“Jazz, Jambalaya, and Jubilee” — That’s what was promised at the annual conference of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, held, this year, in the Big Easy. (In the spirit of improv, this account — part travelogue, part conference report — will not be presented in chronological order.)
✶ JAZZ ✶
PART ONE: Jazz Everywhere
Jazz was in the air from the time I arrived in New Orleans, two days before the conference, for this once-in-a-lifetime visit.
The “Birthplace of Jazz” didn’t disappoint. Dixieland was playing in the women’s restroom at the Louis Armstrong Airport. Jazz was in the way the cabbie drove my friend Joyce and me to the hotel near the French Quarter and in the way folks strolled down the street and sat in the sultry shade waving fans. The very trees of the Crescent City (glorious Oaks with kinky branches) wore Mardi Gras beads. (Seriously! I snapped this photo from a taxi window.)
~ Queen Clarinet, Doreen Ketchens
Saturday morning, following an informed hunch, we went in search of one of the greatest jazz musicians of our age, DOREEN KETCHENS, called the “female Louis Armstrong” or “Lady Louie.” I’d read about her online and marveled at YouTube clips of her playing.
We found her busking on Royal Street behind the St. Louis Cathedral, with her daughter Dorian on drums and husband Lawrence playing tuba. They brought out a chair for me. Joyce sat on the curb beside a growing crowd.
Hearing Ms. Ketchens play was a highlight of my life. We stayed for two hot hours, clapping our hands, snapping our fingers, listening to a skilled mix of jazz, blues, soul.
Inebriated locals in crazy wigs and torn t-shirts strutted and staggered; tourists sporting even crazier wigs and shirts, shimmied and shook.
Doreen sang and played “Hit the Road, Jack,” “It Had to Be You,” “House of the Rising Sun/ Amazing Grace (combined),” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” …
Every time someone put money in one of her buckets, she flashed a smile that was pure sunshine.
When her fingers weren’t flying flawlessly over the shiny black clarinet with golden keys, she gave her signature thumbs up. I tried hard to reign in my enthusiasm, but it was next to impossible.
~ Brides, Poets, and “Bach Babes”
Just as we were saying goodbye to Ms. Ketchens, a brass band marched up the street.
At first, I thought it was a jazz funeral of brass players / mourners / second-liners. (See the previous post on this blog for a YouTube clip and background on the New Orleans tradition of jazz funerals.)
But instead of a funeral, it was a WEDDING procession. The police closed off traffic when the band suddenly appeared out of nowhere, followed by a bride waving a white parasol and a groom waving a purple handkerchief. Their guests and other revelers waved white or purple scarves, depending on whether they were friends of the bride or groom.
And just as suddenly, they were gone.
But then there was CUBS THE POET, sitting in the middle of the street behind a manual typewriter on a little wooden desk. For a small donation, he wrote a poem just for me.
Cubs’ poem was filled with jazz. In it, he asked the reader to listen for the soul speaking through the streets, haunted homes, clarinets. He has a website and is on Twitter and Facebook. When I asked him his favorite authors, he replied Emerson, Camus, and Franz Fanon.
Like every other day that week, the heat index on Saturday was 105˚ with 100% humidity. Needing a place in the shade but fast, we stumbled almost by accident into a place everyone told us we had to go — Pat Obrien’s “Bourbon Bar.” Their motto since 1933 has been the blunt, inelegant “Have fun!” (There is no subtlety on Bourbon Street.)
No sooner had our lemonades arrived, than a gaggle of ballerinas in purple tutus tumbled in and filled the cozy space with gaze and tipsy giggles. On the front of their tank-tops were the words BACH BABES. I caught the attention of one young woman and asked, “Are you all fans of Johann Sebastian Bach or church organists, perhaps?”
After she stopped laughing, she managed, no, the “Bach” in “Bach Babes” stood for Bachelorette. Their friend (dressed in a white tutu and ordering drinks at the bar) was getting married the next week. They’d driven over from Texas to celebrate.
~ St. Marks in the French Quarter
On Sunday morning, we headed to the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the French Quarter, a reconciling (LGBTQ-friendly) congregation. ) There were rainbow streamers hanging at the front of the sanctuary.
[Gay history: In June, 1973, 32 people were burned to death when someone set fire to a gay bar in the French Quarter. It was the largest mass murder of gays in U.S. history. Following the massacre, St. Mark’s UMC was the only church in the city that would hold memorial services for the victims. A documentary, Upstairs Inferno, has just been made about the tragedy.]
Via email a week earlier, I’d introduced myself to the pastor, Rev. ANITA DINWIDDIE. She made us feel welcome, as did the diverse congregation, which reminded me of my friends at the Church of Gethsemane in Brooklyn where I was organist for 15 years, the hungry and the well-fed seated side-by-side.
I was asked to come forward to tell everyone about the Hymn Society. I invited them all to the Hymn Festivals which would be held in various churches around NOLA that week. (Rev. Dinwiddie came to the Thursday morning Festival and was blown away by the beauty.)
There was jazz here, too. Most memorable was a poignant rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Performed by a youth group, the whole congregation softly joined in the haunting refrain.
Many in the congregation had found their way to this church after Hurricane Katrina. They continue to come either for food or worship or both. Following the Sunday service, up to 150 people line up every week for free boxed lunches, as we witnessed.
~ Jazz for Congregational Singing
My favorite workshop at this year’s conference was titled “Jazz Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Resources for the Church Musician.” It was offered by my friend DEANNA WITKOWSKI, winner of the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. Jazz International Journal called her “one of the best of the new generation of jazz pianists.” No doubt about it.
Those of us who crammed into her encore workshop on the last morning of the conference were awed by Deanna, who talked to us like old friends, even while playing chords that must have had fifteen notes each. (How many fingers does this woman have?!!!)
She offered practical ideas for ways to integrate faith-based jazz into worship without freaking people out and gave us some of her notated sacred jazz settings of hymns and scripture.
Check out a great 2009 interview with Deanna in Sojourners.
~ Hymn Society Selfies
Another jazz high was the closing Hymn Festival, led by MARK MILLER and BRIAN HEHN, both beloved by Hymn Society members.
When Miller opened with an organ prelude, lots of younger Society members started snapping selfies, with the renowned composer in the background at the console up in the choir loft.
Miller teaches sacred music at Drew and Yale Universities. I’ve used his anthems at my church, including his setting of “The Lord’s Prayer,” sung toward the conclusion of this conference.
Mark believes that music can change the world. Following his passionate direction, we believed that, too.
Whether he’s playing a complex rhythm on the drum, enthusiastically accompanying on the piano, or convincing 300 people that they can scat sing with confidence and to try it “just for fun,” we know we’re in good hands with Brian.
A “drumming clinician” with a passion for creative worship, his new book has just been published by the Choristers Guild, All Hands In: Drumming the Biblical Narrative.
~ A Night on the Mississippi
One night before the conference, Joyce and I had an elegant dinner on a steam-powered paddleboat, sailing slowly up the river. As the sun set over the Big Easy, a band played all kinds of jazz, from Dixieland to Duke Ellington tunes.
Looking out at the Mississippi, I thought about Sam Clemens, who loved this river and knew its every twist and turn. While researching my book The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Mark Twain (Bloomsbury, 2008), I read everything he wrote about his time as a pilot during the “Golden Age of Riverboating.” He said, “The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book … It had a new story to tell every day,” and quipped, “A steamboat is as pretty as a wedding cake, but without the complications.”
✶ JUBILEE ✶
PART TWO: Feeling Blue Is Part of It
The word Jubilee sounds happy, and sometimes it is. In the Hebrew scriptures, it describes a fresh start, proclaimed every 50 years, when old debts were forgiven, slaves and prisoners were freed, and everyone got a chance to start over. Jubilee can also mean a season of restoration and celebration. In African-American tradition, it is another name for a spiritual or slave song about deliverance from hard times.
~ Haunted by Hurricane Katrina
It is almost the 10th anniversary of Katrina. The hotel where I stayed was in the shadow of the notorious Superdome, the “shelter of last resort” for over 15,000 people who couldn’t get out of the city. The ghosts of Katrina are everywhere, especially in the 9th Ward, which still has a long way to go towards restoration and celebration.
Fittingly, the theme of the conference’s first night Hymn Festival was “When the Storms of Life Are Raging.” We sang new laments, “O God, Why Are You Silent?” and “As If You Were Not There,” and Charles Tindley’s old hymn of comfort, “The Storm Is Passing Over.”
The next morning, when I sat in the back of a cab driven by a woman named DELORES, I thought about these songs — cries of abandonment and choruses of consolation.
By the time we reached the Loyola campus on Monday morning, she’d confided that her beloved son had succumbed to despair, unable to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and killed himself.
I rode with Delores several times throughout the week. She is a woman of great spirit, depth, and strength, as well as a gifted storyteller. Together, we laughed and cried and laughed again. She told me that every election day, after taking advantage of early voting, she drives people from her community to the polls for free, encouraging them to exercise their hard-fought franchise.
~ Singing from the Margins
For me, the most mind-blowing plenary of the week was the one on Monday morning led by MIGUEL (scholar-activist, ethicist, author) and DEBORAH DE LA TOREE (concert pianist, composer).
I was so busy taking notes on Rev. Dr. De La Torre’s “theology of hopelessness,” I forgot to take a photo. He reminded us that the world’s poor live in a Saturday world (between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) — a universe of undeserved suffering in which God is silent and may remain silent for their entire lives. With Jesus, they have cried “Why have you forsaken us?” and gotten no answer except maybe “tough.” God does not come to them as a magician, neatly granting their prayer requests.
It is insulting to those suffering on the margins, he said, when well-fed people in cushy churches sing simplistic praise songs to a triumphant Jesus. The question of the cross is about the savage butchery of our dominant culture’s collusion of church and state. God invites us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and work for justice, even when there doesn’t seem to be a chance in hell that justice will come in our lifetimes.
There is much to ponder here, and I look forward to reading his books when my schedule opens up. I am grateful to the Hymn Society for daring to introduce the words and hymns from that morning’s session.
~ From Spirituals to Gospel Songs: A History
“If I had hair, it would be standing straight up.” That’s what ROY BELFIELD, JR. (composer, and professor at Texas Southern University) said as he took the stage for his lecture.
Indeed, there is nothing like hearing 300 choral directors, pastors, and other hymn-lovers all singing together in full-voiced harmony, songs old and new. It’s the best part of this annual gathering.
Roy had us singing our hearts out at his plenary, which was an historic overview of the development of African-American hymnody — from spirituals to gospel songs and beyond. Slaves, he said, loved the hymns of Isaac Watts (the “father of English hymnody”), but they adapted or “blackened” them and added “wandering refrains.”
~ Songs for City Dwellers
Every year at this conference, I seek out Dr. NANCY ELIZABETH HARDY from Toronto. I was especially eager to see her this year, with the recent publication of her resource book, Worship in the City: Prayers and Songs for Urban Settings (United Church of Canada Publishing House).
I took one look and knew it was the book I’d been waiting for. I immediately bought one copy for me and three for Christmas presents.
Like Nancy, I find it frustrating that we sit in city pews singing hymns that reflect a rural ideal about plowing fields and bringing in the sheaves (the what?), wandering through woods and forest glades (you mean Central Park?), hearing birds sing sweetly in the trees (pigeons?), seeing stars (at the planetarium?)
When we do sing about the city, it’s generally in despairing tones about our windows “blank, unfeeling” and our streets “where the lonely drift unnoticed.”
Here is a rare resource with new texts that celebrate cities as places of positive energy and creativity, centers of artistic collaboration and educational opportunities, where people gather from around the world to work together. And, yes, there are also songs of lamentation for the realities of isolation, despair, poverty, injustice. It’s all here. I say Hallelujah!
~ Swimming Together in the Big Easy
This might be a strange thing to include in this section on “Jubilee,” but one night Joyce and I went for a swim in the rooftop pool at our posh hotel (made affordable because summer is their off-off-season).
Those of you who read my other blog “Activists With Attitude,” know that recently, after a white cop in McKinney, Texas went Rambo on some black kids at a pool party, I wrote an essay titled “Swimming Together.” It’s an overview of the long struggle to integrate beaches and pools in the U.S. and of the nonviolent civil rights actions of the 1950s and ‘60s called “wade-ins.”
I thought about this as I eased into the cooling waters and began chatting and laughing with four young black women taking a dip, holding high their drinks, toasting each other in the muggy air. This, for me, had a sense of “Jubilee,” of bringing things right and celebrating.
✶ JAMBALAYA ✶
PART THREE: What Was Missing…
Jambalaya! I never did get any.
I did get coffee and BEIGNETS at the Café Du Monde in the French Quarter, at the urging of, well, everyone I know. After standing in line for 25 minutes, the big blessing of that morning was, when I spilled my full cup of iced coffee (au lait), it did NOT fall into my open handbag!
And I did have my first taste of GRITS. It was very funny. The waiters in the hotel restaurant all gathered around and gave me instructions on how to eat them. One said the only way was with butter and salt. Another said butter and sugar. Another said cheese. In the end, they brought a big bowl of grits with a second empty bowl so I could try it all three ways. They hovered while I experimented. Turns out, I like grits every way. The waiters were pleased.
And, in the Loyola cafeteria, I did get a taste of what passes for VEGAN in Louisiana. I’d promised my sister I would try to find something labeled Vegan and “vote for it” by ordering it. Um, it had cow milk and cheese in it. But, I “voted for it” and enjoyed it.
I also got one spoonful of GUMBO. So, here’s the thing: No one warned me!!!! I mean, it sounded innocent enough — seafood, tomatoes, thickener.
Hymn Society Executive Director DEB LOFTIS announced that conference attendee BARBARA HAMM would be playing the piano and singing at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter. Joyce and I headed over to eat in the hotel’s sweet restaurant and listen to Barbara’s ethereal singing. (She was awesome and could play and talk with me at the same time.) It was in that elegant place that I tried a teaspoon of gumbo.
I still can’t feel my mouth.
✶ POSTSCRIPT ✶
So, that’s it. What a week.
Of course there is lots more to tell, like how much fun it was to see my old friend DWAYNE BEST again. We used to hang out with a gang from MCC in the Village in the late 1970s, early ‘80s, singing hymns on New York City subways and acting young and goofy, dancing down the streets. Now, Dwayne has a well-researched hymn blog called “Conjubilant with Song,” worth checking out.
I could tell you about the words of encouragement and advice ADAM TICE gave me one morning. He is not only a deeply-respected and widely-published writer of new hymn texts, but my Facebook buddy. He reads ASK HER ABOUT HYMN(s) and was complimentary about my writing and approach. I asked if he had any tips for me, and he did. Get word out on Twitter, he said. Twitter! As it happens, I am learning how to tweet. I even have a handle (@ActivistPam) and, more importantly, a Twitter teacher. He is Ghanaian rapper, Hip-hop artist, songwriter NANA WIAFE ASANTE-MENSAH. We are bartering: I am teaching him to read music, and he is teaching me to tweet! When I told Adam, he gently smiled and wished me luck.
I could tell you about the bus tour of New Orleans that Joyce and I took after the conference ended. It was called “Hop On, Hop Off.” Given how exhausted we both felt, we re-named it “Crawl On, Crawl Off.” At one stop, I looked out the window and saw a taxi with these words painted on the side: PRAY TO GOD CAB SERVICE.
I could tell you how opulent the hotel was. Even the elevator doors were exquisitely hand-painted (and, as some of you know, it’s hard for me to say anything nice about elevators). The elevators at Loyola, in contrast, were absolutely nightmarish, howling and shrieking.
I could tell you about the ghosts. Andrei Codrescu wrote, “Ghosts and pirates are as thick as the morning fog on certain days in New Orleans.” Yep. Joyce and I stayed in the city’s “most haunted hotel” and remained on the lookout for the ghost of a little girl named Ava who is known to play tag with the guests. We never felt her cold touch, thank goodness, nor did we catch a glimpse of the “weeping woman” who likes to sit on the end of the bed. We’re convinced, however, that there was phantom in our bathroom: something wiped clear a perfect rectangle on the foggy mirror!
I could tell you that it was bright and way-too-sunny all week until half an hour before our plane was to depart. That’s when an enormous black cloud descended on the city. I looked around for Hymn Society President JACQUE BROWNING JONES who had been on the flight down to the Big Easy with us, like an effervescent good luck charm, but she was nowhere to be found. I’m not sure what she could have done about the cloud, but I was hoping.
Our flight finally took off, delayed about 45 minutes. As we flew up and over Louisiana, I whispered: “Goodbye Doreen; keep making music. Goodbye Delores; stay safe. Goodbye Mississippi River; thank you.”
Being an agoraphobe, I don’t travel enough to get inured to the adventure of seeing the world from on high. I look and marvel and try not to disturb the other passengers by oh-ing and ah-ing out loud.
At sunset, I saw a soft blanket of clouds outside my window. It looked like a cottony ocean with undulating waves tinted blue. Breathtaking!
Before you could say “Jazz, Jambalaya, and Jubilee,” we were flying over the New York metropolitan area.
There was one little moment of a scare in the air when we almost touched down on the runway, but then shot back up into the sky, fast! No explanation.
After circling the glittering city a few more times, we landed safely, and I was home in the city that never sleeps — with new songs to sing and stories to tell.
Thank you, Hymn Society!