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

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Friday, January 20, 2012

New Orleans

                New Orleans.” The mere mention of those words conjures up images in the minds of jazz lovers everywhere.  That’s where it all started.  Back in the days of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and those great jazz innovators jamming on Bourbon Street.

I walked down Bourbon Street back in the ‘50s and the street itself was blanketed in the sounds of traditional jazz. You could walk past one club after another and hear the music from each club transition into the music from the next club. Those were happy sounds and great jazz.

            Preservation Hall is where traditional jazz is played in the “traditional” style. Located in the French Quarter, the Hall is dedicated to the preservation of New Orleans style jazz. The owners “seeded” the band with several very old black musicians when I was there. This may be a ploy to give authenticity to the venue and the band itself, but it worked.

The musicians sat in chairs facing the audience and kicked off familiar melodies most people would recognize. It was a small combo of maybe eight musicians. With the exception of a few young “ringers” filling a couple of chairs, the rest of the musicians were very old and seemed to prefer blues and slow tempos. I remember one elderly clarinet player who never seemed to move. I began to wonder if he was actually still alive. I’m serious. I lost a bet when he blinked.

            When I was there in the ‘50s the sounds of authentic jazz could still be heard echoing throughout the French Quarter.  I don’t think it’s that way anymore. Once modern jazz and then “rock” and guitars with amplifiers moved in, the flavor changed. I was there a couple of decades later for a Super Bowl weekend and it had already begun to deteriorate. It was very disappointing.

            My “work area” or “office” at home is almost a memorial to New Orleans jazz. I have a small statue of Satchmo, a painting of the “Preservation Hall” jazz band, given to me by my daughter Shannon, an actual tile from the roof of one of the old buildings on Bourbon street with a painting of a jazz combo, given to me by my brother Tom, and an autographed photo of the great Louis Armstrong that Satchmo himself gave me when I was a kid.  I have T shirts, hats, paintings of many jazz greats, and even a photo or two of me playing in clubs myself “back in the day.”

            All this to say that I’m surrounded by memorabilia of New Orleans and the spirit of authentic American Jazz.  By the way, jazz is the only uniquely American art form. Jazz is America’s original and innovative contribution to the world. Like all art forms, music evolves.

When I think of New Orleans jazz, I’m not thinking about Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. And I’m certainly not thinking of the simplistic rock bands with screaming morons, jumping around on stage, ecstatic because they can play three chords on a guitar. I’m reflecting on those glorious days at the turn of the century when traditional jazz was born and incubated in New Orleans.

Set your imagination free for a minute. Picture a smoke-filled brothel where black musicians play the blues all night until the sun begins to peek through the shudders on dusty windows.  Think of a black and white scene from a film noir and picture a low fog hanging over a dark and wet street reflecting the moonlight. Picture steam rising from a manhole cover as a tired musician shuffles silently down Royal Street, past a gas lamp, his hat pulled low over his forehead, his dark overcoat collar turned up, and a beat-up leather trumpet case under his arm. Man…I love it. I wish I had been there. Not the brothel. Just playing jazz with those musicians.  I wish I had been at the bedside in New Orleans for the “Birth of the Blues.”

I think I’ll do a “mini series” of stories of my personal experiences in New Orleans starting on my next blog. It won’t be as colorful and exciting as New Orleans in the ‘20s, but it was still New Orleans. I’ll begin with my trip south after my discharge from the army and then I’ll describe a weekend I spent there a couple of decades later.

I traveled with a few 49ers and other friends to a Super Bowl in New Orleans many years after my first trip. That one stands out, because I came close to being locked in jail with a couple of my friends who actually were locked up.  A brawl at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street started that weekend off with a bang for a few of us.  Maybe I’ll just describe part of that trip, but I’ll start gently with my personal introduction to New Orleans as a teenage soldier in 1958.

Man, those were the days…


7 comments:

  1. Ralph, it always comes back to the 50's doesn't it. I'm looking forward to your sharing those N'wlins adventures.

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  2. Malcolm - You're right. I guess "I'm Lost in the '50s," like the Ronnie Milsap song by that title.

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  3. Ralph, you got that old churning and yearning going in my gut again. I have always wanted to go to New Orleans and hit all the clubs, saturating myself with Jazz, no sleep, no food, just Jazz. That is something that is definitely on my bucket list. Just wish I still played the Trombone.

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  4. Bob -
    I just got an email from good friend who just celebrated his birthday with his wife in N.O. I think our dreams of those great days of traditional jazz are over. He said it's terrible there now. You can't even walk around the French Quarter. They avoided that area. Nothing but drunk kids in the street, loud rock and rap...nothing like the New Orleans of old. After the flood, very little of the money for rehabilitation was used for that purpose. People made false claims and bought new cars and TVs. It's all over, Bro. It ain't New Orleans anymore. Let's try to remember it like it was...even when I was there in the '50s.

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    1. Ralph-
      That is sad to hear. You were fortunate to have gone to New Orleans when you did. Guess I'm stuck in the '50s also.
      I'm looking forward to reading more of your stories about your visit there.

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  5. Ralph, I am telling you your whole life story would be great but I will look forward to this! Now, don't leave out one important area - the ladies!! Ha Ha! Some parts are better left un-said.

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  6. You're trying to get me in trouble, Ed.

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