Hearing that the Neville Brothers weren't returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a shock, but for many, hearing the rumor that neither Johnny Vidacovich nor James Singleton was returning was almost as hard to believe. Astral Project's drummer and bassist, respectively, have been associated with New Orleans' jazz and R&B for so long and in so many different facets that it is hard to imagine a music scene without them.
The duo was on tour with organ player Robert Walter when the storm hit, and it wasn't long before word started to circulate that Vidacovich was going to make his home in Houston and Singleton was moving to Los Angeles. Fortunately, stories of Vidacovich settling in Houston were premature; his wife evacuated to Houston, but they're returning to New Orleans in time for him to play a gig at Le Bon Temps Roule on Dec. 10. In Singleton's case, though, the rumors are semi-true.
"I've been moving toward spending more time away from New Orleans, not just to play, but to experience what other cities have to offer," Singleton says by cell phone while sitting in the infamous L.A. freeway traffic. On this particular day, that meant performing traditional jazz at an elementary school with Evan Christopher, Don Vappie and three Los Angeles musicians whom Singleton says are top-notch. One was a trumpet player who had played with Count Basie and Stevie Wonder. "His cousin's from Slidell, and when he plays he sounds like he is, too."
After the Robert Walter tour ended, Singleton couldn't yet return to New Orleans, so he went to Boston to spend time with his brother. When his girlfriend finally escaped New Orleans and went home to Los Angeles -- she initially stayed, then ended up walking halfway to LaPlace before getting a ride -- he met her there. She received a good job, a free car and FEMA money, so they got a six-month lease and decided to see what L.A. had to offer.
One thing he found was a substantial audience for the sort of avant-garde music he has been working on with the James Singleton String Quartet and the 3Now4estra. During a trip to New York after the hurricane, he ran into 3Now4-mate Dave Easley, who set up a house-party gig that turned into the best paying gig he played in recent times. The crowd was so receptive that flying the string quartet north for a gig is now being discussed.
"I feel that dividing my time between New Orleans, L.A, New York City, and all points in between and beyond is the future for a lot of us players," Singleton says. "We need fresh ideas to respond to our new situation in a vibrant and meaningful way."
That doesn't mean he is abandoning the city, though. "I'm going to have the need to go to New Orleans forever," he says. He plans to return at least one week a month to play with Astral Project, his string quartet, the 3Now4estra, and to do some traditional jazz gigs at the Palm Court. Before the hurricane, he planned to record the string quartet and the 3Now4estra, and that remains a priority. In addition, he says, "I want to be back for Mardi Gras. It's going to be a mega-f--ker."
Being out of New Orleans has forced Singleton into what he calls "business mode." For the first time, he has a cell phone and a laptop, and he spends more time thinking about business than ever before. "I've been shopping 3Now4 as a modular band," Singleton says. "We can come and play your festival, or we can hire four or five of your people and expand it to an orchestra." Currently, he's negotiating a gig in Poland. The biggest challenge has been finding the time to compose. "I've got fragments, but I don't have anything completed yet."
He is not surprised that it took a hurricane to get him and many New Orleans musicians to broaden their horizons and play extensively outside the city.
"It's so beautiful," Singleton says of New Orleans. "It's so seductive. My house is on Bayou St. John, and I cross one street and I'm in City Park. All my favorite gigs were a five-minute drive away." More than that, though, "Everybody wants to be part of New Orleans," he says. "It's so deep it's going to be eternal."
Now he has to travel more, including navigating new freeways, but Singleton's excited by the adventure. "I'm thrilled to move around and get other inspirations, eat other food and spread my music around -- and get paid," he says. "I'm told minimum wage in New Orleans is (now) $12 an hour and Burger King is offering $6,000 signing bonuses, but I haven't yet discovered if the jazz clubs are going to follow suit and pay a living wage for their own musicians."
- Bassist and 3Now4 leader James Singleton has decided to take advantage of the opportunity to see what the avant- jazz scene is like in cities such as Los Angeles, New York City "and all points in between."