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Luckily for them both, the move worked out instantly. "Glen David got me some work immediately — in the streets in Jackson Square. And then right after that I was playing Preservation Hall. And it was really when I got here that everything really did start making sense."
For the first time, Clark started living the city's fabled second-line parades and funeral marches as a resident and not a tourist. And no moment was ever more intense than when he got to play the funeral parade for Kerwin James, the New Birth tuba player who invited him into this whole world. (James died last fall after suffering a stroke in 2006.)
"That was one of the most quintessential moments of my New Orleans experience," his now New Orleans-inflected voice dropping to a hushed tone. "Playing a funeral march for someone you really, really loved. He was a great person — every established musician from New Orleans was out there doing a second-line for him. Derrick Tabb from the Rebirth was out there with his snare drum, banging away with tears falling from his eyes. The emotion comes out through the instruments, and I had my banjo just to be a part of it. It's so emotional and at the same time the music is so incredible, you almost don't understand how these musicians can perform like that. It's much more passionate than almost any other performance you would see anywhere." (To view a clip from James's funeral, click here.)
Clark says he was welcomed into this world not just as a player but as a person. "The Andrews family, the Frazier family — they are a lot of the great musicians in town. They just welcomed me like I was one of them, like part of the family. Probably there were certain neighborhoods I really probably didn't have any business being in — but people knew me as the white guitar player, basically."
The former evacuees just told him they were returning favors. "They told me I gave them everything I had to offer while I was in Houston, and now they are giving me much more than that in return now that I am here."
It was in New Orleans that Clark first picked up that most traditional of New Orleans stringed instruments, the six-string banjo. "When I moved over there, the snare drummer for the New Birth — Kerry "Fat Man" Hunter — told me, 'Hey man, you're a great player, but if you really wanna work, you need to start learning these songs on the banjo.'"
Clark plays plenty of banjo in the Lazy Six, Glen David Andrews's band. After putting in a few years in the contemporary hardcore street brass band scene — and penning the modern-day classic of the genre, "Rock With Me, Knock With Me" — Andrews has taken his music in a still more traditional direction. The Lazy Six mixes the sort of highly danceable jazz you would have heard at a Tremé neighborhood bar in 1944 (right when it was on the verge of evolving into Fats Domino-style rock and roll) with high-energy renditions of hymns and old hits like "I'm Walkin'" and "Stand By Me."
"I love feeling the connection with these songs that are over 100 years old, going right back to Louis Armstrong," Clark says.
Andrews is a tremendous showman, and his voice must be heard to be believed. There may be more powerful, elastic and sanctified baritones on this planet, but Racket has yet to hear them.
I asked Clark if he'd ever heard anything like it. "No," he answered without a second's thought. "There's nothing like it. And the same with his performance — being able to cut up in the French Quarter or out on the streets — just delivering the show like it's the last one you're gonna play." (To view a clip of Andrews performing, click here.)
There's a saying penned by former Houstonian Susanna Clark that goes like this: "Work like you don't need money, love like you've never been hurt,and dance like no one's watching."
To me, New Orleans jazz is the embodiment of that thought. I told Clark that my wife tells me it's the only kind of music I can dance to — at all. (And she says I even dance to it well.)
Clark laughs. "Anything goes with this stuff! The energy and the dancing... And some people are just possessed with the spirit, almost like they are in church, gyrating and vibrating, some on the floor."
Now that he is fully immersed in the culture, Clark has come to an epiphany. "Music doesn't have anything to do with color or socioeconomic status. You like what you like, you move towards the things that appeal to you."
Get in where you fit in. One River Oaks kid has done it, onstage and off, in the same streets most people who share his background would never dare go.
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