I was in New Orleans for the past week. According to my friend Bill, if you are nomadic and musical by nature, you might stop traveling when you get there. Music is everywhere. It was outside on the street even when it was uncharacteristically cold (I mean cold…27 degrees cold. It was freezing in every building, because the buildings are built to keep the steamy summer heat out).
I stopped to hear a lone banjo player on Dauphine Street playing for no one, while ice formed at his feet. At the club Bachannal, patrons huddled outside under heat lamps while a Ben-Webster-sounding saxophonist and his band played through a raft of 1930’s swing tunes. I want to know what it is about that city that keeps music flowing as steadily as the Mississippi, even as the Polar Vortex tries to stop it?
Here in the top half of the USA when the temperature drops, we treasure the silence that snow and cold bring. The streets of New Orleans completely resist that notion. Starting yesterday, there were parades to celebrate Mardi Gras, which won’t arrive till February 17. Glitter was everywhere. And the music cut through the cold air like a warm knife through butter. I’m going to try and bring more of this energy to my life and not simply hibernate, waiting for spring. I’m going to get out my tenor banjo and see if I can melt the snow on my porch with it.
I have always wondered what sort of Gandhi-esque character it takes to teach elementary school music. A million years ago I taught at the junior high level, and it nearly broke me. But earlier this year, I decided that I really, really wanted a children’s chorus to open for my band, Chaise Lounge, at our annual hometown Christmas concert. Since no music teacher wants to take on another concert at this time of year, the only solution was for me to start a glee club at my local elementary school. For the past six weeks, I have been rehearsing holiday classics with fourth-grade volunteers after school. I think I now see that you don’t have to be a saint to do this. You just have to show up and accept the kids as they are: with all their energy, earnestness, chatter, and distractability coming at you all at once. I don’t think I have put together an award-winning performing group, but these kids sing with passion. At the show, they will perform eight songs by themselves, and then join Chaise Lounge for the first song of our set: “Snow Day,” a local hit with students and teachers alike. When this all started, I wasn’t sure I would be up to the task. Now I find that I am already thinking about next year.
I was recently approached by the music director of a string ensemble with one of my favorite requests. He wants his group to play in concert with Chaise Lounge. We love to perform with full orchestras—if you’re anywhere near Stevens Point, Wisconsin on December 6 or 7, I hope you’ll come hear us with the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. I have written several pieces just for strings, but it will be a new challenge to write string accompaniments for Chaise Lounge. (Naturally, I jumped at the chance to try.) One thing that’s great about orchestrating for strings is their flexibility in terms of size: a string group can be as intimate as eight or nine players or as large and sweeping as the lush sound of fifty players. The fun will be found in integrating all the things a string ensemble can do into a Chaise Lounge arrangement that’s already pretty tight. Stay tuned!
I have recorded with many wonderful singers in my life, but maybe none who can inhabit a song the way the actress Gia Mora does. When we set out to make her second album, Gia Mora Sings Charlie Barnett, I gave her total access to my catalog, including my film and stage work as well as pieces I’ve written over the years for my jazz band, Chaise Lounge. It was amazing to see what she picked and why. Her ideas on some of the songs completely transformed them. For instance, on “One Thing I Have Learned About the Weather,” which I wrote for a documentary about a fallen soldier, she suggested that we take a simple 4/4 folk-ish song and twist it into a slow Cajun waltz with some stray bars left in for dramatic effect. The result was startling, even to me. I couldn’t be prouder of this record. We will debuting some of these songs in Los Angeles on November 20 at Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club. If you’re in the area, I hope you can come by.