Monday, April 18, 2011

The Music is my Medicine

"There's music all around here since I can remember.  In some cities you go to there is no music.  I don't see how people can live there."  Legendary Jazz Pianist, Lawrence Cotton. 

I am home, decompressing after five fabulous days submerged in the wicked good sights, sounds and tastes of New Orleans.

We've been coming to New Orleans long enough to see all facets of the city - from its rich Cajan French culture steeped in pride and bursting with the brilliant, flamboyant flair of its chef's, musicians, and artists; to the gritty cry of displaced victims of poverty, mental illness, addiction and an unprecedented cataclysmic storm; to the crime, corruption, and escalating suicide rate that stains its unsteady streets.

But for now, we focus on the music.  It is everywhere.

A free concert series, runs every Wednesday night in historic Lafayette Square Park. This week it features New Orleans MVP Trombone Shorty along with Soul Rebels Brass Band. The park is packed with music lovers including celebrities Kid Rock, Grammy's Best New Artist Esmerelda Spaulding, and Lenny Kravitz.

Shorty talks about his roots, what drives him, and how much he appreciates being able to do what he loves

My cousin, Jane Harvey Brown, followed her true path and is a spirited, New Orleans jazz singer and voice teacher. Her husband, Kerry Brown is a festival producer, pianist and drummer who has performed with David Allan Coe, Allman Brothers, and Treme Brass Band to name a few.

(photo courtesy of OffBeat Magazine)

Kerry and Jane are performing with the Traditional Jazz Stars at the French Quarter Festival - the largest free music event in the South. Four full days of funk, reggae, zydeco, cajun, rock, african, and jazz music performed on 19 stages throughout the French Quarter.

Accompanying them on the piano is a living legend of jazz, Lawrence Cotton. Mr. Cotton has backed up a number of stars, including Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim, and performed with legendary musician, band leader, composer, Dave Bartholomew. He toured Europe for four years with trumpeter, Wallace Davenport before returning back to his roots in New Orleans. At the age of 84, Mr. Cotton continues to plays Maison Bourbon Jazz Club every Saturday night.

I am especially moved by the street performers that mesmerize the crowds. We were fortunate enough to catch the last 10 minutes of this drum roll. As they pass the bucket by me, a penny rolled out and lands at my feet - tail side up (a sign from my son, Kerry).

Hands down, two of my absolute favorites, Tanya and Dorise, perform on Royal Street, in front of Cafe Du Monde, and throughout the French Market District.  They were among the first street musicians to return after hurricane Katrina. They play at their own pace.  They are not focused on fame or wealth.  They answer only to themselves.

If you find yourself in New Orleans on a Thursday night, head straight to Vaughns, where you'll catch Kermit Ruffins' playing with the BBQ Swingers.  Vaughn's is tucked away in a residential neighborhood. It feels more like a house then a bar. Go early and get some barbecue with a side of red beans and rice.  Kermit likes to cook almost as much as he likes to play.  

In addition to Kermit, Shorty, Mr. Cotton, and Kerry & Jane Harvey Brown, some of my must see's include: Buckwheat Zydeco, BoneramaGalactic, Amanda Shaw, Dr. John, Jon Cleary, Big Sam's Funky Nation, and anyone who's last name is Neville - or simply walk on down to Frenchman Street for a two block long, compact music conclave.

On our last night in New Orleans we stopped at an upscale bar where the house chardonnay is one of our favorites. With over-sized TV screens mounted above the bar, the crowd tends to be more sports fans then music fans and tonight is true to form. 

A couple from Baton Rouge boasts about their loyalty to LSU - how its purple and gold NOT purple and yellow, and how you can't judge an LSU fan by what you see at a sugar bowl game.  

The conversation shifts when they ask us why we are in town.  "French Quarter Festival? You go to that? Why, we would never...too many people...we don't like crowds."  

But you go to football games - bowl games, home games, any game that involves a Tiger?  What, no crowds at LSU games? The truth is, you aren't a fan of music unless LSU's band is playing it.

And that is fine. Not everyone gets it.  Not everyone feels it.  Not everyone is moved by it.

Music fans will go anywhere the music takes them - festivals, concerts, cruises, clubs, street corners, churches. There is no divide. What I see every time I look into a crowd of music lovers is bliss and harmony.

Jack and his Queen 

For me, the music is my medicine. It feeds me, heals me, and reaffirms my commitment to nurture and honor my creativity.  

Highlights from Jane Harvey Brown and the Traditional Jazz Stars 
performing on the French Market Stage.

Next stop...
New Orleans Jazz Festival - April 29th to May 8th.
All aboard!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


When my father first arrived at the nursing home, I was overwhelmed by the dismantled state of its residents.  Life and limbs coiled. Minds, hearts, spirits, confused and broken.

Suffering is widespread.  Pain is prevalent.  Time, whether too short or too long, is against them.

Those determined to practice standing, or walking, are stupefied with medication to treat their symptoms of "agitation." With one aid per 7 residents, its too much of a liability to allow them to roam on their own.  They are easy to spot - strapped into chairs armed with motion alarms - slumped over, despondent, drooling.

I focus on my father and ignore their moaning, and pleading..."Help me, somebody please help me."  "Where's my MaMa?" "PLEASE take me to the bathroom!"

I arrive at the same time each day, 6: 20 pm.  I go straight to the dinning-room and retrieve my father.  Typically he's sleeping, draped in a soiled bib.  His aid tells me "he did good" by finishing his bland, pureed, food.

Today Dad is awake, alert and happy.
"Oh here she is," he tells his dinner companion.
"This is my daughter Shannon.  Shannon, say hello to Nick.  Nick and I went to college together. We played football together..."

In reality "Nick" is a petite, 98 year old woman, named Grace, with snow white hair and deep, blue eyes.

"Nice to meet you Nick," I say
"Likewise," says Grace

This is how Dad copes.  His mind "plays tricks on him" - blanketing the reality of his disintegration with memories from his good old days.

Grace, delighted by the attention, is a devoted listener and I am humbled by her.

I will follow Graces lead.


Beside my father, in his semi private room, is Mr. Kravitz - his mute roommate. He is paralyzed from the waist down. His legs limp, his hands clutch his bedrail. Mr. Kravitz never leaves the confines of his room.

Today, I realized that Mr. Kravits communicates with his eyes. His language coded in intense stares and blinks.

"Hello Mr. Kravitz"

Mr. Kravitz opens his eyes - wide

"How are you today Mr. Kravitz?"

Mr. Kravitz closes his eyes - hard 

"It's still pretty cold outside but the crocus's are beginning to bloom. The snow has melted and there is no more morning frost."

Mr. Kravitz opens his eyes - wide. 

"Spring is my favorite season"

Mr. Kravitz blinks - several times. 

"Awh, you too.  We have that in common"

Mr. Kravitz blinks - again and again.   

Confined to a wheelchair, Ann is in constant motion - stopping (on the nurses insistence) only to eat.  The outer ring of her wheels covered in sheepskin, her hands covered in calluses. Inflamed joints grip hard. With each push, she releases a deep, determined "OHHH" - as though it fuels her fire.

Lou is clearly a pervert.  From the confines of his wheelchair, he chases anything under 70 down the hallway.  He asks inappropriate questions.  "So, are you married? Are you happily married? Do you like your husband? Do you like sex?" Lou is 92. I have no patience for Lou.

Beatrice is 103. She wants to go home. She wants her MaMa and she will not rest until she finds her. "Are you my MaMa?" she asks.

Katherine won't be here long. She broke her hip and is slow to heal. Katherine has maintained her sense of humor. Her eyes are bright. She never complains. Katherine understands that if she doesn't follow orders, she will be treated for "agitation."

Because this is a pet friendly nursing home, with a magnificent blue Macaw as its mascot, I brought Mylo, a rescue dog, with me on one of my visits. Part of an unruly pack of terriers, he was picked up on a highway in Georgia - malnourished and suffering from obvious signs of abused. He's been part of our pack for a bit more than a year. He's grateful for everything we give him, every morsel of food, and especially, of our love.

An avid hunter, I wasn't certain how Mylo's visit would go.

I enter the building with caution, sign in at the front desk, and proceed to the mid point of the circular hallway, where Calipso the Macaws is perched in the confines of a colossal cage.

The hair on Mylo's back raised and his mouth opened.
Calipso extended his wings and his eyes grew RED.
My heart raced, and my stance braced.

From down the hallway I could hear Ann's "OHHH" only this time, it was heightened with delight.

Ann stopped and starred at the sight of these unlikely friends.
And then, she laughed.
I had no idea Ann could laugh.
"Thank you," said Ann.
I had no idea Ann could talk.

Ann loves dogs. Ann remembers her german shepherd, Prince. Prince walked her to school in the mornings and would be there when she got out. Prince was her best friend.

Everyday, I make a point of looking for Katherine. If she's not in the TV room she's typically with Calipso. When I found her yesterday, she had both hands in his cage.

What are you doing Katherine" I ask.
"I want to touch him," she explains.
"Aren't you afraid he's going to bite you?" I ask
 "Oh, he wouldn't dare" she assures me.

After 3 weeks of visiting, I am preparing to bring my father home and I wanted to explain our impending absence to Katherine.

"I'm taking him home on Thursday," I tell her.
"Really?" questions Katherine.
"Well, its time for him to come home.  He's done all the healing he's going to do here."
"I'm going to miss him," confesses Katherine.
"Thats very sweet Katherine, I'm sure he'll miss you too."
"He never talks to me"
"He's been very shy here.  He seldom talks to me either."
"I hope you have a big enough cage for him,"
"A cage - Katherine I won't put him in a cage"
"You'll let him fly around your house?" she asks.

Katherine was happy to hear that I would be bringing my father back home, and relieved to know that Calipso would be staying.

The people I've meet here have enriched my life in many ways. It has been an honor to get to know them. I also realize that my time spent with them - sitting beside them, listening, talking, following Graces lead - has benefited their emotional wellbeing.

I have been given the green light to visit my new friends on a regular basis. And I'm thinking about making a documentary about them (not that I have any idea how to go about doing that) - interviewing people 100 + years older. I find them fascinating. Imagine living in the 1920's?  Imagine what it was like to experience the great depression, to have immigrated here, to be entertained by radio, heat your home with coal, refrigerate your food with blocks of ice.

Today, I remember them, fondly....

"In Dad's Mind" photo by Jim Quinn

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Shannon E. Kennedy


Photo by Joan Harrison