A Valentine for New Orleans

by Mary Rose Go

Inspired by her Spring Break trip to New Orleans, Mary Rose Go ’08 created the 5-College Student Solidarity Committee and organized a summer trip for eight Claremont students to volunteer. On her last night in New Orleans, she decided to take a friend from Pomona College to a jazz gig.

Donna’s Bar & Grill was a small, dimly-lit joint with a stage to the left of the door, a bar across the room, and tables in the leftover spaces, packed with about 40 people varying from regulars to a wedding party. The youngest in the crowd, we awkwardly found some seats at the bar, facing the band. Bob French, bandleader and jazz drummer of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, sat at the back of a small stage behind his band mates on string bass, trombone, trumpet, and keyboard. During a break, my eyes met those of Freddie, the trombonist, and, as Southern courtesy decrees, I called across the room,”How you doin’, sir?” then jokingly added, “Y’all need a singer?” He asked if I could sing. I laughed, answering no, while my friend, Julie, said yes.

The band regrouped to play a few lively originals featuring improvised solos on each instrument. In a daze from good jazz, I was also exhausted. The lack of reliable public transportation necessitated walking everywhere, and the absence of open businesses meant walking two miles and back to the nearest grocery store. Meanwhile, Bob French started his between-song banter and invited a young lady in the audience to sing. I sat quietly and waited to learn who she was, only to find Freddie pulling me to the stage. I pulled back like a stubborn child.

Bob asked what I was going to sing and, after dismissing my suggestion of “anything” in “any key,” I sang the first words of “My Funny Valentine” to the keyboard player and walked over to the mike.

He began to play a slow, loose intro as I stood under a smoky spotlight and lightly held the microphone. Having just started voice lessons a year ago at Scripps and having performed for only a semester with the 5-College hip hop orchestra, Elixir, I breathed deeply to ground myself. The groove between the keyboard, drums, and bass was new to me, and I sang a variation of the melody I had never sung before, occasionally deviating from the smooth melodic line. The crowd called out encouragements, their heads bobbing and smiling in the dark. The trumpet took the solo at the bridge. My eyes scanned the audience, stopping on tourists sitting in the musty glow of the green bar light. Strange how I came for relief work and here I was helping package a New Orleans experience.

As I came back in with a new variation, I closed my eyes and entered my own dark expanse where my voice floated freely through open space. I imagined Billie Holiday, eyes closed, letting her soulful words caress and massage her tired people, wishing I could do that for the people of New Orleans. Both brass pieces interjected into my words and thoughts, nudging me on as we slowed to a smooth finish of a spontaneous performance.

I walked offstage to a cheering crowd, arm in arm with a beaming Freddie while Bob slipped in a few accolades between his teasing. Later, they invited me to sing in the second set and introduced me to jazz legend Germaine Bazzle.That night, I found peace singing with the trumpeter, and my eyes closed as someone said,”Sing it, girl.”

That’s New Orleans. Everyone watches out for you, takes care of you, and asks nothing in return except for your gratitude and a promise you’ll talk about New Orleans and maybe even return one day. The damage from the hurricane and resulting government neglect displaced residents but was unable to break their spirit. Even if it takes a daily commute from Houston to play at gigs or to rebuild their homes, the people of New Orleans are resiliently fighting for the right to return home. I hope to return with more students within the year and maybe even link with local musicians to help rebuild and maintain communities and protect the residents of New Orleans from becoming permanently displaced.

Mary Rose Go, an Asian American studies major, continues to raise funds for students’ travel costs to New Orleans. To request more information, including how to donate to the cause, e-mail claremontstudentsolidarity@gmail.com.