Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Orleans in 1958

One tired, old flugelhorn player. That's how I felt after a job.

My previous blog painted a picture of New Orleans that doesn’t exist anymore.  I alluded to the fact that New Orleans in 1958 was much different than the New Orleans I experienced at a Super Bowl weekend many years later. And the New Orleans today has evidently morphed into something I wouldn’t even recognize.

After my blog hit, I received an email from Rick Tegeler, a Canadian buddy, who told me that he and his wife had just spent his birthday in New Orleans and they wouldn’t even go into the French Quarter. Evidently it was a mess with teenagers drunk in the streets, rock and rap blaring and any vestige of the “Old New Orleans” with its traditional jazz flavor long gone.

The government money given to anyone who claimed a loss due to the flood, whether valid or phony, was spent on cars and TV sets with very little rehab. I see no reason to visit New Orleans again. Fortunately, I have good memories of the way it was.

Blowing my brains out at Big Al's (long ago
I completed my Military Police training at Fort Gordon in Georgia back in 1958.  When we were released to go back to civilian life, we were given a choice of a flight home or the equivalent amount of cash to find our own way home.

My buddy Steve Carmichael and I took the cash and planned to hitch-hike down to Florida and New Orleans and then across the country via the southern route.  He and I had developed an interesting pattern of randomly picking southern towns on a map and hitch-hiking to them on our weekend leaves. We were stationed in Georgia, so it was easy to visit interesting southern towns.  We ate a lot of grits and experienced southern hospitality first hand.

I have to interject that Steve and I remain close friends to this day and when we returned from the army I introduced him to his wonderful wife Phyllis. I recently joined them to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Both are wonderful friends.

Hitch-hiking back in the fifties was normal, especially for military guys. We were told to wear our army dress shoes with our civvies, because people would give you a ride if you were military. It worked. We traveled from Georgia to California with no problems, except one drunk driver, one driver with no brakes and a couple of fruits, who could tell by our demeanor that they were better off in the closet.

We hit New Orleans hard. Steve and I weren’t “drinkers,” but in the spirit of Dixieland we pulled a cork or two and experienced the most complete absorption of audible jazz imaginable.  We hit one club after another and, as I’ve said before, the streets were alive with jazz. Every club had a great band. No rock. No rap crap. Not even modern jazz. Just the good old traditional New Orleans-style jazz.

We got word that there was a great trumpet player playing at a small club in the French Quarter, so naturally I had to hear this guy. And he was great. With the exception of Raphael Mendez, this guy was the best trumpet player I had ever heard. He was a big guy with a beard and a raspy voice. I think he owned the club, which wasn’t very large, and the night I was there it wasn’t even full of people. No one knew much about this horn player until later when Al Hirt finally became famous and got the credit he deserved.

Years later another friend, Dick Whitaker, was in the club with Al Hirt and they both called me at home. Unfortunately I was out playing in a club myself and my wife took the message from Al Hirt. Since I couldn’t talk to him in person, Al signed an album to me as his “favorite trumpet player,” something only Whitaker could talk him into writing. Al Hirt didn’t know me from Adam. My buddy Whitaker can sell pimples to teenagers.

I’ve heard that Al Hirt would sometimes be called to fill in for a first chair trumpet player with major symphony orchestras in an emergency.  He was that good and that versatile. Jazz is totally different than classical music, although players with a classical background can do quite well in jazz; Wynton Marsallis is a good example.

Al’s good friend, Pete Fountain, had a club and was playing just down the street from Al’s place.  He too had yet to be discovered. Can you imagine being able to walk from one small club to another to hear both of these great musicians?

Nobody knew either one of these guys back then. I was told that they were partners in an extermination business.  Most musicians have day jobs. Music is a tough way to make a living.  But Al Hirt and Pete Fountain both went on to fame and fortune and both were excellent musicians.

That was my New Orleans then.  I also seem to remember falling in love with a beautiful dancer on Bourbon Street, but that will have to wait until my next blog.

*   *   *
* The entire New Orleans series will be found in the archives under “When I Was a Kid"


  1. idont' know how these things work, as an old bagger, "I don't know much about anything". But here goes.

    Don't sell N.O. short. Not too long ago I saw an hour special where the guy who plays the part of House, on the T.V. program of the same name, took an auto trip there. He went alone and made several stops along the way to jam with groups he had heared of. Some were good and some not so good, but he seemed to find something of value at each stop. When he reached the big city, he did a session with the best known of the blues world who were there or came because they were invited ahead of time. I know you would have enjoyed that evening and you would have fit right in.
    The same old buildings and old smells were not, but there was no need for them. Real people who have lived there music and could express there understanding in a very special way, were there to create a new reality grounded in the best sounds of the past. What I heard and saw in that program was an aspect of the Ralph I have come to know. The magic is still there, but you have to bring it, and not fall into the trap of looking for it in the falce face of sin city. Yes, you whould have fit right in.
    El joe

  2. Thanks, Joe.

    Good comment and somewhat encouraging. Maybe the echos of King Oliver's band still float down Bourbon street after the noise and celebrations fade away.

    You always had the soul of a musician, Mi Amigo.

  3. 1st Ralph Chapter 1 was great! Looking forward to the rest of the book!

    Where was the photo taken with you in the sport coat and tie blowing your horn?

  4. Ed - I think it was either Big Al's Gas House or the Cameo Club, but I can't remember. I was playing quite a bit back in those days. The trombone player and I also played that style of music at the Red Garter in San Francisco.

    I changed the blog and put the entire article on the first page, because some people don't click on the "read more" link to go to page 2, so they stop reading at the photo, from what I hear.

  5. I am looking forward to Chapter 2!

  6. Ed - This blog was #2. The next one will be the third in my "mini" series on New Orleans. My later visit was for a Super Bowl and it was much different and wasn't "jazz oriented."

  7. You are absolutely correct, Ralph. I read #1 without realizing there was more to come. Keep dumping this good stuff on us!