Young Guns and Veteran Masters: Catching Up with the Best Local Jazz Players
Kids grow up in New Orleans with dreams of being jazz musicians rather than rock stars. The trumpet is regarded locally as a sexier instrument and members of high school marching bands have the incomparable locker room bragging rights of accompanying Mardi Gras parades through the city streets during Carnival. Many of these kids do grow up to become successful jazz performers, helping to refresh the local scene and bring the sounds of New Orleans to audiences worldwide.
Here are some of the best-known and respected jazz musicians performing in New Orleans today – from the influential masters to some young up-and-comers – along with suggestions on where to catch them around town:
Top to Bottom: Kermit Ruffins; Irvin Mayfield
Kermit Ruffins, the consummate entertainer, seems to embody the spirit of the city – laid back, swinging and joyous all at once. The trumpeter and bandleader’s sets feature classics from his idol, Louis Armstrong, and his own free-spirited, be-bopping original material. On stage, Ruffins could be decked out in a suit or a T-shirt but always has a fedora on his head and a smile on his face. He was a founder of the Rebirth Brass Band, an ever-changing amalgamation of young musicians who since the 1980s have helped revive the city’s vital street music and introduce it to a worldwide audience. Ruffins plays with his band, the Barbecue Swingers, all over town, often playing several gigs in a day. His Thursday night set at Vaughn’s Lounge (4229 Dauphine St., 504-947-5562), a corner barroom deep in the Bywater neighborhood, has been a stop on the city’s music circuit for years.
Top to Bottom: Terrence Blanchard; Tim Laughlin
Irvin Mayfield, a prolific and innovative trumpeter , helped usher in a new direction for New Orleans jazz well before his 30th birthday through his close collaboration with drummer Bill Summers, the veteran percussionist from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. During late-night jam sessions at Summers’ home in the late 1990s, they launched Los Hombres Calientes, a band that takes the sounds of Cuba, Brazil and other Latin American traditions and reinterprets it through the prism of New Orleans jazz. Mayfield, who was in 2003 appointed to the post of cultural ambassador for the City of New Orleans, tours extensively with Los Hombres Calientes as well as performing other original material with his own sextet.
Terrence Blanchard, a Grammy Award-winning performer and composer, has a distinctive style of restrained, precise modern jazz that mesmerizes concert hall audiences and has been used as scores for Hollywood movies, particularly films by director Spike Lee. A New Orleans native son and graduate of the acclaimed New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Blanchard gained national fame in the New York jazz scene and now tours internationally.
Tim Laughlin’s style takes traditional Dixieland clarinet and introduces it to its relatives from the late 20th century and its future in the 21st. Original material from his latest album, the Isle of Orleans, drip with the local color and humor of modern New Orleans. Witness tunes like “Gentilly Strut,” “Dumaine Street Breakdown” and “Crescent City Moon,” which were all drawn from Laughlin’s experiences living and performing in the city. Though he’s said to be an heir to the mantle of New Orleans clarinet legend Pete Fountain, Laughlin’s performances are as unique as the city that inspires them. He performs most Mondays at the Jazz Parlor at Storyville District (125 Bourbon St., 504-410-1000).
Top to Bottom: Ellis Marsalis; Lionel Ferbos
Ellis Marsalis, regarded as the city’s most influential modern jazz pianist, gives audiences an earful with sets of hard bop, jazz standards and ballads and traditional New Orleans tunes. During a long career that began with a music assignment in the military, Marsalis has been a jazz educator as well as performer, holding several prestigious music chairs at high school and college levels. He is the father of six, including the musicians Branford, Jason, Delfayo and Wynton Marsalis, who is now artistic director of Jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center. When he isn’t touring, Marsalis holds court most weekends at Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen St., 504-949-0696), the city’s premier contemporary jazz venue located just outside the French Quarter. His son Jason frequently joins him on drums for these shows.
Lionel Ferbos was afflicted by asthma as a child and told he couldn’t play the horn. Ignoring this discouragement, he bought his first cornet at a Rampart Street pawn shop and began a musical career spanning the better part of the 20th century and continues into the current millennium. Now in his nineties, Ferbos still delivers old time New Orleans jazz favorites as the leader of the Palm Court Jazz Band, which plays Saturday nights at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe (1204 Decatur St., 504-525-0200).
Top to Bottom: Trombone Shorty; Jeremy Davenport
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, is tall, lanky and evidently still growing, but the teenager’s memorable moniker has nonetheless stuck. The nickname was first applied when, at age five, he was spotted at a second line parade lugging a trombone longer than he was tall, blowing it loudly if not melodically. The scion of a prolific New Orleans music family that includes trumpeter James Andrews, the self-styled “Satchmo of the Ghetto,” Trombone Shorty spent his childhood performing with the city’s great players in clubs, at parades and even at Jazz Fest. His traditional musical style is shot through with youthful energy. He can be found joining the Monday jazz jam at Donna’s Bar and Grill (800 N. Rampart St., 504-596-6914) and at solo gigs at Blue Nile (532 Frenchmen St., 504-948-2583)
Jazz singer and trumpeter Jeremy Davenport performs with his band in the posh setting of the On Trois Lounge (which becomes the Jeremy Davenport Lounge on Thursdays) at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (921 Canal St., 504-524-1331). The famous hotel chain spent some $250 million to transform a former department store into a luxury destination, and not a dime of that sum appears missing in the opulent bar, all soft lit and trimmed in thick molding and dark, polished woods. Davenport completed world tours with Harry Connick Jr.’s Big Band, and his own smooth, debonair style is often favorably compared with that of Chet Baker. During his performances Thursdays through Saturdays, The Lounge pushes back its tables from the front of the stage to open up dance floor space. Around the room, couples who could be on first dates or celebrating 50th anniversaries listen, watch, dine and drink from candle-lit tables.