Yes to NO

Getting to NO wasn’t as negative a trip as it sounds since we got back to YES in due course, but there were challenges along the way.

The day before we were to depart for New Orleans, for example, there was a huge snowstorm dumping about 11 inches of snow on the area. The snow soon turned to rain in Seattle but not in Anacortes where Sherry and I lived so that we were not sure we could even get from our house to the shell station, a distance of only a few miles. It was the Shell station on Commercial Avenue where we were to be picked up by bus for Burlington and then to SeaTac airport. Happily. Molly, Sherry’s daughter, shoveled a pathway through the deep snow to my truck and I was able to dig out from the truck to the plowed cul de sac.

Standing in the deep snow, I could not help but think of my years in Vermont. In the end it was the snow that got to me after 18 years. There was just too much of it too often. This present storm, on the other hand, may be the only one this winter. I can live with that. By 1:30 AM the next morning, aided by the warmer weather, we loaded my truck with our luggage and made it to the Shell station without mishap and on schedule, immensely relieved.

No sooner had we landed in New Orleans than we got word that a second storm had moved into the pacific northwest, dumping another 4-6 inches of new snow. It was hard to believe our good luck. We had gotten out between two major storms!

                                                                     1.

We immediately felt the welcome of the moist, warm air. We felt, too, the warm welcome of Sherry’s brother, Dallas. He’d had already driven five hours from his home in Bossier City to meet our flight.

The New Orleans airport, big, bright and new, still sported its old name – The Louis Armstrong International Airport – reminding me, reminding everyone, that we were not just entering another big city but a big mix of cultures, rich in musical traditions not found anywhere else.  Just the anticipation of it made my step lighter, like I was walking, almost skipping, on a magical path of jazz notes and blues notes, being pushed along by Louis Armstrong’s gravelly words. Can I ever forget his duets with Ella?    

                                                                    2.

Sherry had been to the Big Easy many times before but she shared my excitement. Each visit had its own charm. In this case, Molly and her son, “Wolfie”, were arriving on a later flight tonight. To top it off, Sharon, Sherry’s cousin, was driving down from her home in Baton Rouge on Saturday. A disparate family, was gathering once again in the best possible place,

   where the saints are always marching

   and souls are always soothed,

   the heart beat and drum beat one and the same,

   syncopating us to new rhythms,

   a lengthening stride and a richer voice

   singing us to a welcoming place.

   Music does it, I want to say,

   jazz and blues, and all the lively sounds between,

   countering any measures, urging us to answer

   with a harmony of our own.

                                                                3.

There’s always something, isn’t there, to disrupt the peace? Symbolically, visiting the WWII Museum did it for me. I’m not over it yet, the destruction two madmen could initiate beyond belief, but there it is, relived in film after film and in many reconstructed scenes, the bloody years of sacrifice and bravery fought on two fronts with unimaginable pain and loss.

      The European Theater and the extensive bombing of Germany and its cathedrals, synagogues and churches was represented by shards of glass collected at the various sites by an American chaplain and mailed home in manila mailers after the war. Recently,  a portion of the bits of glass were made into objects of art by a variety of commissioned artists, a beautiful, remarkable, and deeply moving exhibit to view.

      The Pacific Theater battles centered around the islands, reclaiming one island at a time from the Japanese at a huge cost in lives to both sides. I remember in one instance alone, 7000 American lives and 30,000 Japanese lives were lost. Can you imagine? Now multiply the series of islands that had to be retaken and compute the death toll. It’s a wrenching and painful picture. Walking into a room designed to replicate a pacific island interior complete with thick, green tropical foliage, you could feel the danger and fear.

   Victory ultimately

   but at a staggering cost.

   I don’t want to forget, though,

   the indefatigable human spirit at work

   through it all,

   producing its own powerful recovery,

   ever ready to rebuild and

   rediscover its dream for itself.   

                                                                         4. 

From music to war and, then, to music again, high points and low, dogging human existence, it seems, just as our visit has. There were high points, some extraordinarily so. Two highs really, the celebration of Wolfie’s birthday and the live music from Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street and at the Jazz Museum near Decatur Street.

   Commander’s Palace is the perfect place to celebrate any occasion especially the fourteenth birthday of a young man who, bright and aware, appreciates the setting of this elegant, destination restaurant.  The building is old and historic, and but for the strings of lights outlining the veranda, doesn’t draw attention. Inside, though, it is welcoming, the pale cream and yellow walls and large colonial windows, two floors of large, open rooms filled with tables covered with white linen tablecloths and glistening glassware, the narrow stairway between floors lined with young, eager waiting staff, greeting us with smiles. You just know you’re going to be pampered. And pampered we were. The six of us no more than sat down and two of the young waitresses were there, exchanging our white linen napkins for black ones. When I asked why, one said because they didn’t want the lint from the white napkins to cling to our dark clothes!

   Our elaborate round table had already been festooned with three pastel-colored balloons hovering just above our eyes. They soon brought Wolfie his own chef’s hat to wear as the honoree and then our culinary venture began. The cuisine was all local, Creole fare: drum fish, a delicate white meat coated in a spicy pecan crust, a crawfish and shrimp dish, turtle and gumbo soups spiked with sherry, blackened rainbow trout and for dessert, Commander’s famous bread pudding souffle with a rich whiskey sauce stirred in at tableside or a strawberry shortcake smothered in a fresh strawberry sauce. We wanted to belt out “Happy Birthday, dear Wolfie” but settled for a quiet congratulations and focused on his birthday present, a new Apple cellphone. Only later did he learn that the cellphone he’d lost in the snow had been found and still worked. We were all happy to chip in a little for the new one though, since he was about due for an upgrade anyway.

   Such fun being part of this new family,

   celebrating a young life

   from the standpoint of a much older one.

   He transitioning in,

   me transitioning out,

   our hands touching at the intersection,

   his young, strong fingers,

   and my old, gnarled ones

   exchanging energy and wisdom,

   high-fiving our way

   to a long friendship. 

                                                                      5.

   Fortunately, our visit corresponded with the annual Danny Barker Festival which meant we saw several live performances at the New Orleans Jazz Museum we would have never otherwise experienced . We were lucky, first of all, to hear Tom McDermott play the piano version of several of Danny Barker’s hits,  often funny lyrics like “Don’t You Feel My Leg”. The exciting thing, of course, is hearing Tom himself play. Whether it’s Danny Barker’s compositions or someone else’s,  there’s always something complex, rich and multilayered about the way he plays them. In listening to an interview on Facebook, I think I know now why his piano work is so special: he listens to and plays classical music more than he does jazz! 

   The last 24 hours in New Orleans was almost thrilling in some way as we tried to work in as much of this enlivening, sweet, stirring, rhythmic, tender, heart-pounding music as we could with a couple of breaks for beignets* at Cafe’ de Monde on Decatur Street. Topsy Chapman and her band, Sound Harmony, entertained us with many of the old favorites like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the “Dark Town Strutter’s Ball”. Topsy herself has been a fixture in the music scene for years but even at 86 years of age she was still belting out the songs with the help of two younger, female vocalists.

   Snug Harbor, a music club on the fringe of the French Quarter, provided the other venue for hearing a wonderful mix of traditional and contemporary jazz from a popular  group headed by Evan Christopher. I heard someone say that Evan Christopher is the “Benny Goodman of New Orleans”. That description carries a lot of weight with me since I  came of age dancing to big band music and Benny Goodman was one of the best. Like Benny,  Evan’s Clarinet becomes somehow an extension of his

*Beignets are three-inch squares of unsweetened dough – much like raised donuts – fresh out of the fryer and smothered in powdered sugar. With coffee or hot chocolate, irresistible. The Cafe’ de Monde is a large, open area, roof-covered to be sure, but open to the air otherwise, the hundred tables almost always occupied. It operates 24/7.

voice, of his soul really, until you are drawn in, absorbed completely into his magical sound world.  Most of his five-man back-up consisted of professional old-timers with their own powerful gifts. The man on banjo, for example, was a native Orleanian, and led his own band. He was also an extraordinary strummer and a great Cajun story teller. His vocals had a clear Cajun twist which seemed to fit right in with the music.

   Sherry, Molly, Wolfie and I departed New Orleans on schedule Sunday evening, more light-footed than ever, sad to leave Dallas and Sharon, of course, but lifted up by all the live jazz we had absorbed over the last couple of days. The shadows of WWII are present but the music, inspired as it is by an indomitable human spirit, overrides it in some way, leaving us thankful for the saints that have marched the streets of New Orleans. So we shout out  “Yes to NO!”. 

I want to thank and honor Danny Barker along with the rest of the New Orleans community. Here are the lyrics to one of his more popular and playful compositions which we heard at the New Orleans Jazz Museum:

“Don’t You Feel My Leg”*

Oh, don’t you feel my leg, don’t you feel my leg

‘Cos if you feel my leg, you’ll want to feel my thigh

Don’t you feel my thigh, you’ll wanna move up high

So don’t you feel my leg.

Don’t you buy no rye, don’t you buy no rye

‘Cos if you buy me some rye, you gonna make me high

If you make me high, you’ll wanna loosen my tie

Don’t you buy no rye.

Now you say, you’ll take me out, buy me gin and wine

You got something different on your mind

Say, we’re gonna have a lovely time

But what I got, I know is mine.

Don’t you feel my leg, don’t you feel my leg

‘Cos if you feel my leg, you’ll want to feel my thigh

If you feel my thigh, you’re gonna get a surprise

Don’t you feel my leg.”

*In 1939, the federal government banned Decca Records from

distributing this recording because it was considered too risqué.

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