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

February 7th, 2006

 

Up From New Orleans

Life Before, During and After Katrina

A conversation with transplanted New Orleans musicians Devin Phillips and Mark DiFlorio

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Photo by Alexey Sergeev

Pirates Alley, New Orleans

February, 2006

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“I’m always wondering,” Louis Armstrong wrote in 1966, “if it would have been best in my life if I’d stayed like I was in New Orleans, having a ball.”

In 1922, Armstrong left his city of New Orleans by choice, boarding a Chicago-bound train in his long underwear, carrying a “little” suitcase with a “few” clothes in it, his cornet, and a trout sandwich packed by mother Mayann.

In late August of 2005, an unimaginable number of New Orleans residents in the path of an oncoming Hurricane Katrina were left with little choice but to flee the city. One can only assume that few had the luxury of leisurely packing a suitcase, let alone a trout sandwich. They rode in cars and vans and busses, getting as far from the wind and rain as possible. Their intent may have been to stay in a roadside hotel for a night or two — maybe a week at the most. Many who have lived through hurricanes before chose to stay. Many others couldn’t leave and paid an enormous price in damage to life, property and spirit.

Jazz musicians Devin Phillips and Mark DiFlorio were two New Orleans citizens who fled by choice, but they assumed that when they returned, the clubs they played in would be whole, and the residents and tourists they played for would reappear.

Nature didn’t exactly cooperate, and post-Katrina New Orleans became a city to escape from — perhaps even permanently. But where do you go when you are forced to flee, when there is precious little time to gather family and friends and pack a trout sandwich?

In the case of Phillips and DiFlorio, where do you go when your music — perfectly suited to the culture of New Orleans — must play on?

Across the country and around the world, sympathetic citizens transmitted cash and prayers in an effort to assist directly-impacted victims, as well as to salve their own Katrina-inflicted wounds. Children collected money in their classrooms, extended family members added beds to their homes, and entire cities in nearby states opened their arenas and government facilities.

In Portland, Oregon — a city with seemingly nothing in common with New Orleans — local businesses, including the entrepreneurs responsible for the upstart Portland Jazz Festival, offered displaced jazz musicians a place to temporarily live and play while recovering from the effects of the storm. Its program offered airfare, temporary housing, and studio time, which spoke to the needs of Phillips and DiFlorio, who called it “…almost too good to be true.”

On their own, Phillips and DiFlorio chose to take advantage of the Festival group’s offer and traveled to Portland, where they hooked up and soon discovered a musically-engaged community excited about the music they carried from New Orleans. They also found themselves in a potentially rewarding climate in which to nurture their emerging talents. Now, twelve months after Katrina uprooted their New Orleans lives, Phillips and DiFlorio are flourishing as independent musicians in Portland, and play together in a quartet Phillips fronts called New Orleans Straight Ahead. Their presence, meanwhile, has contributed to widening the area’s already respectable appreciation for the music New Orleans made famous.

While it is too soon in their lives for Phillips and DiFlorio to reflect on leaving New Orleans as a sixty-five-year-old Louis Armstrong did in 1966, it is not too early for them to share their fascinating experiences.

In February of 2006, Phillips, a gifted saxophonist and clarinetist, and DiFlorio, a personable and polished drummer, met with the publisher in the offices of Jerry Jazz Musician. In the resulting conversation, “Up From New Orleans,” the men reveal their pre-Katrina lives, their personal experiences during the storm, and the difficult circumstances that led to their decisions to travel to Portland — a city they now consider their home.

 

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Mark DiFlorio and Devin Phillips

Portland, Oregon, August, 2006

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Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

by Ellis Marsalis

 

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Chapter One

Before Katrina: Life in New Orleans

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JJM  I’d like to start by asking each of you who your childhood heroes were?

DP  My mom was a single mom, and she had to be my mom and my dad, so I have to say she was my hero. I remember one experience from when I was about four years old that really made her seem bigger than life to me. I watched her cutting the grass and went outside to tell her that, since she is a woman, she couldn’t do that job. But she responded by telling me that she was a woman and a man. I didn’t understand what she meant by that — she was a man and a woman? So I was confused for a long time. Of course now I dig what she meant, and that is why she is my hero. She had to play the role of man and woman to me.

JJM  Where does she live now?

DP  She remarried, and after Katrina she and her husband relocated to Texas.

JJM Mark, who was your childhood hero?

MD  My father’s youngest brother Dennis was my hero. I remember always being very excited when I was around him because he made me feel so good. He would make me laugh and it seemed like we always had fun together. I also remember being impressed by how he handled himself — there was just something about him that fascinated me.

JJM  Was he a musician?

MD  Yes, he was. He was actually the person who introduced me to the drum set a little later in my life.

JJM  Devin, I understand you are originally from New Orleans. Where are you from, Mark?

MD  Philadelphia.

JJM  When did you move to New Orleans?

MD  I moved there in 1993.

JJM  Why did you move there?

MD  I moved there to learn to play jazz music. I had been a rock-and-roll drummer from my middle teens, and became aware of jazz drumming while I was in college in Pennsylvania, where I started listening to jazz and reading about it. Then, a couple of years later, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to join him for a trip to New Orleans for “Jazz Fest,” ’92. Since I was basically living on my buddy’s floor at the time, just playing music all the time, I decided to take the train with him there. I wound up having a great time, and when some musician friends of mine later suggested we move to New Orleans, I decided to do so.

JJM  Did you have an instant appreciation for the city?

MD  I think so. I really hadn’t been to too many places outside of Philadelphia and college, so the trip to New Orleans was the first big trip that I made on my own. New Orleans presented me with a place to experience freedom and adventure, and there wasn’t any doubt that I wanted to play music after I got there. Actually, prior to moving there, I was trying to get into Berklee in Boston, while my friends were telling me to move to New Orleans. So, when I didn’t get into Berklee, I decided to head to New Orleans.

JJM  Did you get gigs right away after you arrived?

MD  No. I was playing some rock-and-roll, but I could barely play the drums in 1993.

JJM  Devin, what were you doing in 1993?

DP  I was twelve years old, and probably in the seventh grade. I had just started playing jazz and was beginning to learn about people like Charlie Parker. Being from New Orleans, I always knew who Louis Armstrong was, and the music of Duke Ellington, B. B. King, and Frank Sinatra was always on in my house, but it was just a sound I was used to hearing.

When I was twelve, I started playing jazz in this outreach program that came out to all the schools. It was about this time when my mother started giving me a little bit of freedom, and I began to have more friends around the city, learning a few things about street playing. While I wasn’t fully involved in it or anything, I was getting exposed to it. This was about the time that I really started to recognize the culture of New Orleans music. Other people may grow up around a musician who could teach them about New Orleans culture, but that was not the case with me — I just kind of found it.

JJM  What neighborhood did you grow up in?

DP  In eastern New Orleans, about fifteen minutes from downtown, fifteen minutes from the Superdome. My high school was near the city itself.

JJM Do you feel that the city of New Orleans did a good job educating young local students about its role in the development of jazz music?

DP  No. Jazz isn’t appreciated very much there. Jazz can be a lot of different things, you know? It can be music that is played at somebody’s birthday party, or even at a funeral. There is always some form of jazz that is being played in New Orleans, and it seems as if everybody has a cousin or uncle who plays it. In that sense, everybody who grows up in New Orleans grows up with jazz. It is so much a part of the culture that you can’t see it — you may not even recognize it.

JJM  It is felt by some that New Orleans has done a terrible job in communicating and promoting the importance of jazz to the rest of the country. In fact, it has gotten to be that when the average person thinks of jazz that is played in New Orleans they think of guys in straw hats, and musicians like Al Hirt and Pete Fountain. So, New Orleans jazz went from being associated with people like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to Hirt and Fountain…

DP  Yes, but that happens in any kind of music — it is happening in rap music also. The Beatles did more of a number on jazz than Al Hirt did. I do like the Beatles too, you know…

JJM  Let’s talk about when you guys started finding work in New Orleans. Mark, how old are you now?

MD  I am thirty-five.

JJM  Ok, so you are ten years older than Devin.

MD  Yes. It’s funny, because in 1992 Devin and I were in the same place — we were both starting to learn about jazz, but I was twenty-three and he was twelve. When I got to New Orleans, I actually found work playing music right away, playing with some rock group at a private party. I also remember playing Nick’s Bar and Check Point Charlie’s with this great Dr. John-type band called Blood and Grits.

JJM  What would you make for a gig like that?

MD  Fifteen dollars or so. These were real low-end gigs I was playing. I also had a day job cooking at a bar.

JJM  What part of the city were these clubs in?

MD  Check Point Charlie’s was right on the edge of the French Quarter, which is where I played a lot. It was a dingy little bar that had lots of mostly rock music all the time.

DP  Yes, it was a crazy place.

MD  It was an all-night place!

JJM  Who was the premier local New Orleans drummer at that time?

MD  Johnny Vidacovich. When I moved to New Orleans, he was the guy who I looked to study with, although I don’t really remember how I got directed to him. It could be that someone recommended him to me, but I think he was the first New Orleans drummer that I saw.

JJM  Is he in New Orleans now?

MD  I think I heard he was back in New Orleans. I heard he went to Houston after Katrina, and that he was taken really good care of there. But his house was high enough so it wouldn’t have any flood damage, so he might be back there now.

JJM  Devin, did you see Vidacovich play much?

DP  Yes, of course. All the jazz musicians in New Orleans know each other. As I was growing up — especially around that twelve-year-old time we were talking about earlier — I did a lot of camps with Johnny Vidacovich and Tony Dagradi. . The same people in New Orleans teach everybody how to play, really. Most of us all had the same teachers.

JJM  Devin, what was your pinnacle musical experience in New Orleans?

DP  I don’t know if this was the pinnacle but it was probably the thing that pushed me into jazz. When I was twelve or thirteen, a guy named Jonathan Bloom did a thing called “Jazz Outreach,” where he went to all the schools and taught one jazz class per week. At the end of the year, they would combine all the kids from the middle schools and do a jazz fest. We practiced for this all year long. At the time, I hated the saxophone, because in New Orleans marching bands are really popular — especially in the black high schools. Marching bands are not exactly saxophone-friendly because they don’t really play marching songs, they play music that is played on the radio — like R&B songs. The best bands are the ones that play the loudest. It is tough to play the saxophone in a marching band, so, I hated the saxophone. Also, if you played the saxophone in a marching band, you had to march in the back of the band with the girls, away from all the brass. It was horrible!

But when I started playing jazz, the saxophone had a much more significant role and I appreciated it a lot more. So we practiced four songs, and at the end of the year, we put on a performance. Right before the performance, Wynton Marsalis came, which was an unbelievable experience for me. I was in love with his suit jacket, the way he talked, and all that stuff. I was like, “Wow, I love this man,” know what I mean? I wanted to be just like him. At that time I may have wanted to be like him, but as I have gotten older, I don’t necessarily want to be like him, but what he does inspires me. I may not like all his music, and he may not like all of mine, but I understand his vision. It makes me proud to be where I am from.

JJM  He certainly possesses a desire to communicate the importance of jazz in American history.

DP  Oh yes. And he wants jazz to be in the forefront. I was watching television the other day and there was an I-Pod commercial with him in it, and no jazz musician has an I-Pod commercial, know what I mean? But he wants jazz to be visible wherever you go. He pushes for jazz to be part of the Grammy’s, and I like that.

JJM What about you, Mark? What was your pinnacle moment as a musician in New Orleans?

MD  There are so many, I don’t know if there is really one. There is one thing that I do feel has a special importance. I ended up studying jazz at the University of New Orleans, and every spring semester they would put together a small combo — something they called the “Europe Combo” — and whoever got picked for that group would do a summer tour in Austria and Italy. The cats who were in the combo in previous years were players that I really looked up to — people who I held up high above me. For most of us in the school, this was a group we really wanted to be a part of. I remember auditioning for the combo and then going to check the combo list, and what a great thrill it was to discover that I had been picked for the Europe combo that year.

Besides being exciting, it was timely because it was at the point where I decided to learn to play jazz very seriously, and making this combo made it so I had no excuses for not playing and improving. It cleared the way in my life for me to spend time on my instrument and make great progress on it. The professor who ran the combo and who accompanied us on the trip was Harold Baptiste, who is a very profound, wise teacher. He was a fantastic influence on me.

JJM There is so much cultural history in New Orleans. How did its atmosphere and all the associated culture help inspire you musically?

DP  Seeing how the music in New Orleans is a living music, a living art form, is very inspiring. I am not saying anything bad about classical music, but jazz is nothing like classical music. When you are taught to play jazz, you learn that it is always changing, and that there is no set way you are supposed to learn. Something that fascinates me is the untrained players — those who can’t read music, for example — who are great musicians anyway. How does that happen? How are they like that? And the people who are trained and methodical about their music pushes my interest also.

A lot of playing goes on in New Orleans all the time, and your musical peers push you all the time. Sometimes your teachers may not be there to teach you, but others around you are. While I went to an art conservatory for high school, I didn’t go to a university or have formal training in order to learn how to play jazz. I am not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing, but people in New Orleans learn how to play jazz on the bandstand. You learn while you are performing on the stage, so the art is alive and growing. If you don’t sound bad, you don’t lose your job…

JJM  Yes, there are those who say that jazz artists are all sounding as if they come out of the same conservatory, taught by the same teacher, but what you are saying is that the jazz musicians of New Orleans learn through experience, and through what the city offers…

DP  That is true, yes, and the thing that makes musicians of New Orleans better is the city’s culture, but more so is how the musicians help each other out, and how they interact with each other. New Orleans is a breeding ground for musicians — there are ten cats in New Orleans who are just as good or better than me. But the downside about New Orleans is that while it breeds musicians, it doesn’t do a good job of supporting them. Musicians can’t thrive there, that is why Wynton isn’t there, that is why Branford isn’t there, Harry Connick Jr……

JJM Who does thrive there?

DP  Various people for various reasons…

JJM  We all know about the Aaron Neville’s and the Dr. John’s and those kinds of musicians, but have jazz musicians thrived in New Orleans despite the reduced demand for jazz music?

MD  Ellis Marsalis thrives there, and that probably has a lot to do with the fame of his sons. I remember Ellis saying that before his sons were famous he wasn’t selling-out weekends.

DP  I don’t think he thrives, I think he just sustains the music and keeps it afloat so people can enjoy it, know what I mean? There are so many different types of jazz, one of which is that played by Ellis Marsalis, which is great. Although I haven’t ever learned from him personally, he is like a mentor because I have watched him my entire life. Now, on other nights I may decide I would like to go see Kermit Ruffin, but his show is entirely different from Ellis Marsalis’ show. They are two very different artists so it is hard to compare the them, and they have each thrived in New Orleans for different reasons.

MD  Another musician who thrives there is the bassist James Singleton, who has been a big influence on me. Like you were saying, Devin, he thrives for different reasons than Ellis Marsalis. A great sideman like Singleton may thrive as a result of his versatility in the styles he plays. James may do a recording for a traditional jazz session during the day, then he might go play a convention center gig at night, and the next day he may put a suit on and play standards at an uptown gig, and afterwards go downtown and play a totally improvised set with an avant-garde ensemble made up of a pedal steel player, cello, and bass at another. He may play three different types of gigs a day, and do that four times a week.

DP  I find New Orleans musicians to be more versatile than other musicians because they play so many different styles. I am not speaking for myself, just overall.

MD That sort of versatility is a survival instinct, and my teachers taught me this. When I was studying with Johnny Vidakovich, one of the first things he taught me was that in order to learn how to play, I needed to play every gig I was offered — to never turn down a gig. So when I started playing in New Orleans, I played every gig. I was playing Cajun dance gigs out in the country one weekend, and the next I may be in a tuxedo playing a very conventional gig. Or, I may play a blues gig on Bourbon Street during the day and an avant-garde gig at a club at night. That was a great lesson for surviving and cultivating this versatility. Now, I have to say in the end that it wasn’t the healthiest thing for me.

JJM  Why not?

MD  Because I developed this habit of never refusing to play a gig, and I wound up playing in a handful of them that I wish I wasn’t a part of. I also started feeling incredibly overworked, but I couldn’t get out of the habit of saying “No” when I got the call. It was all part of this survival instinct. I would tell myself that since I didn’t have a gig that night, and since someone wanted me, I should go out and play with them.

JJM  Were you guys both full-time musicians in New Orleans?

DP   Other than working at Foot Locker when I was in the tenth grade, I have never done anything besides play music.

JJM  So, you are making it as musicians?

DP  Well, if you want to call what I am doing “making it,” then yes, I am making it. Now that I am away from New Orleans, I have realized something that I was not able to see while living and playing there, and what I am about to say may come across as sounding arrogant or conceited, but anyone who knows me knows that I am not either of those things. Some things are either appreciated or they aren’t, and I now know for a solid fact that I was not appreciated in New Orleans.

JJM  Why not?

DP  It could be my fault or someone else’s, but I guess I would like to take another shot at it when we have our city back. But I do know that I wasn’t appreciated. This is hard for a native son of New Orleans to say, but since I have come to Portland — while I still have to work very hard, which everybody should have to do — I see a more promising future here for myself than I saw in New Orleans, and that realization hurts me. New Orleans is a breeding ground for musicians — they come from all over the world to live and work there — however, it is not a place that does a good job of supporting the music and its musicians.

JJM  Before we begin talking about Katrina, is there anything either of you want to add?

DP  Yes. I want to talk about my background in New Orleans just a little more. When I talked about playing in a marching band, besides being taught at an arts conservatory, a lot of my training came from playing in brass bands, and that is a big part of the New Orleans region. It has changed a lot over the years because now brass bands play mainstream music that is played on the radio, whereas their grandfathers played parade music. But no matter what era you are from, playing in a brass band is a very important part of being a horn player from New Orleans. It is a famous tradition, and every important horn player has done it — beginning with Danny Barker. Even though I never met him, I feel like I am a part of this tradition. So the brass band is where I come from, and it is where I learned how to play jazz.

JJM  I am sure you can’t help but feel connected to the Danny Barker’s, the Buddy Bolden’s, the Louis Armstrong’s…

DP  They are like our family.

MD  Yes, they are like family, and we are a part of a musical lineage. I also want to reiterate what Devin said, that jazz is alive in New Orleans. It is living in that city, and there are probably six to ten clubs in the Frenchmen area alone…

DP  Yes, it is alive there.

MD  There were times when I had a gig at one of the clubs, and at the same time I knew about fifteen other guys playing in the other clubs of the area. So, after we set up we would go around and say hello to each other before we started, talking about who was playing where and with whom. On our breaks we would go over to those other clubs to check them out, and often sit in with them. I may be on a gig at Café Brazil and then head over to another club on my break. There was also this great street scene that went along with this, where people who loved the music would hang out in front of the clubs — so there was noise and festivities and all this wonderful interaction that shapes the night and shapes the music being created during the gigs. The New Orleans scene ends up being this holistic, living organism.

JJM  You make it sound as if it were a modern day 52nd Street scene…

DP  I was about to say that also! The 52nd Street of the forties and fifties is the closest thing I can think of to compare it to.

MD  That’s right, and I have never seen it like that anywhere else.

JJM  I have lived in the northwest for the last thirty years and have only visited New Orleans a couple of times, so I can’t say I know the city much at all. However, given my interests, the kind of scene you describe should have been marketed to someone like me.

DP  When you come into New Orleans, jazz is not likely what you will be seeing. As a tourist, you will probably come down Bourbon Street, where there will be eight rock bands, two reggae bands, six blues bands and a place called Maison Bourbon, the only club that features any form of jazz. I don’t really want to comment on what kind of jazz it is because it depends on who is playing, but there is usually some form of jazz in there, and maybe two other places of very low quality have jazz music inside. Somebody once told me that jazz was invented in New Orleans, but if you walk down Bourbon Street you will have a hard time finding it, know what I mean? There is not one single place on Bourbon Street that features modern jazz, and if a musician sounds the least bit modern, he won’t be working there for very long.

JJM  Is Dixieland the primary type of jazz music played?

MD  Rock cover bands are mostly what you hear there now.

JJM  So there aren’t even Dixieland jazz bands?

DP  Very few.

MD  One, maybe.

JJM   I suppose the decisions leading to what kind of music gets played in the clubs are market driven, just like anything else…

MD  There were some quality blues clubs at one time, but they aren’t there anymore. One of the blues clubs that featured the blind guitarist Brian Lee is now a daiquiri shop.

DP  I hear great stories about a place called the Playboy Club on Bourbon Street. Ellis Marsalis played on the first floor, and some other people played on the second and third floors, and when I hear that, I wish that was the time I was alive. Why am I here right now? Not that I don’t love my life now, but why didn’t I live then?

MD Yes. I hear there was big money for people who were playing modern jazz at the time. They would make their rent every night because the cost of living was cheap at the time, and the gigs were paying good money.

I want to add to what Devin was saying about how a lot of cats are coming out of conservatories sounding well-trained. Being around New Orleans and playing there as much I did, I couldn’t help but realize that the city has such an oral tradition for jazz, and a musician discovers how to play there by getting up on stage, listening, getting pushed around, and being encouraged. It is a very real, human process in which to learn and advance. I came to find that some of the teachers from New Orleans taught that ethic. For me, coming from the east coast, that was a nice balance, and a new way for me to learn. I was comfortable with the standard classes I attended at the university, where I took notes, listened and asked questions, but I also had teachers who were into this New Orleans oral tradition — which is a huge part of what New Orleans has to offer musicians.

DP  I want to talk about something that is sort of off-color, but it goes back to how New Orleans doesn’t support jazz. My best friend plays the trumpet, and we were talking about how the city doesn’t support jazz very well. We were doing this gig every Sunday for a year-and-a-half or so, and one day I asked him, “What would you do if you walked into the gig and it was packed full of young black people?” He said that he would play butt-naked, and for free! He said that because he knew it wasn’t going to happen. Now, if my brother gets shot and we have a funeral, there will be a second-line band there, and that may be their entire exposure to jazz.  If you go into a class and say “Count Basie,” I don’t think people in the class will even know who he was.

JJM  How ridiculous is that?

DP  I don’t know, but it is a shame. It is not like that just in New Orleans — it is like that in other places as well — but we should be setting a standard in New Orleans for jazz education…

JJM  Yes, and not only because what jazz meant to New Orleans, but what it meant to America as well. It could be that the further we get away from the times in which artists like Basie, Armstrong and Ellington lived, people will begin having an appreciation for them.

DP  My friend Lee and I have a lot of heart-to-heart talks about that. Sometimes it is easy to get down because of how hard this work is, and I remember joking with him over the phone one night that if I put half the effort I was putting into jazz into rap instead, I would be a millionaire by now. I would probably have my Hummer outside, and we would probably have lots of women, acting crazy, drinking champagne. I don’t mean that realistically at all because I don’t want to rap — that is not what I was put here to do. But it can be discouraging at times because jazz is an art form we are trying to keep alive, and it is not an easy thing to do at all.

 

 

Chapter Two

Facing Katrina

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photo National Environmental Satellite

JJM  So, lets talk about the storm itself, and your personal experiences with it. I saw it approaching the Gulf Coast on the same satellite photos I am sure you guys did, but I was in the comfort of my Oregon home. What was going through your mind as Katrina approached, and when did you first begin to realize that you faced the likelihood of evacuation?

MD  Saturday, when one of my gigs got cancelled, which I was pretty pissed off about…

JJM  Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday, right?

DP  Yes, Monday.  By Saturday I was still thinking it would be more of an inconvenience than anything else. Hurricanes come through New Orleans a lot, and I have been living with them all of my life. But people my age hadn’t seen a Hurricane Betsy or anything like that, so my experience with hurricanes was that I would pack up my Play Station and an overnight bag and swim in a hotel pool. It was almost like a vacation. But I could tell that this storm was bad, so I left like I always do.

JJM  Where did you go?

DP  Shreveport, LA.

JJM  How did you get there?

DP  If I say so myself, this is a pretty amazing story. I decided to leave around noon on Saturday with two girls, one of whom was from Japan who had lived in New Orleans for about two years, and the other was from the Soviet Union, going to law school at Tulane. She had only been in New Orleans for about two weeks. There was another student from Tulane as well. The car we were in was running really hot, and after a while it just gave out — it was done. By this time I was a little pissed-off because I didn’t want to take this car in the first place. I don’t always take pressure the best way, and I was getting pretty anxious because by this time it was pretty obvious it was going to be a tough hurricane, but the people I was with didn’t have any worries — they think it is like a field trip, know what I mean? So I am getting more and more frustrated, because the car isn’t working good, and I am really mad at the guy who wanted to take this car even though I didn’t.

So the car is broken down and we are standing on the side of the road. It is pitch black out, and even though there are a lot of cars passing, nobody stops for us until a bald-headed, short white guy who looked like the Unabomber pulls over to ask if we need help. We tell him that our car is all busted and that we could use some help. So, he tells us we need to get going because the storm is coming, and offers us a ride in the van. Already I am asking myself whether I really want to ride with this guy. Then, he pulls back and opens up the back of his van — there are no seats in it, and it is filled with two-by-four’s, buckets, saws, and a bunch of equipment. Not only that, the floor is completely covered in dry dog food, and one of the smelliest dogs ever is back there as well. So now I am really thinking this is a bad idea, because this guy looks like he has all the equipment to tie us up and torture us in the back of his car! I told the others that I don’t want to go with this guy, but we don’t have a lot of options. I could call my dad to come get us, but it would take him eight hours to drive here, so it was agreed that we had to ride with this guy, but once we get into his van it will be too late to call our parents or anyone else for help. Now, I am 6’3″, 200 pounds, but I was afraid of the guy driving the van. I couldn’t go to sleep because of him, and because of how everything was so hectic and stressful — and I had yet to think about how the city could be destroyed! By the time we got to Shreveport, we went right to sleep, and we woke up the next day to learn about how rough things were in New Orleans. The trip was not any fun at all, and when the levees broke and everything else happened, it made it worse and worse.

JJM  Where was your mother when all this was going on?

DP  They evacuated to Baton Rouge first.

JJM  Did they have their own transportation?

DP  Yes. She and my stepfather evacuated together, and all my brothers and sisters did as well. Most all my family evacuated, but I had an uncle who stayed, who was rescued a few days later by helicopter.

JJM What about you, Mark? What was your experience?

MD  I don’t have a television, so I don’t always keep up on the news. It wasn’t until Friday night before I was able to see the storm coming on television, and it was about as wide as the state at that time. I had stayed for a couple of hurricanes that they recommended evacuation in the past, where they cut off the highways and New Orleans became a ghost town, but nothing ever happened. So, until Katrina, in the ten years I lived in New Orleans, I had never left the city in the face of a hurricane. But, when I saw the size of the storm, I told myself that I was leaving tomorrow! I began calling people and found out that all my work had been cancelled. On Saturday morning my girlfriend Joanna and I decided to go to the gas station, where we waited in line for an hour-and-a-half. By this time, there was an incredible buzz in the city, and it dawned on me how real this situation was, that the shit was goin’ down. Before leaving on Saturday night, I went to my house to put everything up high and close my shutters. I lived on the second floor, and Joanna lived on the first floor in another part of town…

JJM  What neighborhood was this?

MD  I lived in mid-city, Banks and Jeff Davis, and Joanna lived uptown. I finished up at my house — the only thing I took was my cat — and then went to her house. She was working until midnight on Saturday, so I got everything off the floor, picked her up and split out of there. By this time they had already done the contra-flow — where only outbound traffic was allowed — so there was no traffic, and we were able to fly out of there. All we had with us were our cats, and we drove all the way to southwest Virginia, where her mother lives.

We figured we would be gone about three days, and thought this would just be a long ride. On Monday, the storm hit, but it passed and most everything seemed okay. I was even thinking about the gig I had on Wednesday, and I remember telling Joanna that while it was nice visiting with her mom, I had to get back to New Orleans because I was going to be working over the coming weekend. Then I heard some report about what could happen to the city as a result of the storm surge. Getting news was hard because Joanna’s mom didn’t have a television or computer, so the only news we were getting were the morning and evening National Public Radio news reports. In order to get online we had to go to the local library, where we were able to catch up on things for an hour at a time. So, on Tuesday morning, while I was in Laurel, Virgina, we heard this report that the levee broke, and we were just stunned.

JJM  Were both of your neighborhoods under water?

MD  Yes, my neighborhood had six-to-eight feet of water in it for a week.

DP  Mine was fine.

JJM  Where was your neighborhood, Devin?

DP  I lived in Lee Circle, about six blocks from the Superdome.

JJM  From my perspective, I saw a cloud about the size of the entire Gulf of Mexico moving toward Louisiana. All the meteorologists were predicting it would hit New Orleans — and if memory serves me were doing so three or four days before it actually hit. A significant part of the discussion among the scientists and television personalities was a reminder that New Orleans is a city under sea level, and a catastrophe was potentially in the making. So now I am thinking about the people of New Orleans — where the hell do they go? How do they all get out of town? Then there was video of people getting on busses, moving them out of the city or to the Superdome…

DP  Those busses should have just got on the interstate and kept on going…

JJM  It was clear that there were tons of people who didn’t have transportation and who were stuck in the city. I kept thinking about what kinds of accommodations were being made for people who wanted to leave but who had no way to get out…

DP  The Superdome…

MD  As far as I know, there wasn’t any kind of system that would take people out of the city. There was no way out.

DP  It was so crazy at the time. I could tell from seeing the size of the storm on television that this was going to be big. It was just so much bigger than any other storm I had seen come toward New Orleans before. I went to Wal-Mart just before I left town, and ran into some people I knew as acquaintances who said they were going to stay in town and ride the storm out. So, not everyone decided to leave. I often think about them, and wonder what may have happened to them. All they did was stay, because they had always stayed before…

MD  I believe it was Sunday when the mayor and maybe the governor announced the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. As far as I know, it was the first time in the history of New Orleans that a mandatory evacuation had been ordered. My personal opinion is that they didn’t announce this evacuation earlier because they wanted to see where the storm was headed — once they tell people to leave, it is the government’s burden to take care of those who had no transportation, which was a lot of people. But when they were sure the storm was going to hit New Orleans, they saw the potential for it to sink the city, and were then obligated to get people out, although there was no realistic plan for an evacuation.

DP  Even a bad plan is better than no plan. At least it would have shown an effort was being made to do something.

JJM  Devin, you evacutated to Shreveport. Did you feel some impact from the storm up there?

DP  No. It was just hot and dry.

MD  Shreveport is north and west, and the storm went east. We actually got hit with rain from the hurricane in Virginia four days later.

JJM  My guess is that you guys watched much of the same news coverage of the storm’s aftermath as me. I was furious by the lack of basic services, by the outbreak of crime, and by the sadness and heartbreak caused by what appeared to be poor governmental response. How much anger did you guys have about what you were seeing?

DP   I wasn’t angry, but I was really confused, know what I mean? I just didn’t know what was going on. It was surreal, as if it weren’t even happening. It is hard to explain.

MD  Yes, I was confused too, that was my first reaction. Then I was sad, then I was depressed, but I don’t think I was surprised that any of it was happening. Once the levee broke I knew that the city wasn’t prepared to handle the consequences of it.

DP  Do you remember when you were young, and you would think you were invincible? It is hard to appreciate the intensity of a storm like this, because you don’t have the experience. My parents saw Hurricanes Betsy and Camille, so they could understand this storm a little better than me, and they got angrier than I did. It’s funny because when I was a little kid, out of stupidity I wished that a hurricane would come so I could see what it would be like. I couldn’t understand Hurricane Betsy because all I had seen of the storm was what was shown in old black and white films, where stuff would be flying all around. Now, I watch television and I see my high school, and I see my best friend’s neighborhood where I hung out every day, and that entire neighborhood is gone. It was a place I went to every day, where all the old ladies I knew would say hello and ask about me. That is what I am familiar with, and it is all gone, so the pain of a devastating hurricane is now very real to me.

JJM  There seemed to be conflicting information coming from the local and national authorities. President Bush wanted to paint a bright picture about how well the government was responding, while the mayor, on the other hand, was preparing everyone for horrendous stuff  — at one point the headline in the Portland paper read something to the affect of “25,000 Body Bags Ordered.” That was horrific and unimaginable. I didn’t know what to believe. What was going on in your minds at that time concerning the potential for personal loss and tragedy?

DP  At that time it wasn’t as real to me as it is now. It is like getting in a fist fight, and the punches don’t hurt right away, but after you fight, you can feel the pain. Now, I get depressed about it every day, more than I did while it first happened, because it was different. It was like speculating about what you lost before you even knew what was lost, but when you discover what you lost and see what you are not going to get back, it is tough. This is the saddest time for me, probably more so than before, because I now realize my life is going to be up and down. Even though I am satisfied with my life, it is never going to be the same again, know what I mean? It’s different. It’s like when the fist fight is over, you are angry and jump back into the fight some more, but after you step away from it, you get a chance to look at what the fight took away from you, what you gained from it, and what you should have done different.

JJM  The government’s response to the crisis made me pretty angry.  Seeing people without a way out of the city or off their own rooftops was quite a wake up call for me. The ineptitude and inaction exposed the absurdity of our national fantasy that we have adequately progressed as a society when it comes to values and race.  I found it incredibly disheartening…

MD  I felt pretty disconnected from that while I was watching it on television. Out of this situation I realized that I am a person with a lot of means — not that I am financially secure, because I am not — but, for whatever reason, I have always had just enough money to take care of myself, and I could get out New Orleans before Katrina hit. I had the means to see the storm coming, I had friends who encouraged me to leave, and I actually had a car and a place to go, so I left. I am sure a handful of people who stayed in the city wouldn’t have left even if they could, but mostly what I saw were people who just didn’t have a way to get out because they didn’t have the economic means to do so.

I wasn’t really shocked by what I saw. While watching it I was thinking that the rest of the country is now going to see a real poor part of the United States that they had never seen before — this was not Mardi Gras. But the poverty that was seen is what a large part of New Orleans is like — there is a lot of it in that city. You can’t even begin to explain how undereducated and poor New Orleans is. While there are a lot of problems with school systems all over the country, there is a huge problem with the schools in New Orleans, and because of the poverty, there is a tremendous amount of crime there. What was shown after Katrina was not the face of the city that usually gets marketed nationally, and now everyone was seeing it.

JJM  Again, the thing that was so amazing to me was the ineptitude of the response. Even though it was generally known that a category four or five storm could breech the levees, for whatever reason they didn’t prepare for the essential needs of the people who could be impacted by this.

DP  That is pretty obvious to me, and the thing I would like to know is, “Why?” You make a good point, but, why is it like that? Things don’t change that fast. The civil war seems like a long time ago to us — and it was a long time ago, but the South is still the South. Even though it is modernizing and changing, it is still reminiscent of what it was before.

When you saw those people on the roof, you saw the color that they were, but the issue isn’t that we left them on their roofs because they are black and we hate black people — that is ridiculous! The issue is why were they on their roof in the first place? Why is their education so shitty? Why are they living in those depressed neighborhoods where their sons and brothers are dying all the time in the first place?

Man, when I got to Portland, an alto sax player invited me to his house for dinner with his family, and before driving over there he apologized for the neighborhood he lived in — he said it was bad and that it was like a ghetto. I told him not to worry, that I am from New Orleans. So he brought me to his house and, man, I didn’t see any ghetto. It was nothing like the kinds of bad neighborhoods you see in New Orleans.

JJM  Did you guys go back to see your neighborhoods?

DP  Not before I came here.

MD  I did. Joanna and I went back as soon as we could, which was about six weeks after the storm. My zip code was closed up until about six weeks after. Hers was going to open but then Rita hit and a levee broke, so they closed it down for another week or two. Joanna was really itching to get back, so, as soon as it opened we drove back down.

JJM  So did you have reports from friends, telling you the status of your house?

DP  We could see it on the Internet.

MD I have a story I want to share about this. Joanna lived on Spruce Street, which is uptown off of Carollton. Her block was great, filled with some real classic New Orleans people. The guy across the street, Mr. Shaw, was an older man who grew up in the city and lived in his house with a couple of dogs. He was not going to leave his house for the storm, even if he could get out on his own. He always stayed during previous storms, and was going to stay for Katrina as well. His land line was working throughout the storm and after it passed, so Joanna called him a couple of times a day to make sure he was okay. The block got about three feet of water, but no water came into their homes because they are built about four feet off the ground. She called to tell him that she had food and water in her house that he was welcome to, but her keys were at another neighbor’s house, and to go over there and get the keys and then get the food and water. He couldn’t get the keys, but the National Guard broke into her house so he could get the food. While they were there they were evacuating people in boats in helicopters, but they weren’t taking animals. One night while we were watching the national news, there was video of a boat going down Spruce Street, and it stopped at Mr. Shaw’s house! The National Guard went up to the door and wanted to take Mr. Shaw but they wouldn’t take his dogs, so he started to cry, saying that he was tired and hungry and wanted to leave, but wouldn’t leave his dogs behind. It was a heartbreaking thing for us to watch.

JJM  How did the story end?

MD  Eventually they were able to take animals so he evacuated.

JJM  What about the status of your own places?

MD  We had seen that there was only three feet of water near Joanna’s house, so we were thinking her place would be fine. My landlord lived in Texas, and when I talked over the phone with him, he said he heard there was eight feet of water in the neighborhood, but since I was on the second floor about twenty feet off the ground, I knew there wouldn’t be water in my apartment, but I didn’t know what else I would be facing. Six weeks after the storm we drove into the city and went to my neighborhood first, and found it to be pretty much a ghost town — there was absolutely no one down there. By then much of the city had been cleaned up, so my street had tree brush lined up on both sides of it, and we could see the water lines on buildings, which were above my head.

I wasn’t able to get into the front door because the water swelled it shut, so I had to get a ladder and climb in through the top. The only damage inside was a little mold on the floor. When we went uptown to Joanna’s house — where we knew there was no flooding — we discovered her roof had blown off, and had actually been off for the entire six weeks we were away. She lost her ceiling in three of her rooms, and it basically fell in on everything inside. She lost about sixty percent of her stuff. So we spent the whole week cleaning out her apartment, trying to salvage what we could and storing it elsewhere.

 

 

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?

________________________

Photo by Alexey Sergeev

 

West side of Canal Street near South Rampart Street

April 30, 2006

Canal Street Blues

by Dr. Michael White

_______________________________

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

 

 

 

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