September 23, 2007

The Loss of Willie Tee

"You suck!"

"Overtime, baby!"

A cluster of frat-types curls around my back, shouts at the flat screen, says there's no way they're leaving here for the $40 entrees next door until this one is over. Georgia's heavy-browed kicker just missed the game-winner wide left, and fuck yeah.

Me, I'm trying to keep patient, keep perspective, keep from thinking too much about things that don't matter, benign change and all that.

Then "Like A Rolling Stone" comes on the Maple Leaf's jukebox and the boys start singing in unison, and I'm like, really, how does it feel?


Willie Tee's was a classic New Orleans musical career, complete with teenage success, work in the jazz avant garde, production and songwriting of the highest quality, and family bonds. Whatever you want to call that genius of breadth that marks the city's great artists, Willie Tee had it.

The pain of his recent passing was doubled by the timing: his brother, saxophonist Earl Tubington, died just last month. Willie was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his brother's death, and went on home in a matter of weeks. We've lost way too many giants in the last year, and we can only hope that their replacements are growing up among us still.


On a long Saturday morning bike ride with Kim, I passed the church on St. Roch where Willie was laid out. A few dudes with horns stood around, and some older cats in suits smoked reefer on one corner. We didn't feel like waiting for the second line, and decided to ride around the neighborhood awhile.

The area is in bad shape. Some people are back, some aren't, but we said good morning to someone on just about every block. Living where we do (for only a little longer), you don't realize what a depressed situation many people are in, with hardly any neighbors, isolated, with few corner stores or signs of city life. It's in areas like the St. Roch neighborhood where you wonder how long people can stand this mess, and how the hell anyone can move back and remain strong in living conditions like these. Downtown, people are holding on.


Uptown at the Maple Leaf Saturday night, I sit at the bar and laugh as the 'Bama boys take a loss and slink off to their duck and okra. I'm early to the Willie Tee benefit, feeling a little pensive in the old haunt, thinking about ol' John Ringo and what Kim must've looked like working behind that bar, and how I'm not going to be Mr. Nostalgia here.

What's changed? Probably nothing. Probably just me. I'm by myself, Kim's chilling at home, I'm not meeting up with anyone, I'm not drunk, I'm 30. Things feel cleaner, but then, too, I'm cleaner. I get the sense that we have some first-time shoppers, but, again, whadda I know?

For the Hot 8 opening set, I stand on the side bench to get a bird's eye view. I'm not so young anymore, but I guess I'm wiser, learned a trick or something here a decade ago. People do that honky dance and the Hot 8 is a really good brass band, with a more evolved vocal thing than others, and the right mix of horns.

So what is different? I ask myself. Well, in the previous lifetime, the Rebirth Brass Band would be selling dope to my friends, claiming it came from exotic locations. In the current lifetime, the Hot 8 Brass Band's original leader was shot dead in his car at the beginning of the year. Point being, I don't know the difference, but there is a bittersweetness in the ritual, at least there is to me. Is this all borrowed time, or is it my one foot in a time warp that shadows the listening? Either way, I'm able to loosen up enough to really dig the Hot 8 by the time they're done. Me and the middle-aged tourist and the college girls.

When they end, I move to the rear bar and get into a conversation about R&B with a very know-ity chick who wants to tell me this and that, but does give me a new James Andrews CD for the show. It's an OK talk, but the whole "Oh-I'm-from-here-gonna-let-you-know-not-really-listening" schtick is the wrong one to wow me with tonight. You want to be a territorialist in a wasteland, best of luck to you.

"Gonna be a great show," we do agree, though.


I take my position on the bench again as the house band for the night (I think this is 101 something? I forget) begins. The painter Frenchy stands directly in front of me on his platform, a miner's light around his bald skull, a photo of Willie Tee pinned onto the left side of his canvas.

It's good to see Frenchy, but that photo is as much Willie Tee as either of us will get tonight. The band is on the Wild Magnolias tip, seems to include some alumni, and that makes sense, as Willie famously produced and arranged their seminal first and second albums. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux takes the stage, and I love that dude, always get into that sound of Indian funk, like a balloon tightening, with magic beads rattling inside it, ready to pour out when the whole thing bursts.

But this represents a small (if vital) part of Willie Tee's career, the rest of which contributed serious cuts of funk and soul to the city's lexicon. This is a cat who had a long playing relationship with Joe Zwainul (who chillingly died in the same hour as his old friend), who was a dope pianist, a prolific songwriter who powered the Gaturs. When we get just the one side of him, well, I'm disappointed...again.
Because my basic problem is running up against this one, simplified side of the culture--easy funk that people like to boogie and booze to--under the guise of another tribute to the past. My problem is I still hope for reverance, for appreciation of ALL the parts of New Orleans music that were important ACROSS THE WORLD for decades, not just the last 10 years of jamming. My problem is I think there's a full honest answer out there, a clear retelling of N.O. contributions to music, all the while living in a present and a market that is muddied and narrowed down and starving. My problem is I continue to believe the label, only to find the ingredients within bland and pricey; I refuse to believe that getting the story sideways, for the sake of a party, is going to help us remember (much less rebuild) a damn thing.

And maybe my problem is I'm looking for something that's not there, and am slow to admit that. Maybe this is how it was the last time around, but I was new to the set-up, able to stumble along on the gloss-over. Maybe I missed these problems as Ringo and Flavius and I and the rest rolled through our hijinx. Maybe I was mad at a whole other set of wrongs then.

I'm not mad at anyone, I don't deserve to hear what I like just because I know what that is. I'm just sad and ornery and probably oughta get in the van and listen to some Booker. Instead I stare at the cut-out painting of Booker that hangs behind the stage, and wonder what he looks out on, and what he'd say, and what it means that he's up there in the first place.

What does Booker mean now? What does Willie Tee mean now? Are they to be defined through the dim, dull lens of nights like this, crushed into a New Orleans sound packaged for the casual, numbed-up listener?
I don't know if I can stand around and watch that.


Afterwards I sit in the side alley and watch cliques pass glass pipes. I'm not in a conversation mood, and not really in the eavesdropping on stoned bluttos mood, either. I'm kinda awkward, really.

Just then I see some people I know, a woman I worked with in New York and her husband, a radio documentarian, both of them Louisiana born and raised. They're in town for a wedding, didn't hear the first set. It's great to talk to them, and they're glad I've moved back.
As am I. But at some point, I guess I need to lighten up and accept the disappearances, the shifts in old territory that have nothing to do with me, and understand the ones that do. My city is out there, but no lazy search will re-erect its flagposts.

I separate from my friends, sit down at the bar. Two college girls are wasted, and another dances with an old brother in a nice suit. Once in awhile I catch myself in the mirror, when I'm not peeking at the door or the stage. John Ringo and I circa 1997 aren't walking in anytime soon, and for me, tonight, that's a hard swallow.

So I walk on out.