Fat Tuesday is still two weeks away, but the unseasonably warm weather brought an early glimpse of Mardi Gras to Jackson Square last week. As trombonist Glen David Andrews was leading a Jackson Square street band through a request of "When the Saints Go Marching In," a Fabio lookalike strolled by, dressed only in a cowboy hat, boots and too-small BVDs. Andrews seized the moment, telling the stunned crowd, "That's what'll happen to you if you drink too many hurricanes."
A sense of humor is practically a prerequisite for playing the French Quarter street circuit. "We get some flak from the [St. Louis Cathedral] and the police now and then, and a lot of noise competition from the winos," says guitarist Seva Venet. The uneasy truce concerning a different type of noise competition -- acceptable volume levels -- still exists between the musicians and a faction of French Quarter residents. Says Andrews, "Every day the police are saying, 'Keep it down.' We're talking 80 decibels [limit] right now, which makes no sense. We're facing the St. Louis Cathedral, which echoes sound, and the sound meter picks up sound from everything. Then there's just the dynamics of music -- sometimes at the end of a song, you've got to put a little energy in it."
And there's always the issue of money, evidenced when Andrews receives his share of the latest tip-jar holdings. "See? Three dollars and 50 cents for an hour-and-a-half set," he says during a break.
Still, Andrews and the cast of musicians that compose the band -- which can rapidly change from a 16-piece ensemble to a trio, depending on factors such as crowd size and weather -- wouldn't trade their day job. "I've been playing on the streets since I was 9 years old," says Andrews, who turned 21 in April. "I started out with the Olympia Kids Brass Band, around the same time the Little Rascals (Brass Band) started out ... This is where Kermit (Ruffins), and James (Andrews, Glen David's cousin) and the Dirty Dozen and ReBirth started at in the '70s and '80s, right here in the Square. Tuba Fats is one of the pioneers of New Orleans jazz, and still plays in the Square. I want to keep the tradition going."
It's a tradition whose participants include such notables as clarinetist Doreen Ketchens, singing duo David & Roselyn, pianist Scott Kirby, and guitarists Augie Jr., John Mooney, Corey Harris, Mike Younger and Jeremy Lyons -- and that's just scratching the surface. The talent pool of street performers is an ever-changing one, and fresh faces and veteran talent constantly reinvigorate it. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, trumpeter Jack Fine, an alumni of the New York scene who played for a decade in the '60s with beloved late New Orleans jazzman Danny Barker, stopped by. Fine primarily plays local clubs these days with the Jazz Vipers band, but he was clearly invigorated to share a bench and playing time with Andrews, sipping a draft beer in the afternoon sun.
"I've been off the street for a while, but I come back now, and it's important to keep your chops up," says Fine. "The weather's warmed up, and it's so nice to see all the guys. It's always interesting, and always stimulating."
That kind of sentiment is music to the ears of Venet, a California transplant who's been playing in Jackson Square for almost three years. "Where else am I going to get to play with Jack Fine?" he says. "You're not able to do this in every city. Tuba Fats, he's incredible. He's a regular, and he's out here every day for months on end if he's feeling good. He loves to work, and teach, and it's great for a person that wants to learn something about New Orleans music. It's a great opportunity, even just hanging around this band."
For all parties involved, the repertoire is one of the main draws of the scene. While endless requests for "When the Saints Go Marching In" are inevitable, the freedom to play songs with a history as rich as New Orleans' street-singing traditions isn't taken for granted. When they're playing a standard like "St. James Infirmary" or a joyous version of Louis Armstrong's 1920s nugget "Some of These Days," the street performers turn back the French Quarter clock and return to an era without noise ordinances and T-shirt shops.
"There's a lot of young musicians out of the Treme playing the old brass band material, and that's good," says Andrews. "I can play the contemporary stuff, too, but this is where my heart is. There's nothing like swinging out on a little Jelly Roll [Morton]."
- Trombonist Glen David Andrews, guitarist Seva Venet and trumpeter Jack Fine help carry on the tradition of New Orleans' street singers.