4. Louis Armstrong Park, Cemeteries & Herlin Riley!

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Congo Square, Louis Armstrong Park

By day three a number of us were beginning to feel the strain of what I unapologetically describe as the average American diet and agreed to meet at the New Orleans Athletics Club, late morning, for some much needed sweat and ‘burn’! Before this however, I took full advantage of the great weather and headed to Louis Armstrong Park and St Louis Cemetery Number two; both a short walk from our hotel. Within the park is Congo Square – a profoundly important location in the history of jazz. Congo Square was the only designated space in the United States for a period during the slave trade where slaves could freely dance, drum and sing on a Sunday. The mixture of many cultures, but particularly African and European, is said to have given birth to the music we have come to call jazz and if the music were to have a located birthplace; Congo Square would be it. Whilst attempting to appreciate the importance and history of the location I walked within I discovered statues of legendary New Orleans musicians throughout the park. These included Sidney Bechet, Mahalia Jackson, and Louis Armstrong.

Once I left the park I walked north along St. Phillip Street and discovered St. Louis Cemetery Number Two. The cemeteries of New Orleans are renowned for their elaborate architecture and particularly for being above ground due to the frequent floods and land saturation that the city suffers. A second line parade is a tradition that accompanies many funerals and involves the deceased being carried from a church to a cemetery, of which is followed by a brass band playing dirge music en route and traditional up-tempo tunes after the burial. Wanting to get a feel for the environment of this tradition, I took a walk within the cemetery and discovered the burial site of Danny Barker (an iconic and early New Orleans banjo player and musical father figure to my hero, Shannon Powell), as well as that of Paul Barbarin (legendary New Orleans drummer).

That evening we headed to the Snug Harbor again, this time to witness the great Herlin Riley – a drummer who has been a huge influence upon me for a long time. I have made transcriptions of his playing and seen him whenever I could in the U.K., but it was on the 25th of February that I sat within touching distance of his bass drum, for two 1.5 hour performances and in his home town. From a musical perspective alone, Herlin’s performance was the highlight of the trip for me, as well as for the rest of the band (for whom I had more or less dragged to see a ‘drummer gig’, who they had not heard of). Herlin’s power, presence, finesse, command of phrasing and lightening musical reactions, were all on full display and had me in awe from the moment he danced onto the stage (from the back of the club playing his tambourine), to the moment he danced off.

 

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Herlin Riley

The following day (26th February) and after much more busking, joining forces with other street bands, and hearing some New Orleans funk/rock at Bacchus Bash, we headed back to Frenchman Street (an area fast becoming one of our favourites of the city). Here we found a great young and local ‘scratch’ jazz band (recent music college graduates) in Marigny Brasserie. The Sousaphone player, Miles Lyons, recognised us from busking together and kindly invited us all to ‘sit-in’. We played Sunny Side of The Street and Careless Love and had a blast! The experience of sitting in with local musicians throughout the trip did many positive things for my musicianship. Most notably, it strongly encouraged me to play within the style and language I continue to want to attain, and it highlighted how unpretentious great music can and should be. Later that evening we went to the Palm Court Jazz Cafe where we saw another great traditional band including David L. Harris and Barnaby Gold, and by this point in the trip we were beginning to notice familiar faces between gigs. After being invited to sit-in once again, I was speaking to the drummer (Barnaby Gold) post performance about my love for Shannon Powell’s playing and that I was sadly struggling to find any gig dates of Powell’s during my time in New Orleans. After going to speak with the music manager of the Palm Court, Bernaby returned and told me that Powell would be “right here, tomorrow night”!

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