I guess it’s not so unusual anymore to have friends whom you’ve only “met” through the coincidence of mutual interest via the internet. I rarely take the initiative to meet these people in real life, which occasionally I’ve come to I regret.
I became a flickr “contact” with Jeff Lamb 57 months ago, or about 10 months after I started my flickr account in those maddening months following the Federal Flood in New Orleans. Jeff lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but he had a New Orleans obsession, and like quite a few New Orleans obsessives who no longer lived here back then, he spent a lot of time online poring over photos out of New Orleans. Jeff lived here in the late 1970s and early 1980s and online it seemed like he never quite left. He became friends with many New Orleans photographers and culture lovers via his internet activities. From the bio on Jeff’s website, here’s a snippet that nicely captures his voice:
…I met Clarence John Laughlin many times, until finally he would have a look at a couple photographs of mine. First thing he did was turn them upside down, and then sit there for a while, and then maybe say, i get it. Once he told me, as it relates to photography, and surealism (sic), that “reality is stranger than fiction”, and once in a while I look at a photograph of mine, and i get it.
I have read more recently, somewhere, the pursuit of an image is about the “suspension of reality”.
I like that, after all, isn’t a photograph about the suspension of time and space in an instant, and from that point on, that time and space will never be the same.
Jeff died a few months ago. In January, not too long before he died, he requested I become a Facebook friend with someone, a photographer out of Detroit who now lived in New Orleans and even played the saxophone. I happily acceded to Jeff’s request and became Facebook friends with Joseph Crachiola. So that’s how I “met” Joseph.
Joseph, too, met Jeff through Facebook–Jeff had found him only a few months earlier. They had a lot in common: Photography, Michigan, New Orleans and all things New Orleans. When Joseph made it back to Michigan for a visit last fall, he and Jeff got together for a few days in Ann Arbor and they had a ball. As Joseph says, “I felt like he was a kindred spirit.”
When I had the idea of interviewing a few musician-photographers in New Orleans, I quickly thought of Joseph. I was curious about his perspective, given he was still relatively new to the city, and I loved his photography. The other two musician-photographers I had in mind for interviews were long time New Orleanians. Together, it’s an intriguing array of perspectives. I’m terribly sorry Jeff isn’t around to read these interviews—I’d very much like to see one of his warm and clever comments pop up again.
Next week I will run my interview with Infrogmation, aka Froggy, aka WWOZ DJ Dan Meyer.
* * *
The first time I truly met Joseph Crachiola was a couple weeks ago when he dropped by my house to be interviewed. Joseph is from a small town outside Detroit that got swallowed up by the suburbs (same story for me, except replace Detroit with Chicago). He worked 15 years for suburban Detroit newspapers and 22 years as a corporate photographer before he got bought out and decided to move to New Orleans about 2 years ago. He recently served as road manager for the Pinettes Brass Band in Turkey, and photographed the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy.
Mostly, I tried to stay out of the way of Joseph telling his story. On the occasions I couldn’t help myself, my comments appear in italics.
I came down here a little over two years ago and this friend – Charles Silver – took me one night, it was the Louisiana Humanities Center in the CBD and the Tremè Brass Band was there. It was a thing where they did a talk about the music. They had one guy as a moderator and they had all the guys in the band talking about their life, their music, Katrina and all that stuff. They played a few songs and then they said, ‘When we’re done here we’re heading over to the Candlelight Lounge (in Treme) to do our regular Wednesday night thing there.’ I’d never been to the Candlelight; didn’t know anything about it. The three of us went over there. I was just blown away by the music and the vibe and the whole thing. It was just amazing.
So I became a regular at the Candlelight, every Wednesday night, that’s where we were hanging out. I started talking to some of the musicians. I’d met one of the sax players, a guy named Cedric Wiley, a young sax player, really good. And I told him at the time, ‘I’m an old rock and roll musician. I’m from Detroit’—at that point I hadn’t played in a while, it’d been maybe 6-7-8 months since I’d picked up my horn. When I was in Detroit I was playing sporadically, not like playing weekly gigs. And when I came down here I never even thought that I would ever cut it. Because I know the reputation of this town … In fact, someone told me, ‘If you’re going to tell people here you’re a musician, you’d better be able to hold your own.’ But anyway, I’d met this one sax player, a nice guy, late 30s, I think. And I told him where I was from and said, ‘Maybe sometime you can give me some lessons.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and he gave me his phone number. We talked but were never able to quite get it together. One night I was (in the Candlelight) and there’s this guy named Calvin Brown with the Treme, who plays the snare drum. Calvin is just amazing. I mean, I was just watching him and he’s doing these little rim shots and playing the side of the drum and just had these moves. I’d just never seen anyone do that, you know? I was just enthralled by what he was doing. During the band’s break I went over and talked to him. I said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone play like that.’ We talked a little; he’s a real nice guy, kind of soft spoken. And then he says, ‘You play?’ I said, ‘I play a little bit.’ He says, ‘You know, when I’m playing I’m always watching the crowd seeing how they’re reacting. I was watching you and you looked like someone who knows something about music.’ And that’s when I said, ‘I play a little bit, but I’m not that good.’ And he says, ‘Well, bring your horn down, come on and sit in!’ And I said, ‘Man, I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, man. If you can play a few notes,
it’s cool. Just come do what you can.’ I went home and I thought about it. I thought, on the one hand I don’t want to make a fool of myself. But on the other hand, how many times are people going to give you chances like that? You better do it. For the following week I just played my horn non-stop and I was listening to all these brass band CDs to see if I could get some sort of sense of what they were doing. So the next Wednesday I went, a friend of mine came with me and I told her, ‘I’m nervous as all hell.’ She said, ‘Aww, just have a couple of beers, loosen up, don’t worry about it.’ So I walk into the place and I just figured they’d have me play one or two songs, whatever. And Benny (Jones), the band leader, says, ‘Yeah, that’s your seat over there, man. Sit down.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So I was there for the night. And Cedric, the other sax player I was telling you about, he sat down next to me. And I kind of said the same thing to him, ‘Man, I’ve never done this, I may be over my head.’ He said, ‘Aw, just play what you feel, man, don’t worry about it.’ So I did—I guess I did okay because Benny said, ‘Yeah, you sound good, man. Come back next week.’ I did that every week for quite a while. Maybe a month or so later, one night and there was a different sax player there. I’d never seen him there before. And he was kind of a big, imposing figure and he was wearing sunglasses and his little black hat and all this stuff. He didn’t say anything. I sat down next to him. I said hello—I can’t remember what I said, but he barely acknowledged my existence. But I was listening to him warm up and he was playing all these little be-bop riffs and all this stuff, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to pay attention to this guy.’ Man, he was good. So after the night was over, there was a guy I knew in the bar and I asked him, ‘Who’s that sax player.’ And he said, ‘Oh, Stackman.’ I had been telling this guy the same thing, that I wanted to find someone to take lessons from and all that. And he says, ‘That’s the guy you got to take lessons from.’ And I said, ‘Stackman?’ He says, ‘His name is Elliot Callier but everyone calls him Stackman.’ I went online to look him up and he’s got quite an amazing resume.
He plays with Treme as well?
Yeah, he does the Wednesday night gig with them and he does some other gigs with them, but that’s not like his main gig. He was there the first night I saw him filling in for one of the other guys who had another gig and couldn’t make it.
That’s something I don’t know if a lot of people appreciate, how fluid many of the bands are—there’s a core maybe, but there’s a lot of floating in and out of people.
Yeah, yeah, they come and they go. With the Treme, there’s Benny and Lionel (Batiste) and Calvin … Since I’ve been involved with them there’s been a couple trombone players who have come and gone. There’s a guy named Eddie King who’s been there pretty much all along, he plays trombone. And of course Kenneth Terry, the trumpet player, singer. But anyways, I was asking this guy about Stackman and he said, ‘That’s the guy you’ve got to take lessons from. I know him. Let me call him up and see if he’s willing to give you lessons.’ This guy’s name is Paulo. Paulo calls me back a couple days later and he says, ‘Yes, Stackman says it’s cool. Here’s his number and call him up.’ And then that whole thing was funny, because I called up Stackman and I told him my name and how we’d met and I got his number from Paulo. He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, okay. When can you come over?’ So I went to his house one day and he pulls out a music stand and sets up some sheet music. ‘Let me hear you play some scales.’ So I went through a whole bunch of scales. And then he put some music in front of me and he said, ‘Play this.’ So I played this—and they were basically some Arpeggios, some exercises, but it was all written out, because he wanted to see if I could read music. So I played the stuff that was on the sheet music. He kind of goes, ‘Okay. I think I know what I’m dealing with here. Yeah, I’ll work with you. At least you know your scales.’ It was so funny. And I started going to his house once a week, and I did that for like six months. Six, maybe seven months.
Now, how long after you moved here was this going on?
I first came here around the end of May just over two years ago and I stayed for a month and a half, to help my daughter out. That’s what brought me here. I stayed for a month and a half and I started meeting people and going out to some of these clubs and stuff. I went back home (in Detroit) and I wasn’t home that long before I decided I wanted to move here. So I moved into my apartment on September first (2009), almost two years ago. It was shortly after that that I first went to the Candelight. And then it would’ve been like January, 2010, the first time I sat in one those guys. And then maybe it was February, early March when I met Stackman and started taking lessons from him. Then it just got to be a thing where, like, Stackman was so cool. It was funny, that first week he was just kind of, ‘We’ll see.’ He gave me this book and he marked some pages. It was an old dog eared saxophone book with all these exercises in it. There were about 10 pages (he’d marked) and he said, ‘Make copies of these pages and learn all this stuff.’ And then he says: ‘You better take good care of this book.’ It turned out, what he told me was, the book once belonged to his father. His father had played sax will Billy Eckstine. … So, basically, Stackman, as I learned over these months, grew up around all these incredible jazz players. He said, ‘I was like 10 years old and they’d sneak me in these clubs and I’d sit in with these guys.’ So he gave me this book. ‘You better take good care of this thing.’ So I went home and I copied it and I practiced it like hell. The next week, when I went back, it was funny. He said, ‘Here, play this.’ And I played all this stuff and he kind of smiled and he said, ‘You’ve been practicing.’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, man! I’m not going to waste your time—or my time. I’m going to practice.’ After that we got along so good and I’d go to his house—he never told me what he was going to charge me for lessons. The first week it was like, ‘Give me twenty dollars.’ I’d just give him whatever I could. So we had this really good relationship. I’d go to his house every Tuesday, and Wednesday night he’d sit next to me at the Candlelight and while we were playing, he’d say, ‘Okay, you know, when we get to this part, I’m going to play an F, you go ahead and play the third above the F and just follow me.’ I was getting lessons, on-the-job training—
–with the pressure of doing it in front of an audience.
Yeah. It was better than going to college. Gradually, I can’t remember when it was, maybe six months into that whole experience, I remember Benny was like, he came over to me one day and he says, ‘Get yourself a hat. A white shirt and some black pants. I’m going to get you some gigs.’ He told me where to go buy a hat and all that, and then he called me for a few gigs. I remember the first one I did with him was a wedding, down in the Quarter. We did a second-line around the block with the bride and groom, and then we played at the reception.
Was that your first time playing a parade?
Tell me, what was that like, walking around and playing? Was that a shift? I assume that’s harder.
It was weird, yeah, because I had to think about not just playing, but making sure I wasn’t walking too slow or too fast—
–And you don’t want to bump into anyone with your horn.
–Yeah and the horns are in front with the percussion behind us, so I had to kind of like be aware of where they were and not walk too fast, too slow. It was kind of weird. It definitely adds another (dimension).
Imagine doing that for three-four hours.
Eventually I did do some of those. I did a couple Mardi Gras gigs with them. One of them was the Krewe of Barkus.
The dog parade in the French Quarter.
It was a ball. Every once in a while Benny or someone else behind me would say, ‘Walk a little slower,’ or ‘Walk a little faster.’ And there was one other (parade)—I don’t even remember what Krewe it was, it was one I hadn’t heard of, but it was in the Quarter on Mardi Gras day … But it was funny, because I remember I played this Monday night gig [with a rock band he soon quit], I was out till one or two in the morning, and my girlfriend was here at the time, and we had made plans for what we were going to do on Mardi Gras day. I mean, loose plans. And I’m lying in bed and it’s seven in the morning and my cell phone rings. ‘Hello, this is Benny. Can you be at Jackson Square at nine o’clock. Got a gig.’ That’s kind of how he works, you know.
And that’s what it means to be leader of the band, isn’t it? Knowing how to hustle people up at seven in the morning on Fat Tuesday.
I said, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll be there.’ You can imagine Mardi Gras morning—I mean, I wasn’t about to drive to the Quarter and look for parking. I found out that you cannot get a cab Mardi Gras morning, anyplace. So Nicole and I walked—
–Was this your first or second Mardi Gras, or what?
My second one. So Nicole and I—she’s on high heels—I live on Mandeville and St. Claude, so we walked all the way to Jackson Square, me lugging my sax and her in high heels on Mardi Gras morning. And then did this parade. It was a trip. I mean, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
What a great way to enter New Orleans life, though.
Oh, my god. I keep saying, it’s just been like crazy. To fall in with guys like that. Benny and those guys are just like—
–That’s how it happens, it does happen. It’s such a statement about them, that they’re so open.
Yeah. I mean part of it is a statement about the city and the culture here. I’ve never been in a place where people are so open and warm.
How would you contrast it with Detroit?
Detroit’s a rough town. You know, people have a perception of Detroit that everyone walks around with a gun, and it ain’t like that.
Well, some people say that about New Orleans, too.
Yeah, I know, I know. People told me, ‘You’re going to move to New Orleans? Man, it’s dangerous.’ I said, ‘Well, it can’t be any worse than where I’m from.’ Yeah, Detroit’s a rough town, but the musical culture of Detroit is very different. There’s a whole lot of music there and there’s a really, really rich history. The people just aren’t as open. I’ve got a good friend up there who’s a jazz piano player who I’ve played a few gigs with in Detroit and when I told him what I was doing down here, he was like, ‘That would never happen in Detroit.’ People, unless they know you, they’re just not going to invite you to sit in. And if they do know you, they might invite you up for a couple songs. It’s not like, ‘Yeah, just come on and sit down and play.’ …
One thing about living in New Orleans, I feel a little—disconnected is probably too strong—but if I squint and tilt my head a little, I can kind of fool myself that I’m just in New Orleans, not Louisiana or the United States.
It’s definitely a different world here. It’s like some kind of weird little oasis. I was talking (to a lifelong friend) about my take about what’s going on in the country right now. You know, lots of people say how New Orleans is like a Third World country. I guess it’s kind of a mixed deal—there’s definitely a lot of problems here. I could say it’s like a Third World country with all of the politicians that are corrupt and all of the dysfunction, but it’s also a Third World country in good ways. The culture is so rich. And I was talking to my buddy, and he’s never been to New Orleans, trying to convince him to come down. I keep saying, ‘Yeah, I think the rest of the country is gonna end up like a Third World country but with no culture.’ At least here we’ve got culture.
At least here we know how to handle it.
I’ve seen what’s happened to Detroit and it’s depressing. It’s so sad. I know there’s a lot going on there with the arts.
But there’s so much city there to make it whole again.
And the thing I said when I left, there’s a rich history there, but Motown left, so for the musicians that are there, if they want to work they pretty much have to leave.
Yeah, it doesn’t have that kind of tourist trade to boost the music scene.
No. Everyone’s excited because there’s one jazz club in Detroit that’s actually stayed open now for three years, it hasn’t closed. One club. And here I can walk down the street and go to how many clubs? There’s a lot of artists who are buying property in (Detroit) because property is so cheap, so there’s kind of this renaissance going on there.
It’s still pioneer days, though, huh?
Well, yeah, it was happening when I was there. I bought a house in Detroit when I was married, my wife and I bought a house in the early 90s, a beautiful house, 2,800 square foot, it was a hundred years old, it was on a canal, and I bought it for $29,000. I think she finally—she kept it after we got divorced—she sold it for $60,000 or $70,000. There’s a lot of raw material there, but you can’t make a living there. I made a good living as a corporate shooter—for years, if you wanted to make money at photography, you shot cars or something industrial. And that’s gone. Car photographers up there who used to live like kings, they’re starving. Partly because of the economy, partly because of the changing technology. I admire the young people up there who are trying to make it work, but I had just gotten to the point, it was like, I was tired.
You put your time in there.
I paid my dues. I gave it my best. But, yeah, here, for all the problems we’ve got, there’s just so much, it’s just wonderful. I had been here before Katrina, but I get the feeling that post-Katrina New Orleans there’s a lot of energy that’s different somehow. I guess all the new people who have come here, as screwed up as it is, there’s still a sense of rebirth somehow. But I’m not knocking Detroit. I raised my family there. I had a great career. Detroit gave me a strong work ethic. There’s a lot of good things happening there but for me it was time to move on.
Yeah, people here are inclined to a sort of nationalist zeal, but after Katrina it’s possibly even more pronounced, more defiant.
That’s one thing that really impressed me when I first came here (after Katrina). The first few times, like I said, I was here as a tourist. I didn’t really get what the whole culture was about. I liked it but I didn’t really get beneath the surface. But when I moved here I started meeting people—you know, I’d meet people in the Lower Ninth, in the Treme, people whose families had been here for generations and they were all so connected to all of this. And you could see their passion for the city and the culture and the food and the music, the whole thing. I’ve never been in a place where I felt that kind of—I guess I sort of felt that way when I was in France, because the French are passionate about their culture, but even that’s not like New Orleans.
Probably a little easier for you to identify here too.
Yeah. It’s kind of funny, before I left Detroit—like I told you, I’d been to Paris a bunch of times, I love Paris, and I used to think, ‘Man, if I had a pile of money I’d go live there.’ I just love the city. It’s like living in a work of art. All those museums and galleries and incredible food—you can get a really good bottle of Bordeaux for about five Euros. But of course living in Paris is outrageously expensive. But I also knew, I’m still American, I guess. I could live there, lots of Americans live there, but you would always be an expat. Here I just feel—in a way it’s like being an expat, I think there’s a lot of expats that live in New Orleans. But we’re still—I don’t know, it’s different, somehow.
I think some of us feel if we were here before Katrina and came back we’re sort of naturalized now. That’s a pet idea of mine, anyway. But there’s this sense that you feel like you have to be here for a while before you’re right, before you’re allowed to say you’re from New Orleans.
I told some people about my son living here. He was a professor at Loyola before the storm, and my grandson was born here during that year my son was living here. So a lot of people have said, ‘Oh, that’s cool then, you’re sort of from here. You’ve got a connection.’