When I had first arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday night at Celebration Hall, there were rumors about a second-line being held on the following Sunday. Ultimately, they proved to not be true, but the second-line activist Big Red Cotton sent me a Facebook message that indicated that there would be a Stop The Violence Picnic uptown at A. L. Davis Park sponsored by the Kings of Kings Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and that brass bands would likely appear. So after breakfast, I headed out to A. L. Davis Park, formerly Shakespeare Park, which is the scene of the annual Uptown Super Sunday at which the Black Indian tribes appear. I found that there was a picnic going on, with basketball under the pavilion, youth football games in progress, and a DJ, but no brass bands, perhaps because there was also a heat emergency, and the temperature was near 100 degrees outside. Still, some little kids were having fun playing football and basketball, or watching the others, and the event called attention to the problems New Orleans has been having this summer with street violence.
The event calendars for New Orleans showed something called the Midsummer Mardi-Gras that was supposed to take place at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street far uptown, in the part of the city called Carrollton. I had imagined something like a little Mardi-Gras-themed summer block party, but what I found proved to be far more elaborate. Operating out of the Maple Leaf, and somewhat affiliated with it is an organization called the Krewe of OAK, which I soon learned stands for Outrageous and Kinky. The Krewe sponsors a regular Mardi-Gras parade through Carrollton during the Carnival season, but also sponsors one during the Midsummer Mardi-Gras in August, and this turned out to be quite an event. Several hundred people were already out in the middle of Oak Street in front of the bar when I arrived, and there were a number of marching units. The Krewe had hired the All For One Brass Band to play for the parade, and this was a band I had heard of, but never heard. They provide to be a fairly good band, and with a speech from the King and Queen of OAK from a balcony on Oak Street, the parade was soon under way. The New Orleans police had blocked off Carrollton Avenue, and I had assumed we would march up Oak Street to Carrollton and stop, but to my surprise, we turned up Carrollton Avenue and kept rolling. Crowds were everywhere, along both sides of the street, and in the neutral ground, and fireworks were being shot off from in front of an old mansion on a corner. It seemed we might roll all the way to Earhart Boulevard, but we ended a little sooner, turning into the main entrance to Palmer Park. Inside the park, another stage had been set up where a jazz band was already playing. They had a tuba instead of an electric bass, but they had set drums instead of the traditional snare, bass drum and cowbell rhythm section of the streets. As the parade arrived into the park, the All For One posted up near the entrance and kept playing until everyone had entered the park. It was now thoroughly dark, and brightly-colored lights were being projected into trees in the park. I decided to walk back toward my car, and soon found that there were still significant crowds on Oak Street. I grabbed an iced mocha from the Rue de la Course, and then continued on my way. The festive mood continued in the area, but I set out to catch up with my homeboys in the TBC Brass Band.
While the Cutting Edge NOLA hip-hop showcase was going on at Cafe Istanbul, a music industry mixer and showcase was also going on a few blocks away at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club, so I stopped by there after I left the Istanbul. The next band to go on stage after I arrived was led by a young drummer named Jamal Batiste, whom I had seen play a couple of years ago with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers’ at Mayfield’s second jazz club at the W Hotel. His band this year included members of the Yisrael Trio, a really talented contemporary jazz group that I had seen during last year’s Cutting Edge when they played at a club called Mojitos. Not surprisingly, this group sounded really good indeed. But I had intended to drive further up to Louis Armstrong Park, because the New Orleans South African Connection (NOSACONN) was supposed to be sponsoring some sort of second-line from the park to Sweet Lorraine’s, and I had originally planned to park the car and get it in. But it was outrageously hot, and when I neared the park, I saw that the second-line had only a few musicians and buckjumpers, maybe about 10 in all. So I decided to go uptown and grab dinner instead, and then maybe head to something called the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras that was listed in the event calendars.
After breakfast at the Who Dat Coffee Cafe, I was already in the general vicinity of the Lower 9th Ward, so I decided to drive around that area and see if there was anything worthy of being photographed, and actually there was a lot. Of course, the Lower 9th Ward had been devastated by the flooding of Hurricane Katrina. Cut off from the rest of New Orleans by the Industrial Canal, the neighborhood is surrounded by water on three sides, and for many years was the home of two notorious housing projects, the Florida Projects and the Desire Projects, the latter of which was once said to be the largest public housing project in America. Both projects were wrecked by Katrina, and neither were rebuilt, at least not as housing projects. Mixed income developments are being built on the site. Business areas in the northern portion of the neighborhood were also devastated, and since people have not returned in large numbers, none of these shopping centers have been rebuilt. They are still ruins, covered with gang graffiti. But nearby, at a playground called Sampson Park, I came upon a beautiful mural done by something called “Project Future for the Youth”, containing a lot of wonderful and inspiring slogans and quotes, presumably painted and conceived by young people from the neighborhood, possibly even before the storm. The various tiles within the mural call for peace and an end to violence, and emphasize brotherhood, peace and even music. One section of the mural states, poignantly, “I know they watching…Ancestors watching.” Perhaps nothing more accurately sums up the unique culture of New Orleans, particularly the city’s Black neighborhoods…traditions that have died out in many other cities last years longer in New Orleans, perhaps because the young people know they are being watched by those who have gone on before.
In another part of the neighborhood was an attractively colorful building which proved to be a bike shop. All kids love bikes, but bikes are not just for kids in New Orleans, which is a bike-friendly city in the extreme. Young people in inner-city neighborhoods even have customized bikes, sometimes rigged with lighting and sound systems.
Down on Claiborne Avenue, I came across a tire shop that has evidently had a problem with neighborhood crime, and decided to deal with it through a blunt sign: “No cat selling, No crack selling, No loitering…NOPD Will Be Called.” It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to sell drugs or love at the neighborhood tire shop, but evidently someone did. Nearby, a recently poured sidewalk gave a group of 9th Ward kids an opportunity to immortalize their names in concrete. They listed their names along with their ward, and the designation “The Crew”. Here’s hoping that they and their peers in the 9th Ward have a bright future ahead.
After dinner, I wanted to enjoy some live music, and set off in search of jazz. On my phone, I had seen a place called Le Cafe Jazz, and it didn’t seem to be too far away, so I decided to walk to it, which proved to be a mistake. For one thing, the neighborhood it was in is called Assembly Hill, and I soon learned that it really is a hill. The entire walk from Gervais Street was uphill all the way, and by the time I finally arrived at the cafe, which was in a city park called Finley Park, I was thoroughly hot and sweaty. And although the cafe appeared to be open, I was told at the door that it was closed for a private event, and that I wasn’t dressed appropriately in any case. I was quite disappointed, since there was a piano inside, and the place looked interesting and attractive. Still, I didn’t see any musicians there, and I probably didn’t miss much. At least the walk back to the Vista area was all downhill.
R. L. Burnside was one of the most famous musicians in the blues tradition of the North Mississippi Hill Country, and many of his children and grandchildren have carried on that great tradition, including Cedric Burnside, a grandson of the late R.L. who is accomplished on both the guitar and the drums. After coming to prominence as part of a duo with another Mississippi bluesman, Lightning Malcolm, he more recently has formed a band called the Cedric Burnside Project, which is really just him on drums and Trenton Ayers on guitar (I suspect that Trenton Ayers is kin to the older Marshall County bluesman Little Joe Ayers). On Saturday June 21, Cedric brought his music to the Levitt Shell in Memphis’ Overton Park, and an overflow crowd despite hit and run showers early in the evening. Beginning on acoustic guitar, Burnside soon switched to drums, and performed most of the Hill Country standards, including “Coal Black Mattie”, “Don’t Let My Baby Ride”, and even the late Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me In The City.” It was a great evening of great Mississippi blues.
Monster Music and Movies is owned by the same Nashville firm that owns Pop Tunes in Memphis, but this store was nearly a block long and full of music. I noticed a new CD from the Numero group that featured the Young Disciples from East St. Louis, a group that had been formed as part of an anti-poverty program in the 1960’s, so I bought that, a new funk compilation from Soul Patrol and the new Mercury Rev CD. The girl that was working at Monster recommended that I head over to the Cat’s Music on Folly Road, but when I got there, they refused the promotional items and told me that they were closing down the store.
After walking around the harbor and taking pictures, I drove out to Loco Record Shop, and then back downtown to King Street, where there were a couple of stores. 52.5 was mostly a rock store, but there were a few jazz and rock items, and down the street was an old and intriguing store called Honest John’s Records and TV Repair. On the shelves were plenty of old LPs and a handful of old 45s, but I didn’t have time to look through them. Instead, wanting coffee, I used my iPhone to locate a place called Kudu Coffee, which was just across from the campus of the College of Charleston. In keeping with the name, the coffee house was decorated with African artifacts and artwork, and the coffee was very good. Driving further south on King, I ultimately came to the Battery, the wooded park at the tip of the peninsula featuring monuments, cannons, statues and stately mansions. Despite the wind, it was warm enough to walk around, and I took a lot of pictures, but it was much later in the day than I had intended, so at 3 PM, I headed across the Septima Clark Bridge onto Highway 17 for the drive to Wilmington.
I had driven this route in reverse a month before, going from Myrtle Beach to Charleston, but today the trip seemed to take forever, made worse by the traffic signals and endless snarls in Myrtle Beach. Once I crossed into North Carolina, I was still much further away from Wilmington than I had imagined, and by the time I arrived there, it was pitch black.
I approached Wilmington with some foreboding. From my reading, Wilmington had always been a place of riots and racial tension, the scene of the Wilmington Ten incident, so I half expected to see an old and decrepit port city of deteriorating buildings and was quite surprised to see the charming downtown with its restored buildings lit up for Christmas. Christmas choral music was drifting across the chilly night air (whether live or a tape I could never determine), and the threat of rain seemed imminent. After leaving some posters at CD Alley, I decided to walk around the corner to Port City Java for some coffee, but across the street I noticed an antiquarian bookshop, so I ducked in there and ended up buying several books about the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Then I ran back across to the coffee bar for a latte to go, and then drove eastward from downtown. What my iPhone thought was a record store in a Black neighborhood east of downtown was actually a recording studio, but fortunately, that put me closer to Gravity Records, an indie rock store that nonetheless was thrilled to get some Pastor Troy promotional items. In the store they were playing a disc by a British singer named Richard Hawley, whom I had never heard of, but whose mournful, melodic tunefulness seemed to fit the dark, foggy, chilly night.
The guys at the store warned me that the trip to Raleigh on I-40 would take about 2 hours through rural lands of absolutely nothing, and they weren’t far from right. I was ravenously hungry, but the exits along the way either featured nothing or fast food. Raleigh seemed to be a place of feast or famine, with very expensive upscale restaurants and the usual diners and fast food, but little in-between. A promising-sounding steakhouse proved to be out of business, and another proved to be $30 and up for entrees. Finally, I discovered a mall in Durham where there was a Cheesecake Factory, and I stopped there, but, noticing a Champps Americana across the walkway from the Cheesecake Factory, I decided to eat there, thinking that it would be cheaper than Cheesecake Factory. It wasn’t, and the food, while basically good, didn’t stand out.
After a dessert and coffee at the Cheesecake Factory, I drove another few miles into Chapel Hill, and had no problem finding the Sheraton Hotel. My room proved to be very luxurious indeed, and I went straight to bed.
At Forrest City, I headed over to Highway 70 where there was a flea market, and while I didn’t find any Abraham and His Sons or Ike Noble and the Uptights records, I did find a stash of Black gospel 45s, some of them from Wynne and Marianna, Arkansas, and a few on the Designer and Messenger labels out of Memphis.
I decided to stay on Highway 70 through Brinkley (the flea markets there were rather disappointing), and when I got to North Little Rock, E-Rokk gave me directions to where he was staying and I went and met him there. Since his girlfriend had to work, we took the kids with us and headed to a pizza place I had found on my iPhone called ZaZa’s Fresh Salads and Wood-Fired Pizzas on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock. The restaurant featured salads and pizzas cooked in a brick oven, as well as gelato, espresso and cappucino. We all enjoyed our pizzas, got some gelato for dessert, and then headed downtown to President Clinton Avenue to Andina Coffee Roasters where I bought some pounds of coffee to take home.
The kids were intirgued by an African drummer who was playing a djembe in front of the River Market, and then they wanted to run into a playground along the riverfront, so we walked over there, and then across the river bridge over to North Little Rock and back.
I had to get back to Memphis, so after it began to get dark, I dropped them back off at the apartment in North Little Rock and headed back toward Memphis. At West Memphis, I had seen a Huddle House and so I decided to eat dinner there, but, when I got there, I found that it was newly built and had not opened yet. So, now wanting breakfast, I settled for the Iron Skillet truckstop in West Memphis, and found that the breakfast there was really quite good.