Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

“Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

-Albert Einstein


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"

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…

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Footprints in the Sand

When I was in the army, a bunch of my buddies and I decided to play a trick on a guy in our platoon. He was a very heavy sleeper, so we carefully lifted his bunk and carried it out of the barracks, down the steps and far out into the desert. When we were quite a distance from the barracks, we gently placed the bunk behind a sand dune.  When the poor soldier opened his eyes in the morning, he could see nothing but sand and sage brush.

He was panicked.  He had no idea where he was. He couldn’t see civilization and he couldn’t see the barracks; all he could see was a world of sand dunes. When his shock subsided and he began to explore, he was finally able to go over a hill and see the barracks off in the distance. When he finally got back he was full of questions.

The bewildered soldier began to ask the guys in our platoon, “What happened?  How did I get out there? Who put me out in the desert and why?” All logical questions.

This guy found his way home by following our footprints in the sand. He looked for evidence and clues. Logic played a role, but he wasn’t content to simply accept his plight, play in the sand and go on as though nothing mattered; in a sense, accepting his circumstances without question.

Every time I look down from a plane I see insects with headlights following each other on rivers of highway. I always wonder how many of them give a thought to how they got there, who put them there, and the big question… “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

There’s a popular expression I keep hearing; “It is what it is.”  That reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s statement that the universe exists and that’s all there is to it. But at the same time I can hear the haunting voice of Peggy Lee singing that old song, “Is That All There Is?” I think Russell’s conclusion is a cop out, but at least Peggy’s song implies curiosity.

I’m always suspicious of people who think they have all the answers, but I respect those who search, whether or not I agree with their conclusions.  What I don’t understand are those who lack the curiosity to read, study, think, explore or even “contemplate” the deeper questions of life.

Ultimately, the existential quandary may result in a “leap of faith,” a la Kierkegaard, but it doesn’t have to be a completely blind leap. There may be clues.

Obviously we will never have all the answers. And maybe our “answers” are wrong, but, as C. S. Lewis implied, some will be closer to the truth than others. So maybe we should at least think beyond our daily routine and look for footprints in the sand.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

New Year's Eve at Greenhorn Ranch

            For some reason I have forgotten how to fall asleep like a normal person. I haven’t gone to sleep before two to sometimes four in the morning for a week or so. And I can’t even sleep late. So here I sit at the computer trying to think of a subject for my blog. It’s not 4 a.m. yet, so I still have time. Maybe I’ll talk about New Year’s Eve at Greenhorn Ranch.

            We just passed New Year’s Day and the entrance into what the Mayans and other “seers” say is the year it all comes down - 2012. Of course there was talk of it ending in 1984, thanks to George Orwell, and then there was the dramatic transition into the 21st century and the Y2k scare, when all the world’s computers were supposed to foul up and commerce and the entire world would go into convulsions.

           Well, we’re still here.  So let’s see if the Mayans and the others were right this time.  But we still have that dingbat Ahmadinajad and his perpetual “rain dance” attempting to bring us the Twelfth Imam, who is scheduled to pop out of a gopher hole or something and bring us the end days.  All I know is that if we get another four years of our current administration, it may be over anyway.

            Naturally, here in the mountains we don’t worry about these trivialities.  We go down to the ranch for a beer and some stompin’ around to a country western band.  There’s nothing better than wearing Levis, drinking a beer and chomping on a dead pig.  I’ve included a couple of photos from this year’s New Year’s Celebration at the ranch.

            Poor Gayle. She likes to dance, but I don’t.  Maybe it’s because I always played in the band and never developed my dancing skills. More likely, it was playing music and watching the inebriated dancers falling in love for the night.  I sometimes felt that I was contributing to a breeding frenzy. 

I guess what really turned me off from dancing was watching dancers jumping and jerking around on the dance floor, as though they were victims of the affliction called “Saint Vitus Dance.” In medieval times, entire villages would suddenly become a huge throng of writhing bodies, dancing uncontrollably while foaming at the mouth. It was sometimes thought of as a form of mass hysteria. Actually, all they needed was a rock band to appear normal to us today.

            This was Gayle and my first year going to the ranch for New Years. This is a dude ranch, after all. You know…with horses, gunslingers, and spurs.  We had nothing else to do and they had an entire pig to eat, including the apple in its mouth. They smoked the poor sucker and it was black as coal.  But it was tasty, I’ll admit.  And the band wasn’t bad at all. A little loud and, since I wouldn’t dance when Gayle asked me, we left early. But we ate the hell out of that dead pig. I passed on the apple. You know…pig germs and all…

            This is a different lifestyle here at the Greenhorn Guest Ranch and I actually find it authentic and “basic” with no pretensions.  Life is too short for people to be less than real. So let’s have a beer, eat a pig, and enjoy friends and family.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What Came First, The Chicken or the Egg?

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Everyone passes that question off as a metaphor for something that is unanswerable or maybe as a way out of a dilemma.  But, really…what did come first?  Something had to come first.  Without an egg, you can’t have a chicken.  But without a chicken, you can’t have an egg. 

It’s too easy to pass this off and avoid the real question. So think about it.

Let’s take another one that has always baffled me.  Butterflies are beautiful insects, but they were not always so beautiful. Before they went through flight training, they were each just hanging from a twig as a chrysalis, apparently doing nothing much.  Like teenagers hanging around the mall.

The chrysalis is the old outer skin of a caterpillar that falls off revealing a hard skin called a chrysalis. The entire process from egg to pupae to butterfly is called metamorphosis.

Moth pupa is contained in a protective silk case called a cocoon. There are differences. The chrysalis is a butterfly pupa. A cocoon is a silk case that moths, and sometimes other insects, spin around the pupa. But all of that is beside the point.

What bothers me about the process is how it started. If the first caterpillar got screwed up and let his ambition to fly get in the way of his intricate plan of designing the process, he would never get off the runway.  But even more puzzling is how the darn caterpillar got on that leaf in the first place.

Then I’m baffled by spiders. A spider needs a web. Willy, the world’s first spider, had to eat, but he couldn’t catch a fly. In fact, he couldn’t catch anything. That is…until he had an epiphany.  Wrong word.  Epiphany implies insight obtained through a divine inspiration of sorts, and we have to get the concept of a Creator out of this scientific inquiry.  Let’s just say old Willy had an “ah-ha!” moment.

This spider had a great idea.  He would build a web to catch insects to eat. Fantastic. But wait…he would have to have the physical organ necessary to produce the material for a web and the knowledge of how to make a web.  And it had better work. 

But if his mommy and daddy spider starved to death before they knew junior’s secret of building a web, how did junior come into the world with the specific mission to hang over our bed and scare the hell out of my wife? 

All of this is very humbling.  I must be stupid, because I tend to think I’m smarter than a caterpillar, but the only way I can figure out how to fly is to buy a plane ticket.

It’s these kinds of things that make me wonder how any one of them could happen gradually over a long period of time.  Wouldn’t all of these skills have to work perfectly the first time they were tried?  Help me out. With all of our combined brain power, human beings should be smarter than an insect...or even a chicken.

If someone doesn’t enlighten me, I’ll just have to fall back on a very politically incorrect explanation. At this point in my ignorance, it’s the only one that makes sense.