Finding “Mo’ Better Blues” in New Orleans and London

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I last heard the song in 2009. It was at the Satchmo Club Strut, a Friday night Frenchmen Street half-bar crawl, half-street party sort of thing that for a number of years ran before Satchmo Summerfest, the weekend festival honouring the life and music of Louis Armstrong. This was in Blue Nile, and Irvin Mayfield was playing it.

Mayfield said it was from a film, the name of which I didn’t catch. In this film, a male trumpet player, it seemed to the musician’s teenage self, had the most amazing life: women, money, song. It was, Mayfield said, the song that made him want to be a jazz musician.

I remembered all that and the tune of the song itself. I didn’t, however, remember its name. This is unusual for me. As I’m a writer and not a musician, I normally have a much better memory for words than melodies. But this tune stuck with me when words did not. A slow half-happy theme in two, circling around a handful of notes, then repeated in a varied form. This, I realise, could describe an almost infinite number of jazz tracks – and don’t ask me to sing it for you.

But that is all I had to go on. Without words, my usual way of identifying most things, I had no way to find it again, though I did try. I combed YouTube and Googled jazz films. I even went to see Mayfield play again in the hope it might be a regular on his set list. It was not.

And then I heard it last weekend, when I wasn’t expecting it. I’d gone to the Rio Cinema near where I live to watch an old Spike Lee film about a jazz musician, screened as part of the Spike Is 60 festival. And there it was: “Mo Better Blues” – the name of the film, the name of the song, and a phrase that evokes that mix of sex, money and music at the film’s centre that Mayfield referred to.

But while the song was the one I recognised, what was new to me when I heard it again was this: it’s a half-sad song in a sad film. One where money is not fairly distributed, where hearts are broken and a musician loses his ability to play. What’s more, since 2009 Mayfield has been involved in some high-profile controversies.

Finding things again after a space of time usually means seeing them changed, and sometimes for the worse. But I was pleased to see the film had a happy ending, of sorts. And not only do its final scenes contain some resolution, they are also, in a very jazz-like way, a transformed and informed replaying of its first ones. Whenever you revisit things – whether that’s songs, films, places or people – they’re never the same as when you first encountered them, but we shouldn’t forget that there’s usually something good in this experience.

Two Beautiful And Important Cinema Buildings In London And New Orleans

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The Rio Cinema’s 1915 “ghost auditorium”

The other weekend, I took a tour of the Rio Cinema as part of the Open House London initiative, and learnt some new things about this familiar landmark in my neighbourhood. Meanwhile, when I was in New Orleans a little further back, I stumbled across a magnificent building that I had certainly passed before but had never properly seen, which turned out to be former cinema and now theatre and concert hall the Orpheum.

The Rio was built in 1909 and was then fronted in the 1930s with a cool white Art Deco facade topped with three neon bars that shed what I like to think of as benevolent blue light into our Hackney evenings, which are quickly darkening now that autumn is here. While the Rio seems like a little taste of Miami-esque modernism in London, the 1918-built Orpheum in New Orleans contains echoes of old Europe. This can be found in both its name, which recalls the tragic musical hero of Greek legend, and its beautiful Beaux Arts structure, with its layered flavours of both nineteenth century Paris and imperial Rome, among others.

Both buildings started life as cinemas but can boast a very mixed bill over their long lives. Between them they have housed drama, vaudeville, orchestral performances, talks, immersive theatre, independent cinema, gigs, video art, birthday parties, Mardi Gras balls, striptease and the odd crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

As you would expect, both very much have their stories – and their secrets. The Orpheum played a starring role in quintessential New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces, being where lead character Ignatius J. Reilly, having persuaded friend George to guard his hot dog cart, went to watch a film. The Rio, meanwhile, is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of its founder Clara Ludski, a enterprising émigré from Russia. It also, I discovered on my Open House visit, houses a spectacular hidden 1915 “ghost auditorium” under its roof, capped by a beautiful dome.

Restoring the Rio’s crowning glory would sadly be too expensive for its current owner, a not-for-profit charity, though a programme of restoration and improvements is planned for next year. This is part of the building’s ongoing structural and social journey – from ambitious commercial plans under Ludski’s entrepreneurial stewardship, down to a nadir that included time as a porn cinema, and then back up to today’s respectable bohemianism and valued status as a community resource – which closely echoes aspects of the story of the neighbourhood it is located in over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The Orpheum has perhaps followed the fate of its environs even more intimately. After promising beginnings, its fortunes declined and it suffered from threat of demolition and financial crisis in the 80s. Having found some stability in the decades that followed, in 2005 it was flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Bought out several times since then, it has now happily been restored – chandeliers, pink and gold paint, original elevator and all – to French patisserie levels of perfection, and had its reopening in 2015 celebrated by a special performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.

Cinemas might be palaces of dreams, but they are also a vital part of our real, waking lives in our neighbourhoods. If you have a building like the Rio or the Orpheum near you, visit it, cherish it and, just as it tells you stories, repay it by remembering and telling its own.

Watching 12 Years A Slave In London

Last Sunday, I saw 12 Years A Slave. It’s an incredibly powerful film that, like all the best films, owes a large part of its impact to its visual effect. Much has been written about two key particularly shocking scenes: the first being where central character Solomon Northup is left hanging while plantation life continues around him, and the second the brutal whipping of fellow slave Patsy, made more horrifying by the fact that Solomon is compelled by his master to inflict this punishment on her.

I also found myself troubled by the film’s lush, swampy landscapes, unmistakeable to anyone who’s ever been to Louisiana. I found their beauty and familiarity added to the film’s disconcerting effect by acting as a reminder of the links between the society portrayed in the film and our own – slavery might have been abolished, but its effects continue to be felt in ongoing racism, race-related violence and in other ways, in Louisiana and elsewhere.

More positively, the scene where Solomon and other slaves encounter a group of Native Americans was a reminder of the connections and fellowship between these two groups honoured in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition.

Because the city has changed so much since the mid-nineteenth century when the film is set, the scenes of the film in New Orleans don’t provide as immediate a connection to Louisiana today. But traces of the events shown in 12 Years A Slave are visible in the city – the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel is built on the site of the slave market shown in the film and is reportedly deeply haunted.

Over by St. Augustine Church in Treme, there’s the well-known Tomb of the Unknown Slave (pictured) dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme” and intended to also “honor all slaves buried throughout the United States”.

It’s important to remember that the southern United States was by no means the only region of the world deeply implicated in the crime of slavery. As an exceptional permanent exhibition “London, Sugar & Slavery” at London’s Museum in Docklands (the city’s former port area and now part of its financial district) makes explicit, significant parts of the city’s current prosperity and its physical environment were built from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

That slavery was an international business, in which London was involved as well as New Orleans, can perhaps be seen as echoed in the making of 12 Years A Slave. The film’s construction involved a British director with Caribbean heritage, a British leading actor with Nigerian heritage, a Kenyan leading actor now living in America, Americans of many races, and others of many different ethnicities and nationalities. Coming together to construct something as powerful as this film is a fitting response to slavery’s legacy.

Death, Film And Taxes

2013-07-14 23.03.41I watched Interview with the Vampire this weekend, the largely Louisiana-set 1994 Neil Jordan film based on the Anne Rice novel of the same name.

I’ve read the book recently (love it), but hadn’t seen the film since my last year at school, over fifteen years ago. That was long before I’d visited Louisiana, so it was interesting to watch it again knowing the state and New Orleans in particular, though of course there are one or two differences between Jordan’s dark and theatrical settings and the state today.

Large portions of the film were filmed on location in Louisiana, though – for instance, lead character Louis de Pointe du Lac’s estate is Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, and the house where he sets his onetime companion Lestat on fire is in fact the building known as Madame John’s Legacy at 632 Dumaine Street.

Since the mid-1990s, a fair few more movies have been filmed or partially filmed in the state, including two vampire flicks schoolgirls are probably more likely to be found watching today – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Part 2, and the superlative Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In fact, Louisiana boasts more cinematic activity than any other state in the US apart from California and New York, with New Orleans being nicknamed “Hollywood South”.

Popularity with filmmakers is something Louisiana has in common with London, where film production also continues to boom. Those making movies here also show an appetite for horror, with zombie films being some of the best-loved London productions over the past decade – see 2004’s Shaun of the Deador the more recent Cockneys vs Zombies.

I’d love to be able to say that London and New Orleans/Louisiana in general have storytelling in their water, or that there’s some mystical quality to these places that makes them particularly magical when looked at through a camera. I do actually think these things could be true, but what’s probably the real reason for their cinematic popularity is more prosaic – both Louisiana and the UK offer hefty tax breaks to filmmakers.

However, I think the association of both places with telling horror stories on film is about more than accounting. London and New Orleans are old cities with long and – partially – dark histories that hover close to their surfaces. They’re also ports, always welcoming a flow of new people, new tales and new money which can mean, in the popular imagination at least, new dangers. Both of these factors make them good settings for all things scary supernatural happenings.

And it’s intriguing that New Orleans and wider Louisiana continue to be associated by filmmakers with vampires, which were popularised in the modern era by Irish-born London resident Bram Stoker through his seminal and partly London-set novel Dracula.

Zombies, meanwhile, London’s silver screen monsters of the moment, have their cultural roots in Haiti, which is not so far from Louisiana, geographically and culturally.

I think it just goes to show that, while bloodsucking and monster munching are a little icky in literal terms for some, even those who don’t love watching a good horror film have to admit that they’re thoroughly good things when seen as metaphors for cross-cultural feeding and fertilisation. As are those juicy tax breaks too, of course.

I Was In A Cellar With A Strange Old Man…

Voodoo Ray's

I was in a cellar with a strange old man. Earlier, in the curiosity shop up on the ground floor, full of verdant house plants and empty but intriguingly-shaped glass bottles and jars, I’d been passed a letter to take down to him.

After pushing aside a red velvet curtain, stumbling between some empty cardboard boxes on a dark staircase, and calling hello in what had become a shaky voice, I’d found him in a tiny workshop, squinting over a trunk that served as a bench by the light of a single lamp. He pointed at an old suitcase opposite him, inviting me to sit down, and pushed a cellophane-wrapped barley sugar across to me.

First, he showed me the innards of an old camera, extracting a paper chain of gingerbread man-like figures. Then he guided me through to another, much bigger, underground room and shook me by the shoulders as loud black and white footage rattled past on a big screen. He was also shouting something into my ear, which I suspected was crucial, but couldn’t really hear him because, as it was a cold March day, I was wearing a hat that covered my ears.

Finally, the film and the shaking stopped, and he opened the envelope I’d brought down. I wondered whether it would have been wrong to have opened it myself earlier and whether I was actually supposed to do so. It was too late now. I caught a glimpse of a closely-typed page, but he didn’t let me read it, slipping it away somewhere.

But there was something else in the envelope: a pendant of three silver discs with holes in the middle attached by a small safety pin to a green and white stripy cord. This he put round my neck, where it hung awkwardly over the bulk of my purple down jacket.

Then he pointed at a door. “Find your path” he said. I opened it, went up some stairs and emerged into a side road, round the corner from where I’d started. I suddenly wanted to go back, worried I’d missed something, and thinking that I should try to get the letter to help me remember what had happened. But when I pushed the door I’d come through, it was locked.

It had started when I was waiting for the bus one day. In the window of an formerly empty shop a sign had appeared: “Psychic” it said, in purple neon letters. I noticed it, but wasn’t that surprised. Like parts of New Orleans, Dalston has a rich seam of gothic mysticism. Other people have Pizza Hut and normal green spaces; we have Voodoo Ray’s slice shop and spooky Abney Park cemetery, where the ghosts of religious non-conformists and abolistionists are rumoured to roam.

My experience, however, wasn’t really a mystic one in the conventional sense, being a pop-up trailer for a show being put on by an east London-based immersive theatre company that’s about to open. And I went there because I’d read about it in Time Out rather than because I’d stumbled into the shop hoping to contact a dead relative.

But the experience did reflect something real about Dalston and the way that things that happen to us anywhere can’t be revisited, but leave traces for those who wish to perceive them. The sign, the shop and, presumably, the old man are long gone but, in the drawer where I keep my keys, I still have the pendant and the barley sugar.