New Orleans clarinetist John Casimir founded the Young Tuxedo Brass Band in 1938. In the liner notes of the band’s first (1958) album, Jazz Begins, alto sax player Herman Sherman is described as the “baby of the band.” (For black and white photos of the band parading during this period, see Lee Friedlander’s Jazz People of New Orleans).
Sousaphonist Wilbert Tilman took over as band leader for a brief period in 1963 after Casimir died. In poor health Tilman handed over leadership to Andrew Morgan and when he died in 1972, the baby of the band, Sherman, ascended to the leader position. In 1983 the band released its second album, Jazz Continues, and Sherman continued to serve as leader until his death on September 10, 1984. Cornet player Gregg Stafford took over as leader and remains so today. The roster of the Young Tuxedos over the years has included the likes of Paul Barbarin, John Brunious, Walter Payton, Charles Barbarin, Ernest “Doc” Watson, Joseph Torregano, Fred Lonzo, Lawrence Trotter, Mark Braud and Dr. Michael White. I think even Shamarr Allen played with them at least once.
* * *
My wife Dedra is from New Orleans and when I fell in love with her, in 1992, we were living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The next year we moved in together and I fell in love with her jazz records. They once belonged to her jazz musician grandfather, Herman Sherman.
The two albums that most captivated me were A Night at Birdland with the Art Blakey Quintet (it never fails to amuse me when Blakey says of ‘A Night in Tunisia‘: ”I feel rather close to this tune because I was right there when [Dizzy Gillespie] composed it in Texas on the bottom of a garbage can. Seriously”) and Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up. I played that Gordon album relentlessly, especially savoring the first track, “Tanya,” all 18 minutes and 21 seconds of it. The Gordon album was held together by a couple generations of tape, yellowed Scotch and gray duct, applied by her grandfather. That his very hands had worn the album to such a degree, and had repaired it, seemed a kind of validation of my love for the music.
Then, in 1993, Dedra took me to the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans. We parked at the family house near the racetrack where she had lived with her mother, grandparents and at various times aunts, uncles and cousins. The Young Tuxedos used to practice in the backyard (in the camelback shotgun hangs a 1970s Bruce Brice painting that depicts the band playing there). It rained heavily that day, but when we listened to the Young Tuxedos play in the Economy Hall tent, soaked and ankle deep in mud, my arms wrapped around Dedra, I felt utterly at ease and in love. It was Dedra’s first time hearing the band since her grandfather had died, since his jazz funeral when the Young Tuxedos accompanied his body to St. Louis Cemetery #3, and here they were playing the songs they would typically play for a jazz funeral.
It was the first time I’d ever heard New Orleans jazz and I was stunned by what I heard and felt. The dirges scraped at my insides, tears streamed down my face. But when the theoretical body had been interred at the cemetery, the music turned joyous and transcendent, and the pain released (transformed?). The experience changed me in ways I still don’t quite understand. I know I’m not alone in my reaction to the music, which seems to be the point.
It was initially my idea to move to New Orleans in 1998. I had to get back near that music and the culture that made it. And I didn’t want to do it as a Midwestern tourist anymore. Many other factors were in play as well, including a lack of options, but I contend the precipitating event for our New Orleans move was that Young Tuxedo set at Jazz Fest in 1993.
I find all of this personally profound but somewhat embarrassing to share because I’ve always considered myself to be a stunted learner when it comes to music. As a young child, my left ear worked fine but my right one functioned only marginally. I intuitively supplemented by reading lips, and in the second grade my parents took me to see an ear, nose and throat specialist named Dr. Van Nuys (I called him Dr. Van Eyes). He was a big guy, at least to the eight year old me, taller than my six foot tall father. He wore a lighted head mirror and looked a bit like a crab the way he constantly wheeled around the room on a backless rolling chair. He asked a series of questions while facing me, then wheeled away and repeated the same questions with his back turned, which led me to repeatedly ask, “What? What’d you say?” Prior to this meeting the extent of my hearing loss had evidently not been fathomed. After surgery I missed two weeks of school but my hearing was restored.
For the next couple years I got pulled out of classes regularly by a series of special education speech therapists, young, pretty and sweet like candy women who helped me learn how to properly pronounce the th, s, and l sounds. Each would sit directly in front of me, face close to mine.They would delight when I’d get the sounds right and show steady patience when I’d aim for s and hit th. They would slow motion model the complex arrangement of tongue, teeth, air and sound.
I also had to take a special ed class that focused on rhythm. These were less pleasing as they were in a small group instead of one on one, and the tasks, such as having to replicate a metronome beat, were boring and made me feel like an idiot. If anything, it made me more self conscious, and not in a helpful way. I remember practicing for a holiday concert at school around this time and I couldn’t relax and move to the music, so I was relegated to sitting at the front of the stage with a couple maracas and little instruction while the other children moved rhythmically across the stage and sang Christmas songs. A third grader not up to snuff for the rigors of the class holiday concert.
I don’t want to overstate what turned out to be temporary disabilities. I was truly a lucky kid. I got the surgery I needed to restore my hearing, and my speech normalized. The experience perhaps messed with my self perception but it also left me with a kind of awe of musicians. Add to that my affection for New Orleans jazz, and I’ve come to like my music outside, on the streets or at music festivals, where I have to contend with weather and bodies, rope lines and parked cars, and where the division between the listener and player seem most fluid.
After living here a year and motivated by a combination of having a young child, living in a new city I found enthralling, and craving something other than writing as an outlet, I took up photography. I’d always admired my writer friends who were also musicians. Not only that they were musicians but how the music gave them another way to be creative. And damn, it looked like a whole lot of fun. That’s how I came to think of my camera as a band I play in. It allows me to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet, see things I wouldn’t normally see, and see in ways I wouldn’t normally see. The camera also brings me closer to music. I don’t want to be too precious about it, if I haven’t already–New Orleans has many better photographers–but there’s very little I would rather do than wander a city street with a camera. That I live in a city where the street can yield a second line parade, I honestly can’t believe my good fortune. I only wish I had more days dedicated to wandering.