Libraries I Have Loved In London And New Orleans

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The fact it hurt libraries: that was the saddest thing about reading about the controversies musician Irvin Mayfield has been involved in in recent years for my blog post about jazz film Mo Better Blues last week. Some allege that he improperly diverted funds away from libraries and towards his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. I offer no opinion on these allegations, but I do agree with a comment made by the city’s former library foundation president Tania Tetlow in connection with the matter: “There’s a special place in hell for those who steal from libraries.”

I love libraries, and always have done. Near to where I lived as a child, there were two: a little, cosy one like an expanded Wendy house, and a glorious, grown-up big one with, it seemed, more floors and shelves than I could ever fully explore. I spent hours in both.

I’m a regular visitor to several libraries in Hackney, the area of London where I live. I also love scanning the Hackney Libraries website, trying to work out where I have the best chance of scoring whatever popular book I’m trying to locate – currently Ron Chernow’s biography of founding father and monster hit musical inspirer Alexander Hamilton. I’m a passionate rather than reliable user; I’m ashamed to admit that my late return fines over the years of my membership – of which the Hackney Libraries website rather damningly holds a complete record – could fund a good part of an (off-season) flight to New Orleans.

When I get to New Orleans, I love to visit its libraries too. There is the Latter Library in the Garden District, an elegant Italianate mansion shadowed by deep green trees. It’s touched with just the faintest trace of the gothic mood that gently overhangs that part of the city, being a tribute from a Mr and Mrs Harry Latter to their dead son Milton, killed in Okinawa during the Second World War. The building formally became a library on Halloween 1948, and has functioned as one ever since, with brief periods of closure for refurbishment. It has sales too, and a book that I have from one of these always conjures up for me the beautifully sedate, cool place from where I obtained it. By William S. Butler and L. Douglas Keeney, it’s called Secret Messages: Concealment, Codes and Other Types of Ingenious Communication.

The Iron Rail Book Collective, now sadly closed, was quite different, but I liked it just as much. This radical and anarchist library and bookstore was originally based in an arty area on the edge of the French Quarter and then moved to more bohemian Bywater. I’d visit and borrow books whenever I was in town, and they were just the sort of spiky and invigorating stuff you’d expect: writer and activist Deborah “Big Red” Cotton’s Meltdown Town; Marie Etienne’s memoirs Stork Bites and Confessions of a Bi-Polar Mardi Gras Queen.

New Orleans has many more libraries, and they will all be loved by someone. But libraries are in danger from floods, loss of funding, and a multitude of other threats, even violence, in both New Orleans and London as well. Personally, I’m sure there’s a special place in heaven for those who help them.

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.

Meet Me In New Orleans (Kind of…)

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A warm night, palm trees, people happily chatting to strangers. It could almost have been the Marigny and not Hackney. The dive bar in a dilapidated building certainly had a New Orleans “we just threw this together ourselves” kinda vibe, but then these types of venues are oh-so-Hackney too, which also has a love-hate relationship with a shipwrecked-at-the-end-of-the-world reputation. Other clues we were in London not Louisiana: the palm trees were plastic and the temperature outside dropped rapidly once the new June sun went down, but people really were talking happily to people they didn’t know.

Normal London rules for dealing with strangers, in case you’re not familiar with them, are as follows: eye contact – weirdo; smile – get off at the next stop; and unsolicited conversation – run! In New Orleans, on the other hand, strangers will stop in the street to talk and introduce each other to their dogs.

I was at an event called Meet Me In New Orleans, which took place last Saturday and was organised by an excellent organisation called New Orleans in London, which aims to bring the music and culture of the Crescent City to the UK’s capital. I would say their mission is a valid one; all things NOLA are relatively unfamiliar to Londoners who, in common with most Brits, tend to think that the US starts with New York and finishes with California, with not much in between. But the New Orleans magic was certainly making its presence felt here. As well as engaging in friendly chit-chat, people were actually dressed up, with many girls in actual dressy dresses (a rarity in London), which made this habitual overdresser happy – I’d made what I thought was a daring last-minute decision to don my party skirt and purple beads.

The venue had made an effort to show some Louisiana hospitality and brio too, serving gumbo and pralines alongside the east London tipples on offer – gin and tonics, Japanese beer. The gesture reflected the slightly mystical affinity in New Orleans between music and food. Somehow they’re always connected there, and once you have one, you never have to go far to find the other. Louis Armstrong always used to sign his letters “Red Beans And Ricely Yours” after the classic New Orleans Monday night supper and, in the modern day, one of the city’s biggest jazz stars, Kermit Ruffins, can often be found cooking up outside Bywater bar Vaughans on a Thursday night in between his sets with his band, the Barbecue Swingers.

Which leads me nicely on to Saturday’s music. It was provided by trad jazzers Dixie Ticklers, the rocking Fallen Heroes and DJ Lil’ Koko. Early on, there was some awe-inspiring swing dancing going on, but as I can’t manage any kind of dancing that requires me to remember the difference between left and right or turn at a set time, I was much happier when proceedings descended into a free-for-all Mardi Gras mosh pit.

We heard classics like Tipitina’s, When The Saints Go Marching In, and even some Mardi Gras Indian-style call and response. But what stayed in my mind most was chief Dixie Tickler Dom James’s rendition of the eerie St. James Infirmary Blues. As I listened, I remembered being in Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street a couple of summers ago, and hearing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield play it. Afterwards, he said it was strange that, even though the song was so linked to the city, he’d never been able to find any trace of the hospital to which it referred.

That’s because the St. James Infirmary was in London, a medieval leper refuge that’s now St James’s Palace, though, according to most accounts, this place isn’t even the true birthplace of the song. It’s supposed to have originated in an Irish ballad cycle entitled The Unfortunate Rake. My mother’s family come from Ireland, and I can confirm that you can rely on strangers talking to you there, maybe even stopping you in the street. However, the nights, even in summer, are likely to be chilly. So on balance it’s probably a good thing that none of us, myself included, are obliged to stop in the place where we started.