Meeting the jazz community: New Orleans (Part 2)

With graduation, I was opening a new chapter in my life as I started college in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Specifically, I was going to start attending the University of New Orleans.

Photo by Drew Fink.

Showing that old habits die hard, I started college the same way I started high school: Very quietly, keeping to myself, and trying not to make a spectacle of myself. I literally could go a week barely saying anything, only really talking when I had a lesson.

I was thrust all alone into a whole new world, and I had a bit of culture shock. It took some time to get used to how different downtown New Orleans was to downtown Greenville. I swear when I first started living here I saw a police officer patrolling around every corner, and I got paranoid that there was always a crime happening, or I worried that it was dangerous to even walk down the street.

Once I calmed down, I realized that in a downtown this big, having a police officer around every corner prevents crime, and, eventually, I just stopped paying attention.

Much like back in high school, my connections with the jazz community mainly stem from the university. The music students here are all from various religious, ethnic, and economic background, and mostly had Y-chromosomes. And much like back home, I swear at least sixty percent of the students here are guitarists. However, unlike back home, I think we’re more passionate about music in general (although I’m pretty sure that’s because of the jump from high school to college, not necessarily due to the change in location), and a bunch of us are even from different countries (again: high school to college). Barring literally two exceptions, both the music student base and the music faculty are friendly, passionate, and fun to work with. (Okay, I’ll take my check for the good PR now, UNO.)

Unfortunately, I’m still me, so most of my experience dealing with people is with the faculty, especially with the head of the Jazz Studies Department, Ed Petersen, and my most recurring professor, Brent Rose.

Ed has been great at guiding me where I need to go and the stuff he gives out in private lessons sticks with you for years. Brent … I don’t need to explain who he is to music students. You’re already smiling. Probably laughing. Brent Rose: the man, the myth, the legend. Over my three and a half years here, I had at least one class with him every semester, and I’m definitely not complaining. In fact, the only reason I ever actually started going out to play was to play with him.

“But wait,” you may ask, “Isn’t going to school in New Orleans and barely ever going downtown to play or even listen a giant waste?”

Yes. It is. People terrify me. I first started to … well, not “get out” of my shell, so much as “started to peek out” of it during my first combo here. Thanks to the Fine Arts Center, I was a good bit more advanced than the other freshmen (and one sophomore) in the band. Despite myself, I found that I had to be the “in-band” leader to keep things running. As time went on, I got more and more comfortable with doing this. Just not as comfortable as I am when I didn’t have to. But, if the opportunity arises, I can take charge pretty easily.

Speaking of being a follower, I’ll never forget the first time I had the opportunity to play with Brent. The first-semester of my junior year, I went with a friend of mine, which was good, because unlike me, he actually knew where we were going. We took the bus downtown. It was crowded; I’m claustrophobic; you get the picture.

We actually passed the Crescent City Brewhouse, the bar we were supposed to go to, and had to walk around a few blocks with our saxophones and my heavy satchel full of books. We found Brent’s trio playing. Then … we played music … nothing else really happened. It was uneventful, actually. Fun, but uneventful. Life can’t always be a funny story. Sometimes, it’s filing taxes.

Over the years I’ve been playing there, the bands have always been more or less the same, but unlike back home, I rarely recognize anyone in the audience. Some of them are very attractive, and those were the ones that scared me the most.

The jazz scene in New Orleans is far looser than it is back home. There’s a sense of whimsy that’s almost infectious at times. They certainly take the craft seriously, but they’re much less serious about it. Jazz back home is meant to be art to be appreciated. Jazz here is a medium for everyone to have fun, dance, or even join in. I don’t dance, though. You’re welcome. Heck, in a combo one semester we played the Legend of Zelda theme as a joke.

This isn’t to say that the more lighthearted atmosphere makes you soft. I’ve worked my tail off these past three and a half years. So much so that I’ve been told by numerous teachers that the only thing I really need to do is go out and play more, and what problems I do have will fix themselves.Sigh. Although I’ve occasionally felt rather alone through it all, music is the love of my life, and will continue to be so until I hopefully replace her with an actual woman.

For my senior recital, I had to pick out the band, arrange rehearsals, and generally act as the leader. I even wrote two of the songs we played and did a kind of Louis Armstrong-esque comedy routine Afterwards, I talked to my teachers who did the standard congratulations about how the recital went well, how much my playing has improved, and even how my comedy routine was pretty good.

“I remember when he didn’t talk!” quoth Mr. Petersen. Yeah, doing this kind of thing in front of complete strangers is definitely something I wouldn’t have done in the past. I’m really grateful that I had this opportunity to grow here, and if any of the music faculty read this, I’d once again like to say thank you for all you’ve done!

Part 3: Brent Rose Interview

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.


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