|Detail from old postcard by Jim Lynch|
Listen to the Noise
by: B. Marie Jarreau
A jambalaya mix of offbeat notes and loud-thumping-bass-beats peppered with high pitched clarinet calls and wailsome saxophone sighs floated, danced and barged their way around our 1960s, New Orleans 7th Ward neighborhood.
Traveling on the warm night breezes, the sound carried with it news that there was Cajun food to be had and spicy music to be heard.
Some residents were not as fond of the sounds that lay upon the otherwise tranquil environment: “Listen to that noise!” could sometimes be heard filtered through the loud music.
Those residents simply tolerated the weekend’s intrusion since the event was often a fund raising activity for the local church or perhaps for a recent high school graduate’s college fund - and it was a rarity that any ‘trouble’ ever occurred around these events. This was a time when parents and neighbors, that village, had much more control over maintaining a peaceful environment than we experience today. However, that ‘noise’ brought some objection. Others couldn’t wait for each lively jazz-filled ‘Supper’ event.
We had only to follow the sound or the aromas to purchase a plateful of delicious home cooked fried chicken, soft-shell crab, seafood gumbo, potato salad, po-boy sandwich with all the ‘trimmings’ or whatever the ‘ladies’ had been cooking-up since early in the day. Gentlemen delighted in entering that kitchen doorway with a hearty, “Hey good-lookin’ what’s cookin’?”
“Red-beans and rice and everything’s nice,” the familiar reply.
There might be six to eight ladies, young and older, working together in colorful cotton aprons, to make sure the food they offered would be talked about with great admiration throughout the coming week.
But oh, the music!
Fedoras and English Driving Caps
Wives, daughters, grandmothers and sweethearts worked in the kitchen preparing and selling plates of food through the screen door while husbands, sons, grandfathers and eligible bachelors gathered in the backyard gardens to add the musical spice to the honeysuckle-scented evening air.
Even in the warmth of the New Orleans environment it was not uncommon for these backyard musicians to sport Fedoras, English driving caps, derbies; silk vests with pink or yellow shirts – starched and pressed; and fine jacquard-patterned tweed-like slacks – sharply creased down the front legs. Even the footwear told a story about the style of its musically inclined wearer: oxblood Brogues with decorative punching over the toe or stylish wingtips in three shades of leather finished off the ensemble.
My memories of these events seem to go back to about age 8 to 11. We (siblings and/or friends) might walk over to purchase a supper with or without an adult escort with no concern for safety (oh! the good ole’ days!). The location might be one-city-block away or even four, rarely more than that. We were not allowed to stay for the music. It was an ‘adults-only’ area.
Often there was a solid-wood fence, separating the musicians from those approaching the kitchen door. We were in awe of the music; but also very curious about what else adults might be doing in the privacy of the backyard. Occasionally, we were able to catch a glimpse through the weathered boards or knotholes of the fence, or maybe a quick look when someone entering or exiting didn’t immediately close the fence-gate.
Don’t You Dare Go Back There!
We might see the tables dotted with fine glasses, wine or other interesting bottles, ashtrays; and cigarettes caressed in long slim feminine ivory or Bakelite holders, the smoke swirling around like ribbons dancing with the rhythm. This was enough indication that the music area was off limits to youngsters – no one had to say, “Now, don’t you dare go back there!” We knew better!
Our enjoyment of the music was easily-had just sitting on the front steps as the sound traveled throughout the neighborhood and into the late hours of the night. The music began playing around sundown, after the men arrived home from work and donned their ‘sharp’ evening-attire and gathered their instruments. Some arrived later. We all knew the best music would be played a few hours into the ‘session,’ perhaps when more musicians had arrived from farther away – or after they’d passed the initial blending of the players. Perhaps after a shot or two of bourbon.
|Front Steps, New Orleans - 7th Ward, 2001 - (Not exactly me :o)|
Listen To The Noise!
Other neighbors would either sit on their porches or stroll around the block taking-in the sounds. You might hear, “Listen to that awful noise! When are they gonna be quiet over there?”
Most often the dialog would be, “Maaaan, Listen to the Noise! Ain’t that a beautiful sound!”
The wail of the sax and syncopated jazzy guitar notes danced round and round with the clarinet’s lofty lilt and the mellow buzz of a trumpet as fingers pumped the pistons. The ‘thump - bump - bump’ of the big fat bass kept it all connected – it was a noise to be savored; and free for the listening.
Music really does have the power to reach-in and touch the soul in places where little else does, regardless of your age. I remember being mesmerized by the soothing melodies and the rocking vibrations that drifted over the fence, along the tree lined city streets, in-through our front gate and took an unrestricted path to embrace my senses. I had no other experience as a musician save as listener, but even then, I had a deep yearning to be part of that music scene.
|Decorative New Orleans style front porch rought-ironwork.|
A shy, introvert all of my youth, it seemed that that experience would never be part of my life. Then the ‘Beatles came to town’ and expanded my interest in music. I was as goggle-eyed as all the other girls over Paul and John, but I listened intently and fell under the spell of the music as much as the lyrics and those handsome personalities.
I Yearned For A Guitar
I don’t recall anymore neighborhood ‘Suppers’ and associated jazz sessions after that. I don’t know if they’d ended or if the Beatles simply overshadowed that experience. I do know I yearned for a guitar. Our senior year in high school (Joseph S. Clark Sr. High) my girlfriend’s parents gave her an acoustic guitar.
They wanted her to play. She could not have cared less about music beyond the fact that we were all in love with Paul McCartney.
When I left home to join the Air Force she gifted me with that guitar as a going away present. Not long after, I became captivated with the music and songs of John Denver and my own love of music became a real motivation to do something about that lifelong yearning.
An Air Force Air Traffic Controller, I was stationed at Mather AFB, just outside Sacramento, Calif. working odd shift hours. All of my spare time was spent teaching myself to play the guitar using song books and records. Air Force boot camp and the ATC career field had helped to lessen the stress of my introvert’s insecurity and I even began to play a song or two for a few close friends when the occasion was right.
I continued to play off and on throughout my life, though I all but gave it up for a (now ex-) husband who offered only discouragement and ridicule. Later, as a single mother, raising my two daughters and holding down a full time job, my interest in music was restricted once again to that of - listener.
Though I’d never envisioned myself a professional entertainer (that life seemed too wild and unstable for my interests) I did enjoy creating music with voice and guitar to share with friends. Many years later, I began to make time, again for the music I’d loved for so long: Beatles, John Denver, various folk singers, even an occasional pop tune. I played for small audiences of family and friends and sometimes performed fund-raising concerts for non-profit events where a few local ‘fans’ made sure they attended.
Fate Dragged Me Back Into Music
Now, let’s move ahead several decades where I find myself retired from the daily job of earning a living and, happily, as a first-time grandmother. I breathe a sigh of relief when I think that upon making a recent move, from Oregon to Arizona, I toyed with the idea of getting rid of my collection of 4-5 guitars and settling down to the retired life to knit, crochet, paint, make crafty things and just become ‘grandmotherly’.
Instead, fate stepped in and dragged me back into music – not exactly kicking and screaming!
Having made the move to Arizona, I was once again gifted with a music connection. Not with a guitar this time, but with a great group of neighbors/friends who are supportive of my interest in creating and sharing music. The group includes a couple who have been involved in music for many years and operate a small homebased recording studio in Canada. It’s a diversion for them from the rigors of the day-job but, none-the-less, a passion.
They’ve written songs for me to sing and record, encouraged my own efforts in song writing and we’ve spent hours in the small studio annex, here, recording tracks then used to produce my first CD titled 'Coming Into Focus' – with potential for more! It’s not an attempt at a commercial effort by any means but simply fills that desire to share the love and essence of music.
Still Making Noise
My interest in music is stronger than ever with the encouragement and I feel as though I have grown, musically, more in the last year than I have in the last 50 years. My interest in listening to and performing music now reaches much farther beyond John Denver and Pete Seeger. I finally feel I'm ‘part of the music scene.’
Recently, friends/neighbors had been invited to my home for an evening of cheese, wine and music. It was an amazing evening from my point of view just having friends gathered together to share the music, which included some ‘gutsy’ guitar strains, a samba and old ballads. It was a live music scene and I was in the midst of it.
|Still Making Noise|
It’s that: ‘life come full-circle’ scenario. At one point that evening I wondered if we might be disturbing other neighbors with the volume of our music. For a moment I wondered if someone in the neighborhood might be thinking: “Listen to the Noise!”
(Photos and illustrations by B. Marie Jarreau except where otherwise noted.)