Interviews

“Up From New Orleans: Life Before, During and After Hurricane Katrina” — A conversation with transplanted New Orleans musicians Mark DiFlorio and Devin Phillips

Chapter Three

Discovering Portland

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JJM  So by then, six weeks have passed since Katrina, and New Orleans was clearly a disaster. Meanwhile, you guys are musicians in need of work, and, in your case, Devin, the only job you have ever had other than music was working at Foot Locker…

DP  Yes, and this is when I really started to get depressed. I don’t have a college degree, and I don’t work at a place like Wal-Mart where I can be transferred to another Wal-Mart. Music is the only thing I have, and when you see something as dramatic as an entire city flood, you can’t help but question how important jazz can possibly be. I couldn’t do anything for anyone else, because I couldn’t really do anything for myself. I was beginning to think that I was going to have to go to work in a Subway restaurant pretty soon, know what I mean? It is a scary thing.

At this time, my dad said he could probably get me some kind of gig in Shreveport. One night, he offered to take me out to eat there, and said he wanted to take me to where all the good gigs were. We ended up going to some restaurant, where I hear this really horrible music! There was a husband and wife act, singing with a play-along CD — but it isn’t karaoke, it’s a gig, know what I mean? I remember saying to myself, “Man, I have to get out of here, and soon!” So I got on the Internet and started pounding, and that is how I found Portland.

JJM What was being communicated to you about Portland?

DP  Mainly that there was an opportunity for me to keep doing what I was doing. I didn’t know what kind of opportunity it was, and I didn’t know how good it was.  All I knew was that there was an opportunity — which was an offer to bring me out here for housing and work opportunities. After I saw that husband and wife duo in Shreveport, I didn’t feel I had a lot of options there, so I decided to try Portland.

JJM  Had you ever thought about Portland before?

DP  Never.

JJM  Did you have any image about the city?

DP  I played at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival before, but that is not really in Portland.

JJM  Yes, that is out in the suburbs.  Did you have any sense about how long you would be here?

DP  I had no idea about what I was going to do. Before the storm, I had planned to leave my house for three days, and by now it had now been weeks since I was there. I was with my father so I didn’t have to worry about money, but my own money was beginning to run out, and I am a proud man — I didn’t want to keep asking my dad for money. After a time like this, I had big questions for myself, like, “What the hell am I going to do next?”

This was a very hard time for us, and there were a lot of impromptu moments. When you are displaced by something like this, there are a lot of impromptu family reunions — people all getting together to make sure everybody is alive, and with everyone cooking during the reunions. I remember when my dad found the Google map site — where you can see your house from a satellite — it was incredibly emotional, because everybody in the family went up to the computer to see their house, and some would celebrate because their house was still there, but other times all you could see was a spot where a home used to be. I remember that there was a line of about thirteen people at the computer, all waiting to see if their house was still there. At one time my grandma’s sister started crying…It was very hard.

JJM  So, you chose to move to Portland, and your mother is in Texas now.  Mark, how did you find out about Portland?

MD  I wasn’t going to make any decision about where to go and what to do until after I got back to New Orleans, because I wanted to get my stuff. But after I saw the condition New Orleans was in, I knew I was leaving. I wanted to be near my friends, but most of them were moving to New York, and I had lived there before and didn’t want to go back. At that point I could have gone to any city, because I didn’t have a reason to be anywhere. I had some friends in places like Denver and Seattle, but they are married couples with kids, some of whom are not even musicians. Around this time I got an email from the Portland Jazz Festival people, making me an offer to come here. So, I decided to go.

JJM  Why not, huh?

MD  That’s right. It was almost too good to be true.

JJM  Had you been to Portland before?

MD  No, although one of my closest friends lives in Seattle, so I had been to the Northwest before. I hadn’t given much thought to Portland ever, although I keep a blog, and when I read over it recently I saw that in June [of 2005] I wrote something about not working much in New Orleans, and that I was thinking about Portland. I totally didn’t remember that, but I look back on it now and, man, that is really strange. So I got the email, got in touch with the Portland Jazz Festival, and I came out here.

JJM  Did Joanna come out with you?

MD  No, at the time we decided to split up. She decided she wanted to go to Austin, and we were doing this long distance relationship thing. However, since then she has actually moved here and is with me now.

JJM  And when did you guys arrive in Portland?

MD   I got here November 1st .

DP  September 14th for me.

JJM Portland has a reputation on the west coast for having a better-than-average jazz scene. When you came here did you have an expectation that you would be playing right away, or did you view it more as a place to just hang your hat for a short while?

DP  Before I came here I thought that I would maybe come for a week or two, and then go back to New Orleans. The worst part about a hurricane is the uncertainty it causes. People affected by them don’t know what to do after. With Katrina, the hurricane made it so you didn’t know when you are going to be able to go back to your house again because you don’t even know when your city is going to be open again. In fact, you don’t even know if you have a house — it was that uncertain. Because there is so much uncertainty, you wing everything, know what I mean? I totally winged it by coming to Portland, and I am the type of person who doesn’t like to wing anything. So, there is a lot of improvisation in life as a result of the hurricane. Maybe improvisation is good for a jazz musician, but man, not this…

JJM  As good as the “scene” for jazz is here, it still only has four or five viable clubs in town, and there was an influx of New Orleans musicians looking to work in them. How many of you moved here?

DP  There were thirty to begin with, and there are probably seven of us still here.

MD  Maybe not even seven. Maybe its five or six now.

DP  The Portland offer was an invitation to spend some time here while New Orleans remained unsettled. Some of us who came here had no intentions of staying for long, and I don’t think anybody had any intentions of actually moving here. The offer was to come here and check it out and see if we liked it.

MD  When I first booked the ticket to Portland I imagined that I would come here and hang out for a couple of weeks. I thought I would go see my friends in Seattle for a while and check out the music scene to see if I wanted to move there. I also have friends in Eugene, and figured I would spend a week or so with them down there. After I got my ticket I sent an email to Devin — who I knew in New Orleans — letting him know I was arriving on a Tuesday. Devin then called me to ask if we could get together once I got into town because he had a gig on Wednesday and another on Saturday, and he had some music he wanted me to learn. So I came in on Tuesday, I worked Wednesday, and I could barely even schedule a trip to Seattle. I could only get away for three days to Seattle because I had been working consistently since I got here, which is not what I expected at all. I didn’t know if I would have work of any kind when I came here.

JJM  Has the work been fairly consistent throughout this time?

DP  No, it is not consistent, but we have work. These are not regular things that we are doing, but it is work. There is still uncertainty.

JJM Are you able to play the kind of music you want to play?

MD  Yes.

DP  That is one of the things I love about being here — I have only done things that I want to do. I am not saying I wouldn’t do anything else, because if I had kids or other commitments, I am not too proud of a person to say I wouldn’t do a certain kind of work. I like to play some kinds of music more than others, but I can honestly say that in Portland I have been able to play what I want.

JJM  Portland is a community of about two million people, and while it is more diverse than it was a generation ago, its population is predominantly white. Because you come from a culturally rich area that has a deep tradition in jazz, once you got here, did you feel as if your calling might be bigger than just hanging out here for awhile, and that your music and the circumstances under which you arrived here could help reshape the culture of this community?

DP  I think it’s great if you can do something like that, but I don’t think that is anything anyone can plan. I hope to be able to do that someday, but that was not my plan when I came here.

JJM  Your presence in Portland could potentially create more venues for jazz, which increases the options and can alter the culture at night. Do you feel you can touch the city in that way?

MD  I feel as if the initial reaction to our presence here has been very positive. I see that in the overwhelming reception I see when I play in Devin’s band around town. My sense is that is a little different than what Portland is used to, and I think that is very positive.

JJM  Are you hearing that from the local musicians as well?

MD  Yes. A lot of high-end cats are coming to our gigs, and we chat after. They are full of compliments for us, and are all excited to have us in the city. I feel that and see that in the reaction in the audiences as well — they seem very excited about us being here, and seem to enjoy the energy we have brought here. I think they understand that the music we play is not anything that was cultivated here — that it is coming from a place with a great jazz tradition. But I don’t think I have thought enough about the bigger picture just yet. I am very uncertain about what to do next, because there is music going on in New Orleans again, and I have a lot of friends who are there playing music now.

JJM  So, are you guys on the cusp of deciding to go back?

DP  No. I am not going back to New Orleans.

JJM  Will you stay in Portland?

DP  I want to. If I had to choose right now, I would settle here. Just because Portland only has three or four clubs — which is a lot for any city — it isn’t the clubs that make the scene, the people make the scene. When I play with my band and I see the same people coming to my show, that is not about the clubs, it is about the people and how open-minded they are to being touched by a jazz group. My favorite movie is Mo’ Better Blues, which is about a cat who has a band that plays in the same club for five nights a week — and if that is not fiction, I don’t know what fiction is! That just doesn’t happen. The days of playing in the same club night after night is over. Now, in New Orleans you can make a living by playing in clubs, but you won’t be doing that playing in a jazz club.

JJM  So, if it is tough making a living playing jazz in clubs, how does a jazz musician get by in a city like Portland?

DP  I don’t know, but I do know that I would like to try to find out. I want to stay in Portland and play here for as long as I possibly can, but my objective isn’t to remain a Portland musician. I hope to become an international recording artist and do the same things that musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, James Carter, Branford Marsalis, and Kenny Garrett have done. They are my role models, and I want to be like them, and I would like to achieve their stature while I live here in Portland.

JJM  Are you closer to that today than you were five months ago in New Orleans?

DP Yes. Way closer — so much closer it is ridiculous.

JJM  Much of this has to do with how your talent has progressed through practice and consistent work — as it likely would have if you stayed in New Orleans — but have the circumstances for your being here given your playing more prominence among listeners?

DP  Please don’t misunderstand what I am about to say, because in no way am I comparing my life to Jesus Christ, but when he went home, people didn’t respect him — they saw him as that crazy virgin’s son. So, not even Jesus Christ got respect when he went home. Add the story of Louis Armstrong to that. The fact he is from New Orleans is one of the many reasons I am proud to say I am from there, and I feel connected with him as if he were a relative of mine. Yet while we celebrate Armstrong virtually every day in New Orleans, when you get right down to it, New Orleans treated him like shit, and that is why he isn’t even buried there. I wish that wasn’t true, but while we are all proud of him, the fact is that you have to go to New York to see his house — you can’t even see it in New Orleans. Why?

JJM  Racism would be a pretty good guess…

DP  Yes, there is that, and it is also just because of the way things worked out. I don’t know.

JJM  So, are your chances better now that you are in a smaller town with the circumstances of your being here than they would have been if you remained in New Orleans?

DP  It is a combination of everything, you know? It is a combination of the economy in New Orleans and the appreciation for jazz there, and the appreciation for each individual in the band playing there. I like to think that I am a good musician and the product I put out would be good anywhere, but it is true that the people here in Portland support the arts a lot more than the people in New Orleans do, so in that sense it is easier to find the support you need to be successful.

JJM  By success do you mean in terms of how much money you can make or by how many people attend your Portland shows?

DP  Yes to all of that. In New Orleans, the tourists are the people who support the arts. While the club you play in may be packed, they are mostly just packed with tourists. In Portland, I am playing in clubs that are packed with people who are coming to the show because they like jazz.

MD  Yes, they are even coming out after work on a Thursday night to hear this music.

JJM  Given the economic challenges posed by the recording business of today, what is the next logical step for you guys?

MD  The next logical step is to make a record and then do some traveling. It seems like going on the road is how you sell recordings now.

DP  Yes. You have to be on the road.

MD  Especially for local bands. There are very few who record for major labels anymore, but you can self-record, duplicate the CD on your own, and then tour in support of it.

JJM  Are you at the stage of making a disc now?

DP We are going to record the CD, but I don’t know if we are going to release it. We will shop it around and see what happens.

JJM  If I were an A&R guy for a label like Blue Note or Verve, why would I sign you?

DP  Here is the thing; even though I criticize modern music, there is a lot about it that I like and can appreciate. For example, I am not a big fan of Usher, but I can see he takes great pride in his music, and he knows where he gets it from. He knows every Michael Jackson song and can dance exactly like him, but even though he plays in that tradition, he doesn’t sound like him. He knows what he is aiming for and works within that framework.

I play music in the tradition of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and while I may change their music, the change is going to come from within that tradition — I will call upon the same drive they did to grow the music. That is what I want to do right now, and I want to make jazz accessible for young people. I want jazz to not only sound good, but I want it to look cool as well. I want it to be attractive, sexy, and I want kids to like it. I want five-year-olds to look at me and say they want to be like me when they grow up. I even want middle school kids with shitty attitudes to like it too. Nobody seems to be doing that now, and maybe I won’t end up being the “Usher of Jazz,” but I would damn sure like to try. That is the reason I came to Portland — to play my horn. I wouldn’t even be here if not for that. Playing my horn is the reason I am alive, and it is scary for me to think about doing something else.

JJM  Do you have anyone you would like to thank who may have been especially helpful during your post-Katrina experiences, or perhaps there is a life lesson in this you want to share?

MD  So many people helped me throughout this transition, and while I spent a lot of time writing letters of thanks to people, there were many others I never got to thank. While we were driving through Virginia, I had car trouble in a small town. My car was in really bad shape, and I was concerned that I would have to put a lot of money into fixing it. I dropped it off at a muffler shop there and the mechanic told me that he could fix it. My girlfriend and I spent some time walking around the town, and when we came back to get the car, I asked the mechanic what the charge would be. When he found out we were there because of Katrina, he told us not to worry about the charge because we obviously had other things to worry about. I got his card and I swore I would write him a letter, but I never got around to thanking him. But I would like to thank him, because that was tough. It was the first outreach that we got from a stranger after Katrina, and it was really wonderful to feel that kind of support.

JJM  It was important for those of us who didn’t have their lives changed by Katrina to feel like we could help in some way. We wrote checks and participated in a kind of impersonal assistance, and I think what this Virginia auto mechanic did for you was something a lot of us wanted to do.

DP  So many people have helped me since I left New Orleans. I am not a very patriotic person, but there have been times throughout this experience where I was left feeling that America is not such a bad place after all. The funny thing about this is that you meet so many people along the way, and you still meet people who you know are assholes, but when they find out I am from New Orleans, they do something for me — even if it is an asshole-ish kind of way!

JJM  We started this interview almost two hours ago now, and it began with the question, “Who was your childhood hero?” Devin, you talked about your mom being yours, and Mark, your uncle was your hero. The question I have now is, who is your post-Katrina hero? Or, if not a hero, is there someone you truly admire for their courage in facing this?

DP  I am not saying I am my own hero, but I have so much more confidence in myself as a result of this experience. I am not afraid anymore — I am doing things now like talking on the phone with executives at Nike and Adidas, and I was never doing anything like that before. But I am doing this because I have to survive, and, I am lucky because it is what I want to do, know what I mean?

MD  I am continually impressed by the group we have put together here in Portland with Devin as the leader — especially the four of us who are from New Orleans. I have great respect for our group, and I think it is amazing what we are doing. We weren’t playing in this unit when we were down there, but we quickly found a common ground here and are making some really great music. This is a position I wasn’t in while living in New Orleans, and I am being pushed in so many different ways here — my drumming is just growing and growing, and playing in this group is forcing me to listen to different music, and practice differently.

JJM  So, the experience of living through Katrina and forcing these changes on you has accelerated your growth…

DP  No doubt, and in a lot of different ways. Now, when I sit down to practice for an hour, I know how important that hour is, and I am not messing around because I feel I have to get something done in that time.

Something I want to mention concerning one of the best things about my coming to Portland is that I am not on a grind here like I was in New Orleans. There, I was playing different engagements with different people, but here, when I am not working, I have the means to sit inside of my house and figure out how to make my band sound the way I want, or have it go in any direction I want it to. I can focus on that, and that is the only thing I have to focus on. That is a great thing, and it is something you can’t really do in a lot of places. I am working really hard, constantly feeling like I need to go home and write more music, because I am working toward a goal that I can now see. You can’t beat that feeling.

JJM  It sounds as if you guys feel you have very clearly evolved from the musicians you were before Katrina. Your personal lives have also evolved. How do you imagine the city of New Orleans evolving as a result of this?

DP  On the one hand, I feel that it is possible for New Orleans to return to what it was culturally. Maybe all the other things around it will be different — maybe it will be like Las Vegas or Disney World, or maybe it will be mostly white — but it won’t stop swinging, because jazz is over one hundred years old. So, New Orleans culturally will be back, I just hope I will be around to be a part of it.

MD  I think it will come back too. The culture there is so strong and real. The city will need time to heal, of course, and there will always be a scar, but it will be back. It will probably change at a pace New Orleans is accustomed to, which is pretty slow, even when extreme things happen.

JJM  Given the complexities of rebuilding this city, do you think the rest of the country is going to have the patience required for its renewal?

MD   I have a feeling that the rest of the country will forget about New Orleans in five years, and won’t even worry about it. The city will be left on its own to return to the way it was. In a way, New Orleans became the city it was because it was left alone in an isolated part of the country. I don’t think the country necessarily had an idea of what New Orleans was or what its culture meant to us, and I don’t think people are particularly interested in it. A small group of jazz musicians and people who appreciate its history may have understood the city’s importance, but outside of them, I don’t think there is any great interest in the city around the rest of the country.

DP  I think it can be what it was before culturally, but socially and politically, that is uncertain. From what I can tell, we don’t have very good politicians with an ability to deal with this. I don’t know how hard that job is, but I am sure it is a lot harder than playing a tune, you know?

 

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Photo by Alexey Sergeev

 

 

 

 

West side of Canal Street near South Rampart Street

 

April 30, 2006

 

Canal Street Blues

 

by Dr. Michael White

 

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This interview took place on February 7, 2006 (with minor revisions in August, 2006)

 

 

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our conversation on the history of New Orleans with Gary Giddins