Reggie Smith, Tenor sax, New Orleans Music With An Alabama Accent
Corner of Royal and Saint Peter Street
French Quarter, New Orleans
Friday, August 26, 2011
Hang on, there’s something familiar about the wail of that saxophone. Sure enough, in front of Rouse’s at the corner of Royal and St. Peter Street, there's the sax player who fronted the street band I got inspired to write about during Satchmo Summerfest.
Actually, fronted is too tepid a word. This guy pranced, danced, sang, chanted, bantered with the passersby, and played up a storm of funk, rock, gospel, and pop with a distinctly New Orleans accent.
Today, in an electric blue shirt, plaid shorts, and his dreads sticking out from his white band hat with the Cool Bone Jazz insignia, he is more subdued in manner but certainly not in the energy he's putting in his music. I’ve dropped some folding money in his sax case so when he takes a breather, I feel like it’s ok to ask him a few questions. And I continue my learning curve about the life of street musicians.
Reggie Smith, in his late 20s, came here from Alabama two months ago and hasn't left yet. It started in a typical New Orleans fashion.
“I asked if I could sit in with one of the street groups, they said yes, and I got my start. The way it works is that they ask you to wait till they start the next set, divide the tips before I begin the next set with them, then divide the tips again after I've played with them.”
Playing on the street is usually an ad hoc adventure. Few of these gigs are regularly scheduled events and very few of the musicians lead regularly scheduled lives.
“This is how I network here. Sometimes another musician asks for my name and calls me when he has a gig I can work on. If I get a gig and I need a musician, I call one of the guys I know. You've got to love working out in the street or it would be real hard. Some guys look down on playing in the street but not me. I love being out here and starting a party.” Sweat is dripping from the short beard on his chin. It's about 90° in the shade.
He begins to play again. The guy could start a party in a morgue. Reggie is playing just about anything that comes into his mind. I hear him rumble out the theme from the old Peter Gunn TV show, then a few shreds of Richie Valens' "La Bamba", and a slow dirge of "St. James infirmary". Folding money is piling up in his sax case but I doubt it's enough to pay for a serious buy at a supermarket.
Then Reggie gets going on “Just My Imagination,” the Smokey Robinson song with all sorts of trills and flourishes. He could just as easily be on his back porch trying all this stuff out, it's almost like an open rehearsal, with a live audience who happen to be the regulars and the tourists traveling through this busy intersection. Somewhere in his own mind, Reggie’s on a stage.
All these flourishes and imaginings are a form of practice. He took Robinson’s “Just My Imagination” and turned it upside down and inside out and boy was it fun listening to it. You can take it to the bank that some of those wild improvisations will get honed down and played next time he is on stage or on a street corner.
I chat him up again during his next breather. He grins when say that I wrote a story about his “Let’s have a party” attitude when he played with his bunch of street musicians on August 4.
“In Alabama, I grew up in a gospel tradition. I learned jazz in school. When I hear New Orleans music I hear lots of those elements in it. If you want to learn New Orleans music, you buy a Louis Armstrong CD and learn how to play those songs. I know lots of guys who have memorized those songs and can play them just like Louis,” he says.
“When you're playing on the street, you know how well you're doing by the tips that are rolling in. I like to get people involved, get out there and throw a little street party. If we get into a riff that gets the crowd going, we remember what that was. Next time we get together, I might say let's do that Wednesday riff and they'll all remember and play it and we get the crowd going again. If we get into a groove and people aren't moving and involved, we start playing something else.”
His time as his own, he'll quit when he feels like it or if he has another gig or if he feels like setting up someplace else - people or no people, tips or no tips. Guys like this can no more stop playing than they can stop breathing. He's performing in his own world, bobbing and weaving, playing whatever comes to mind, now is playing the theme to a TV show I can't identify, every so often blowing through the reed to make sounds that would scare a raccoon or perhaps romance it. I’m about ten yards away, scribbling notes on my pad that’s perched on lid of a trash bin and feel like I’m in a concert hall.
Wander around the French Quarter and you can fill your day listening to mini-concerts from street corners to Jackson Square - blues, jazz, gospel, brass bands - no cover, no minimum, but be sure you have folding money in your pocket and liberally drop it into the tip jars.
There's a lot of energy in French Quarter street music. And it’s not just for the tourists. This is birthright music, music that honors the legacy of Louis Armstrong, the kid who used to sell coal from a cart near this neighborhood, who learned how to play the cornet at a reform school, and later reformed the entire genre of jazz. If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear riffs that resemble the music played in the brothels and saloons on Basin Street and the neighborhoods around the port of New Orleans.
You’ll also hear how New Orleans is not too proud to add to its legacy. Musicians hear a lick a guy like Reggie Smith brings from his upbringing in Alabama and bam, it gets absorbed with a New Orleans accent, and is echoed on other corners throughout the French Quarter.
“I'll give you my cell number in case you want to ask any more questions,” Reggie says.
This is the way it is down here - open, friendly, engaging, a real southern thing. If I feel like throwing a block party the next time I come to New Orleans, Reggie’d be the first guy I’d call.
Photo and video by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.