POEM: worth the weight

worth the weight

I threw myself on the mercy of the court
the jester caught me in his motley arms

when I hit the road again I may bring even less
reduce to my life to what fits in a small backpack
everything else has already been stripped away

there is a romanticism in being lost, in not knowing
whether this hole in the ground has a bottom
or whether it comes out on the other side of the Earth

I weigh the thrill on one side of my scale
fill the other dish with the heft of a normal life
then leaven this reflection with pho and jasmine

on this rainy Saturday afternoon in July
I’m in the back room of the Lost Love Lounge
I’d reach for my phone, but I’m not sure who to call

7 July 2012
New Orleans

Tour Diary: I Am Become Hipster, The Destroyer Of Fashion

(July 6, 2012) NEW ORLEANS, LA — A low-key and enjoyable day in New Orleans today, followed by an even lower-key and enjoyable night spent relaxing on a couch.

I started off today in search of a small notebook. I have a larger one that I use every day, but I wanted a small Moleskine to slip into my pocket for days when I don’t carry my backpack. The small one I brought is just about full, so I looked on the Moleskine website for sellers and walked from the Marigny over to the French Quarter to find the store.

I guess the site hadn’t been updated in a while, though, because the store wasn’t there. So I decided just to stroll around again. I looked in a few used bookstores and found one — Crescent City Books — that also serves as the location of Black Widow Press. I bought Caveat Onus, a book of poems by Dave Brinks, one of the leading lights of the New Orleans poetry scene. This was stupid for two reasons: I can’t afford to be buying books and I have no way to carry extra stuff in my backpack. But I bought it anyway. I like supporting small presses and I love supporting local poetry. I may end up mailing the book to Brooklyn to be stored in my UHaul space, but I’ll at least read it once before I leave New Orleans.

I asked the guy in the bookshop to recommend a place to sit and read. He sent me to Napoleon House, an old restaurant at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis. The place had tons of character, with peeling walls, lived-in tables and white-shirted, aproned waiters. I had some iced tea and read for a while before heading out on my next errand.

Last night, Jeff Albert told me about Meyer The Hatter, a hat shop on St. Charles Avenue that’s been in business since the 1890s. It reminded me a lot of J&J Hats in New York, where I used to by my fedoras back when I wore them about a decade or so ago. I had no intention of buying a hat, but Jeff said I should at least check it out if I’m into hats, which I am.

Well, I think it took all of two minutes before I was trying on caps. The clerk (like everyone working there, part of the Meyer family), walked me through several different models of cap. He really liked the very first one I tried on, and so did I. But I went through quite a few more, trying different patterns and also trying a couple Kangols. I can’t make a Kangol work at all, and most of the patterned hats made me look too much like an elderly golfer. I thought getting something was a good idea, though, because I’m constantly walking in the sun and getting really burnt and probably a bit sunstroked, too. I ended up going with an Italian-made linen cap. Here it is:

I’m not sure I needed any help in completing my journey toward the dark side of hipsterdom, but this cap has certainly pushed me over the edge. Ah well. Why fight it? As I pointed out once on Twitter, there was a moment when I was reading Kerouac and listening to 50s jazz while wearing sandals and traveling the country by bus. I’m a walking cliche.

After the bookstore and the hat shop it was time to head back. Just in time, too, because storm clouds were gathering and the thunder was rumbling. There’s been a thunderstorm every day here since I arrived on Monday. That’s my favorite kind of weather, so I’m not complaining. It got darker and darker as I walked up Royal all the way back to Port Street, where I’m staying. I don’t know how I beat the rain, but I did by a few minutes. It started pouring just after I reached the apartment.

I did some work on the tour, primarily scheduling interviews with New Orleans musicians. I’m trying to get a real cross-section of players from the modern jazz, free jazz and traditional jazz worlds, with some non-jazz folks thrown in for good measure.

The rest of the night I just relaxed, watching movies and reading. Sometimes I just need a domestic night. My host was working tonight so I had the place to myself, and I decided to stay in and enjoy it.

(If you’d like to support my tour, you can make a one-time donation and get great thank-you gifts HERE. If you’d like to become a member of The Jazz Session and make recurring monthly or yearly payments, you can do that HERE.)

Tour Diary: We Comin’ To Getcha!

(July 5, 2012) NEW ORLEANS, LA — What a night of music! Three clubs, four sets, ending up with the mind-crunching funk of the Stooges brass band.

The day got off to a hot start. I wanted to mail a package at the post office. The only trouble is that New Orleans — or at the least the area I’m in — doesn’t have many post offices. The closest one was a 2-mile walk to the Bywater. “How hot could it be?” I thought. It was 95, 53% humidity, 103 on the heat index. Hot. And although there were trees along much of the route, very few of them provided any shade at all. Most were either short palms or set too far back from the sidewalk.

By the time I reached the post office I was dripping with sweat. But I mailed my package, cooled down in the air-conditioned post office, then walked all the way back along a slightly different route. My clothes looked like I’d bathed in them. Oy.

Back at the apartment, I wrote an essay about loneliness, then started mixing today’s show featuring Scott Burton of the Richmond (VA) band Glows In The Dark. Then I moved my stuff across the courtyard to the place where I’ll be staying till Monday. On Monday I move back to the first place.

I hung out for a while with Scott, the guy I’m crashing with now. We chatted about his move from Los Angeles to New Orleans and some of the writing projects he’s working on now. He headed out to a coffee shop around the corner and I finished making the show. Then I sent out a bunch of interview requests to folks like Irvin Mayfield, Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band, among others.

Around 9:00, Scott and I headed to Mimi’s to hear some music by Anthony Cuccia. From what I heard tonight, Anthony is a keyboard-playing singer/songwriter. The band was a trio with Jimbo Walsh on guitar and a bassist whose name I don’t know. They all sang, too. The band played mostly original music plus songs by The Band and T. Rex.

After a while Scott and I walked to the Allways Lounge to hear two bands — Tate Carson’s Carbon Trio followed by The Log Ladies. Both bands were excellent examples of forward-looking improvised music.

Tate Carson was one of the first folks to contact me when I got to New Orleans. He listens to The Jazz Session and invited me to come check out the band. I’m so glad I did. The hook-up between Tate, drummer Brad Webb and keyboardist Jesse Reeks was truly something to hear. This was a band that was less about finding the one than finding the one-and-a-half. As I said via Twitter during the gig, “Every downbeat is an adventure with [Tate Carson]’s band. They’re so far behind the beat you can measure the Doppler shift. Very cool.” I was particularly impressed by Brad Webb’s drumming. Another tweet: “Brad Webb plays drums like a wind-up Freddie Mercury doll. That is a compliment.” As far as I could tell, the band played original (and very catchy) music that managed to be both exciting and intellectually stimulating.

Next on the bill were The Log Ladies, a trio with bassist Jesse Morrow, drummer Dave Cappello and guitarist Chris Alford. Once again I was impressed by the writing and by the sharply defined group sound. The band has an identity and they know it. Cappello was like a Big Easy Han Bennink, crashing through an off-kilter backbeat that managed to groove and confound at the same time. Alford is a compelling soloist who uses his effects pedals well. And Morrow really held down the low end while still finding places for some excellent arco work in line with Alford’s guitar.

The Ladies were joined for three tunes by trombonist Jeff Albert, who’ll be touring Texas with them later this month. I loved the guitar-trombone combination. Adding Jeff really brought an organic, visceral sound to the mix, giving the band even more punch and guts.

Jeff told me that the Stooges Brass Band was playing across the street at the Hi-Ho Club, so I walked over there and was instantly grateful for the tip. This is the kind of music I came to New Orleans to hear. Well, this and the classic New Orleans piano music. The Stooges were loud as hell and funky as all get out and a floor full of dancers were doing everything but actually having sex. It was awesome. Somebody described brass band music to me today as “dated.” I don’t know if I agree, but I do know that it’s thrilling and intensely human and I love it.

It’s going to be hard to not see only brass bands and solo piano gigs for the next three weeks. And funk bands.

(If you’d like to support my tour, you can make a one-time donation and get great thank-you gifts HERE. If you’d like to become a member of The Jazz Session and make recurring monthly or yearly payments, you can do that HERE.)

Tour Diary: How The Heck Do You Say “Marigny”?

(July 3, 2012) NEW ORLEANS, LA — My first full day in New Orleans lasted well into my second full day in New Orleans, which I think means I did it right.

It did not start auspiciously. As has been happening recently, I stayed up till nearly 3 a.m. I set an alarm for noon so I could hear a radio interview I did the other night that was being broadcast today in Alabama. I needn’t have bothered. I awoke at 7:30, read an email that made me a bit testy, and that was it. Up for the day.

I stayed on the couch for quite a while, doing some work for the tour, killing time, being in a daze, etc. The radio piece (an interview by Kyle Gassiot) came on at 12:10. Kyle’s a pro — he even used the theme song to my old radio show as the intro music for the segment.

Then it was time to get off my rear end and go exploring. With no particular destination in mind, I started to walk. After a while I looked at my phone to figure out in which direction the French Quarter lay and I started walking there down Frenchmen Street. I’ve written a poem about Frenchmen Street and heard about it from my pal Jeff Albert, who runs a music series in a club there. Walking down it, though, I was finally in touch with the colors, the sounds, the smells.

A guy stepping out of a bar into the hot July sun tried the old saw: “I know where you got them shoes.” But my friend Naomi had already warned me about that one. It’s a joke designed to allow the teller to say, “You got them shoes in New Orleans.” (As in, “that’s where you’re currently in possession of your shoes.”)

I stopped in a sushi place on Frenchmen and had lunch — various kinds of veggie rolls and some miso soup. A little while later, still on Frenchmen, I took a break from the heat in a cafe.

From there, I couldn’t really tell you where I walked, except to say that it was the touristy bit. The part of New Orleans where the visitors outnumber the locals on the sidewalk. I walked much of Bourbon Street because it seemed like something I should do. But I think once was enough. If I wanted to hang out with people from Ohio, I’d go to Cleveland.

By chance I came across the Iron Rail Book Collective. I can’t carry books because I’m backpacking, otherwise I could have found a lot to purchase from the store’s collection of leftist, anarchist reading material. I also spotted a copy of a book by Daniel Nester, a poet and writer I know from Albany. The book is about the rock band Queen, so I’m not sure how it factored in politically. I bought a gift to mail to a friend and also an Iron Rail pin to join the others on my backpack. (Packing tip: If you’re backpacking, put a small backpack inside the bigger one so you have a bag to use without having to carry the huge beast.)

I found some really beautiful postcards in a shop past the tourist section. They were designed by a local artist and they caught my eye in the display window as I walked past. Some of you tour donors will be receiving those postcards.

After four or five hours wandering around, it was time to head back to the air conditioning in the apartment where I’m staying. I did that, had some dinner, then waited for trombonist Jeff Albert to come by. I’d had some packages sent to his house — poetry books and business cards — and he was kind enough to bring them by and also to take me with him to his gig at the Blue Nile.

Jeff runs the Open Ears music series there, a series designed to bring adventurous improvised music to New Orleans, a town known primarily for other kinds of playing. Jeff books the series and sometimes also plays in it. Tonight was one of those times. Jeff was joined by saxophonist Joe Calabra, drummer Doug Garrison and guitarist Jonathan Freilich. They played a series of duets, mixing up the members of the band, then played a second set as a quartet. One thing I noticed was that even in this free setting, the music often found a pulse, something I yearn for in a lot of free playing in New York.

Jeff was kind enough to introduce me to many of the folks he knew at the club. I also had another small-world experience. My poetry book was published by FootHills Publishing. On their large roster is New Orleans poet Dennis Formento. During the set break, it turned out that Dennis was there at the club, sitting one table over. I learned this when Jeff (who didn’t know that we were on the same imprint) brought Dennis out to the balcony to meet me. Crazy.

After the gig I stuck around to talk music with the band. We had a debate about whether there are identifiable musical characteristics that mark music as being from New Orleans. And we ended the night in fine style, with Jeff blasting “The Job Song” by the Industrial Jazz Group (with my pal Jill Knapp on vocals) over the bar’s sound system.

I got home a little after 2 a.m. I’m back on the couch where I started as I type this diary entry.

You may have noticed a small Buddha statue cropping up in these photos. I carry it with me everywhere, but I always forget to take pictures of it for my series, Buddha In The Modern World. Today, though, I remembered. The photo earlier in this post is in Jackson Square. The one to the left is a special request from my friend Kim, who wanted a shot of Jeff and Buddha on the balcony at Blue Nile. And down at the bottom of this post is a shot of Buddha visiting a relative in a curio shop on Royal.

(If you’d like to support my tour, you can make a one-time donation and get great thank-you gifts HERE. If you’d like to become a member of The Jazz Session and make recurring monthly or yearly payments, you can do that HERE.)

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Tour Diary: Do You Know What It Means To Reach New Orleans?

(July 2, 2012) AUBURN, AL to NEW ORLEANS, LA – Today, after wanting to come here for nearly 30 years, I finally made it to New Orleans.

I started the day bright and early, bouncing (read: trudging) out of bed at 5 a.m. I showered, packed, and headed into the living room where I was greeted by Rachel, who keeps farmer’s hours. She handed me a bag full of her delicious black cherry tomatoes for the road. Thanks, Rachel!

My pal Patrick was kind enough to pick me up at 5:45 to take me to the Greyhound station in Columbus, GA. My bus wasn’t till 8:25, but Auburn is on Central Time and Columbus is on Eastern Time, so our 45-minute drive actually added up to an hour and 45 minutes. Oh, and someone I saw on the side of the road inspired the first poem of the day.

I made it in plenty of time and had my bag checked through to New Orleans. That was the first truly exciting moment of the day. The bus was on time and we left Columbus without a hitch. The bus was full so I had to share a seat, but it was no big deal. I also found out from the driver that I’d be staying on that same bus all the way to New Orleans, which was convenient.

Or would have been, but the bus’s power outlets weren’t working, meaning that charging my phone and computer during the 9-hour trip would only be possible at the stations. We had very short rest stops, so there wouldn’t be much charging time, and I needed my phone to work when I got to New Orleans so I could find my way to the place where I would be staying.

For the first half of the trip – through Mobile, I think – I had a quiet young woman sitting next to me. For the next section, I had a similarly quiet soldier heading home to Fort Polk in Alexandria, LA, with his baby daughter. She was pretty quiet, too. And very cute. And for the final couple hours I was accompanied by a goateed skateboarder. A real slice of life, my seatmates were.

Around Mobile, AL, I got my first peak at the Gulf Coast. I then had a much more extended look as we reached and then passed Biloxi, MS. What a thrill! I’ve read about the Gulf Coast and written poems about it, too, but today was the first time I actually looked on it with my own eyes. (And yes, I’m thinking of Vader at the end of Return Of The Jedi right now.)

I was so excited once the coast was in sight that I was bouncing around in my seat, taking pictures out the window of the fast-moving terrain. The last hour or two to New Orleans took forever. They felt like the culmination of a nearly life-long journey.

When I was about 8 or 9, I think, my grandpa, Bernie Flanders, took me to see two New Orleans jazz giants, Pete Fountain and Al Hirt. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to visit the Big Easy. It took me roughly 30 years, but I made it.

We passed over marshland on big arched bridges, then hit the long bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, which I’m sure brought a gasp from me:

And then we were in sight of the city. The first unmistakable sight was the Superdome, home to so much tragedy and triumph. And then we started seeing the famous streets like Rampart and Calliope. The bus dropped us off at Union Station, probably the nicest Greyhound station I’ve been in on the tour:

It’s actually a bus and train station, which I’m sure accounts for its condition. Had I ever hopped on the Crescent City in Penn Station all those times I so desperately wanted to, Union Station would have been waiting at the end of the trip.

I got in a cab and asked the driver to take me to Port Street, where I’m staying while I’m in town. He turned up the radio and off we went. And yes, there was good modern jazz playing on the radio courtesy of WWOZ, which I listened to without a computer for the first time in my life. What an amazing feeling!

More famous names: Charles, Royal, Bourbon, Dauphine … the list goes on and on. I was trying to play it cool with the cabbie. Thank god Port is an easy one to pronounce. I’m afraid to say any street names aloud because none of them are said they way they look on paper. I hate sounding like a tourist, even though I am one.

In about 10 minutes I was at my destination. Thunder was rumbling nearby as I got the keys to the apartment I’m staying in from a neighbor. Here’s the first photo of me in New Orleans:

I’m staying in a couple places, but for a few days I have this amazing spot all to myself. What a delight:

After relaxing for a bit, I looked online for nearby restaurants and ended up at the Lost Love Lounge and its backroom Vietnamese restaurant. I had an incredible Kung Pao tofu bahn mi. The setting and the food inspired a poem, which you can read here.

Then it was back to the apartment to Skype with a friend and make today’s show, featuring saxophonist Brandon Wright. Here it here.

I also posted the audio of my poetry reading in Auburn, courtesy of Southern Public Media Group.

Tomorrow I’m going to catch up on sleep and then start exploring. If you’re near a computer at 12:10 p.m. Central Time (1:10 p.m. Eastern Time), be sure to tune in to WTSU 89.9 FM from Montgomery, AL, to hear me interviewed by Kyle Gassiot. Kyle’s one of the good guys. Here’s the link to the stream: http://bit.ly/vrN3EZ.

(If you’d like to support my tour, you can make a one-time donation and get great thank-you gifts HERE. If you’d like to become a member of The Jazz Session and make recurring monthly or yearly payments, you can do that HERE.)

POEM: kung pao tofu at the lost love lounge

kung pao tofu at the lost love lounge

the counterman says his name is Johnny
his soft Asian eyes and down-under accent
suggesting a curved and interesting path
to this backroom Vietnamese restaurant
hidden away in a corner bar on Franklin

my bahn mi has a kick I didn’t expect
my tongue burns as I send text after text
trying to convince her to drop everything
hop the first south-bound bus and join me
here where the blue door leads to a garden
shielded from the street by a narrow alley
with a weatherbeaten wooden gate

two cats are prowling the stone path
keeping watch over the goings-on
wondering at my unannounced arrival
they eye me suspiciously as if to ask
for some proof of my good intentions
but all I can offer is a Ziploc bag
full of black cherry tomatoes pulled
just the day before from the garden

the cats don’t want them so I smile
leave the interview empty-handed
pull the blue door shut behind me
sit shirtless on the couch, pecking away
at these words that fall short
of meaning what I need them to mean

2 July 2012
New Orleans