New Orleans Day Two – Empty Vessels

IMG_0682Like an empty pot, a half-empty bar waiting for the musicians can turn into anything—Ed Wills playing blues, a Buster Keaton film with accompaniment by Tom McDermott and Aurora Nealand, or a drunk trumpet player trying to commandeer a gig. It can go anywhere. Like the hexagram says, “The Corners of the Mouth. Pay heed to what a man seeks to fill his own mouth with. Perseverance brings good fortune.”

There’s been some method to Bill’s madness, trying to pack as much as he can into this trip. Everywhere we go, there is the overlay of history, his own, Cindy’s, the city’s centuries, Katrina, who is present in many stories that begin “before” or “after.” Like an empty pan, echoes of meals gone by and of meals still to come.

Gumbo at Liuzza's

Gumbo at Liuzza’s

Yesterday, we went to the Museum of Art, in whose stone lobby Bill took art lessons as a boy then to Liuzza’s by the Track, just a corner bar with fried oyster salad, gumbo, a dark turtle soup that just might be the best thing I’ve eaten so far, and glasses of unsweetened ice tea deep enough to swim in to Longue Vue gardens for the tail end of the iris show and a stop at Angelo Brocato’s for ices and gelato.

It was drizzling rain at Armstrong Park, and the barbequed oyster lady was serving chicken tonight so we ducked out of Glen David Andrews (Trombone shorty’s cousin) early after only a small bowl of gumbo and some pineapple ices and most of a set of brass band funk and got a table at Buffa’s, the aforementioned half-empty room.

A healthful salad

The thing about empty pots, I’ve been thinking over the last year, the their potential. You use them, you wash them, and there they sit, ready for the next dish to take shape. It feels good to pull out a well-used knife and dice onions or garlic or peppers or slice some palliards of chicken breast and listen to them sizzle as it becomes something new yet familiar. So with the room at Buffa’s, with Tom McDermott a thin guy in a pork pie hat and a rumpled shirt, playing fluid piano lines while a drunk trumpeter with a VIP pass dangling from his suit, recruits a couple of musicians from the audience for an impromptu Tiger Rag.

It’s so tempting at this point to toss off a few half-baked clichés about the “culture” or how New Orleans is always ready for a party, but, of course, there is always something more under the surface. The trombone player was with his girlfriend, there to hear Tom and Aurora and had to be coaxed onto the stage, by the same trumpeter who then stepped all over his solo and generally kept him from playing once he’d levered him onto the stage. More clichés about musicians cutting each other and playing with the big boys, but Tom, gentlemanly and outwardly calm, let the song run out, let the trombone player know he understood, and let the trumpeter call for a faster tempo to cover a badly sour note. It was only after the man was circulating and tried to start another song from the tables that Tom shut him down with a simple “No!” He and Aurora waited for the silent film to cue off of Hulu and started playing accompaniment which is how they have been starting their first set at Buffa’s according to Bill and Cindy.

They played Sidney Bechet and some Brazilian pieces, some original tunes and really old standards, soprano sax and upright piano, long fluid lines that just went on and on, Aurora sometimes singing in a thin dusty voice, sometimes playing clarinet or a four handed piano rag.

The food wasn’t great at Buffa’s last night, and my tonic and lemon turned into something else each time it got refilled, but watching the two of them it didn’t really matter. The room that night was alive with music that wasn’t so much as old as well polished and familiar in the hands of musicians who liked playing it for people who liked listening.

Cue the scratchy old films and the suspenders, derbies, long lace dresses and fire up the old familiar stories about Storyville and the Birth of Jazz and voice over Bill’s memories about the New Orleans he knew as a boy and Tom and Aurora’s roles in Treme. You’re only part right. Talk about the difference of a town where the living really is easier than my town and again, you slide by the truth. I don’t know the Truth yet, but the current truth is it’s so damn nice to be dropped into another life for a while and see the overlay of history in another place. Cue the soprano sax and piano.


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