Up From New Orleans
Life Before, During and After Katrina
A conversation with transplanted New Orleans musicians Devin Phillips and Mark DiFlorio
Photo by Alexey Sergeev
Pirates Alley, New Orleans
“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.
Mark DiFlorio and Devin Phillips
Portland, Oregon, August, 2006
by Ellis Marsalis
Before Katrina: Life in New Orleans
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?
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.