters had their say last year and dumped their bling-bling president in favor of the bland, uninspiring François Hollande, a Socialist Party veteran who championed "le petit people" and vowed to change the style and substance of French politics.
     Undermined by an economic recession and high unemployment, Hollande sank to historic lows in the polls and will face an uphill battle for re-election in 2017. As his announced conservative challengers continue to cut one another up with petty backstabbing manoeuvres, guess who is emerging as a potential frontrunner? Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy has tried to tone down his bling-bling image, even changing his Rolex for a more modest watch, in an effort to broaden his appeal to ordinary French voters. So one wonders what brilliant communications advisor allowed Mrs. Sarkozy to pose in the attached ads for Bulgari (rhymes with vulgary), whose image is so brazenly out of synch with the preoccupations of most voters. Is this a secret plot hatched by Sarkozy's enemies?

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Sylvaine Sancton's new children's photo book, "Some Birds..." (Pelican Publishing) has just come back from the printers and is available in a bookstore near you. We are very excited about the book and think young readers (and their parents) will find it charming and informative. Sylvaine is preparing to do signings and presentations after our return to New Orleans in early October. Please visit the Facebook page she has set up, befriend it, click the "like" button early and often, and tell your friends about it. Here's the link:

In addition to information about the book, you will find details about her author events at local bookstores. Please check it out, and come to her events. Some little one(s) you know will be glad you did.

Here is a description of the book from Amazon:

Learn about the funny lives of birds! Each species of bird is different. Some birds like to float along, others like to splash, and some like to fly up high while others fly down low. The author's amusing photographs capture the quirky characteristics of birds at work and at play in the New Orleans area. Pelicans, cormorants, ibises, among other local birds are featured in this delightful picture book. The book also includes a brief index of the birds and their habitats.

...And from the back cover:

Some birds are shy, and some birds are show-offs. Some birds make friends, some birds are copycats, and some birds even try to read. But all birds are beautifully featured in this sweet and simple book designed for children. Read along and learn about the funny lives of birds found in the New Orleans area, including pelicans, wood ducks, egrets, anhingas, and herons. This entertaining and educational introduction to the fascinating world of birds includes a brief index of the birds, their habits, and their habitats. 

You can find the book in local bookstores, or order it online at the following sites: 

Pelican Publishing

Friday, September 13, 2013

SAINT VALERY-EN-CAUX: a town with rugged cliffs and a tragic past—the backdrop for my latest novel

Just back from a two-day jaunt to Saint Valery-en-Caux, a small town in Normandy flanked by towering cliff walls. Saint Valery has an interesting history. It was the site of the last major battle before the French capitulated to Germany in June 1940. Rommel surrounded the town with his Panzer divisions and bottled up a French and Scottish force, taking some 20,000 prisoners after the Allies surrendered. The part of the town that faced the seafront, heavily damaged by German artillery, was completely razed four years later to give the occupying force a clear view of the sea in the event of an attempted Allied landing. (The actual D-Day landings took place some 50 miles to the south.) The rubble from the demolition was dumped into the sea to impede Allied landing craft. You can still see chunks of brick and mortar at low tide.
     That part of town was hastily rebuilt after the war with graceless, blocky buildings of brick and concrete. The older neighborhoods are composed of traditional structures made of brick and silex stones. The silex comes from the chalk cliffs, resembling the cliffs of Dover, that rise over the rocky beaches on both sides of the harbor. A lighthouse with a green lamp guards the entrance to the narrow port. Each day, the local fishing fleet, consisting of half a dozen small trawlers, leaves the port at high tide to return when the tide rises again. Over the years, many Saint Valery fishermen have been lost to the churning sea; their names and the names of their craft are engraved on marble plaques in the local chapel.

At low tide, the harbor is almost completely emptied of water, its 40-foot stone walls rising like the fortifications of an ancient castle. Seagulls, huge birds about a foot long with fearsome red-tipped beaks, hover over the port, often swooping down to swipe fish off the counters of the vendors' stands that line the quai.

We often buy fish there. It is so fresh that the sole and skate and turbot and cod are still flopping around on the counters. Today we bought two sole and a large sea bass. The fisherman's wife who runs the stand offered to skin the sole for us, but they were still alive so we declined. We have seen the fish mongers skin live sole for other customers, but didn't have the heart to order such a flaying. In any case, as the seller insists, sole cannot be eaten the day of the catch. It has to "rest" 24-hours.
    On arriving yesterday we headed straight to the Hôtel de la Poste on the central market square for a lunch of moules marinières and fries. That is always our traditional first-day meal, since this establishment has the best mussels of anyone along the Channel coast. After a long drizzly walk on the near-deserted beach, we took a drive along the coast, through the picturesque town of Veules-les-Roses to the village of Varengeville-sur-mer. There's a linen goods shop in Varengeville that Sylvaine always likes to visit. This part of Normandy is the world's biggest producer of flax, from which linen textiles (and lots of other things, including bread) are made. Most of it goes to the Chinese textile market, but the Lin et l'autre shop in Varengeville features 100% local merchandise.
Back in Saint Valery, we had dinner at the unassuming Eden Café, which offers some of the best local seafood in town. We both had a dozen oysters from nearby Veules-les-Roses and skate with capers. Before leaving this morning, we took another walk on the beach. The weather was mild for September. There was almost no wind. The sea was calm, with gentle waves rippling on the receding tide. The water is a milky aquamarine colour, due to the pounding of waves against the base of the chalky cliffs. The cliffs themselves tower like canyon walls more than hundred feet high. Sylvaine says she can hear the sound of the insides of the cliffs straining to break free. All I hear is the wind and surf. At the top of one cliff, near the casino, sits the remains of a German pillbox that once surveyed the sea with machine guns at the ready. Today it is just a perch for seagulls.

During the war, the German occupiers forbade the fisherman to go out further than 500 yards, lest they seek to communicate with enemy ships. Several boats were blown out of the water for venturing past that limit. The locals, those old enough to remember, tell me that the people who went along with the Germans got along; those who resisted were mercilessly suppressed. Yet there were resistors, just as there were collaborators, and black marketers, and lonely women who fell into the arms of handsome German soldiers. Strange, dark things happened here in those days—and their repercussions are still felt today.
     That is the subject of my latest novel.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Here's another amusing souvenir I stumbled upon while sorting through all the junk stored in my attic in France: a rare photo of the amazing Blazers. (Left to right, George Welch, Arthur Ducore, a kid whose name I forgot, and yours truly.)

I wasn't always a clarinet player. There was a time, during my impressionable teen years, when I fell under the spell of the Beatles and joined a rock band called the Blazers.  We used to rehearse in George Welch's basement on Octavia Street in uptown New Orleans. His parents were very tolerant (or very deaf), since we would spend hours twanging our guitars with the amplifiers cranked up and singing off-key harmonies until our voices cracked. Naturally the Beatles were our idols and models, so we massacred all their hits to our immense satisfaction and decided we were ready for the big time. It never happened for us. I only remember three gigs: once at George's church; once at our alma mater, Benjamin Franklin High School  (it was just before lunchtime and one of our classmates pulled the plug on our amplifiers so he could go eat); and once on the occasion pictured above: the 1966 Latin Club party (which explains the togas). We retired shortly after that and I went back to trying to learn the clarinet. I guess you'd call that a good career move.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

TORTURE IN THE MARKETPLACE: A French funny hat band massacres "All of Me"

"Whenever  you feel like criticizing anyone...just remember that all people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had." That was the advice Nick Carraway's father gave him in The Great Gatsby. It's a wise observation and I generally try to abide by it. So I'm not going to make fun of these guys I encountered at an open-air market near Paris this morning. Honest. They seemed to be having a good time and no one was hurt. I looked on with good-natured amusement, captured the moment on my cheap cell phone, and present it here in hopes that it brightens your day.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

TELL IT TO THE JUDGE: why indicting Assad for war crimes is better than a military strike

A couple of days ago, I proposed an alternative to a risky military strike against the Syrian regime: charge President Bashar al-Assad with war crimes before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. I hadn't seen that idea mentioned anywhere else until today, when Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times wrote:  "Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down."

I won't flatter myself by suggesting that Kristof got the idea from my blog, but I will take issue with his assumption that war crimes charges would dissuade Assad from stepping down. The flaw with that reasoning is the notion that Assad would seriously negotiate himself out of power whether or not he faced the threat of a war crimes prosecution. As I argued in my earlier post on Syria, it is delusional to think that a hereditary dictator like Assad will negotiate a peace deal whose result would be to strip away his power. Like Gaddafi in Libya, he will fight on until he is defeated, captured, or killed.

The beauty of bringing charges before the ICJ is that they would hang permanently over Assad's head, designating him in the eyes of the world as an indicted war criminal, and providing the mechanism for imposing a severe but legal punishment (life imprisonment for example) if and when he is ousted from power. So why rush into a dangerous, possibly illegal, and probably ineffective military strike? Retribution deferred is still retribution. As Leo Tolstoy put it in the title of a famous short-story, "God sees the truth but waits."

WHAT, ME WORRY? A goofy snap of France's president goes viral

It's silly season in France. Not for any lack of serious subjects. Unemployment is hovering around 11%, the government is pushing an unpopular pension reform, President François Hollande is trying to win support for a punitive strike in Syria. But the thing that caused the biggest buzz this week was a goofy photo of the president taken during a class visit on the first day of school. Snapped at an unfortunate moment, the photo makes Hollande look like a cross between Daffy Duck and Alfred E. Neumann. The French wire service AFP initially distributed the photo along with a routine story on the president's school visit. The image immediately sparked howls of laughter and went viral on the Internet. Seeking to preserve the president's dignity, AFP withdrew the photo—but not before it had been widely copied and distributed on the web. That unusual step by the French wire service led to charges that the government had intervened to censor the image. Both the Elysée and AFP denied this, but the attempt to remove the picture from circulation only drew more attention to it. At a time when Hollande's approval ratings are at an all-time low, the photo flap was the last thing he needed. But at least no one in France is demanding to see his birth certificate.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

THE WEASEL TWO-STEP: On Syria, France replaces the U.K. as Washington's gung-ho ally—but what good will come of it?

 Remember when Fox News was bashing the French as "weasels," Homer Simpson dismissed them as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and the Congressional dining room handed Paris the ultimate insult of replacing French fries with Freedom fries on its lunch menu? 
     Consider the irony of the flip-flop that has just taken place on Syria. Britain, which hurtled headlong into George Bush's Iraq adventure in 2003, will sit this one out following a Parliamentary vote against military intervention against Syria. France's Socialist President François Hollande, meanwhile, announced that despite Britain's defection, France would stand by the U.S. in a still undefined punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retaliate for his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own rebellious population. 

     "The chemical massacre by Damascus cannot and shall not remain unpunished," Hollande told Le Monde on Thursday. "Otherwise, we would risk seeing an escalation that would normalize the use of these weapons and threaten other countries." Quite a change from the dramatic speech of former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin who eloquently defended his "old, proud nation" in its refusal to join the U.S. and Britain in their ill-considered attack on Iraq. 

     What's going on here? French public opinion, like that in Britain, is heavily weighted against taking any direct military action in Syria. But France's presidential government, unlike Britain's parliamentary system, does not require the chief executive to seek parliamentary approval for foreign military interventions. With a freer hand, Hollande is able to take whatever steps he deems to be in the French interest—and his own political interest. But what is his motivation?
     Though the Obama administration is doubtless pleased to see the French lining up alongside the U.S. on this issue, Hollande's main consideration was not to ingratiate himself with Washington. Beyond his stated determination to punish what France considers a moral and legal atrocity, he seeks to reinforce his country's role as a major player on the international scene. France's recent incursion in Mali, like its earlier support for the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya and its calls for direct support of the Syrian rebels, is in line with an interventionist reflex that has been evident for decades. The era of Gaullist neutrality is long over. 
     Another apparent motivation for Hollande is a desperate need to shore up his public image at home, where he has become a highly unpopular leader with a reputation for feckless leadership in the face of an entrenched economic crisis. Even though French public opinion opposes action in Syria, it may be in Hollande's interest to demonstrate toughness and decisiveness in the international arena. 

    The real question about the threatened U.S.-French action is what good it might do. Hollande says
the aim is not to provoke the fall of Assad regime, but to encourage him to negotiate with the rebels. This is a total delusion. Anyone who knows anything about Bashar al-Assad, or his late father Hafez al-Assad, or any mideast dictator for that matter, should realize that they would never consider negotiations whose only outcome would be to weaken or strip away their own power. Whatever action the West might take in this instance or in the future, Assad will most probably fight on until he is defeated, captured, or killed.
     As for the possible negative fallout of an intervention, the scenarios are chilling: Syrian retaliation against U.S. allies Israel, Turkey and Joradn, terrorist strikes against Western targets, a defiant re-use of chemical weapons, or an escalation that leads to a boots-on-the-ground action by the U.S. The ultimate danger is that of a broader proxy war involving Iran (in support of the Assad's Alawite regime), Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (in support of the Sunni rebels), and Russia (Assad's main international ally and arms supplier). Given that most military experts and diplomats doubt the effectiveness of a slap-on-the-wrist action in changing the course of the Syrian conflict, the risks appear by far to outweigh any possible gains in terms of soothing our consciences and preserving our "red line" credibility. 

 Of course it is impossible to ignore the horror of seeing 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, indiscriminately murdered by chemical weapons. Assuming Assad's regime is ultimately proven to be the culprit—which few seem to doubt at this point—he should and must be punished. But why the rush, and why is an immediate military strike the only approach under consideration? Here's my modest proposal: file formal war crimes charges against Assad and other top Syrian leaders with International Criminal Court in the Hague. That may seem like a largely symbolic act—until and unless Assad ultimately falls from power or is captured. In that case, he could be tried and convicted as a war criminal and end his days in prison instead of his gilded presidential palace. That would be a moral—and legal—stance against breaking the taboo on chemical weapons. In other words, let the punishment fit the crime.