Talking jazz, talking life
MARY LOU UTTERMOHLEN PHOTOGRAPH
Families are complex organisms, as 41-year-old saxophonist Roderick Paulin, the 12th of 13 siblings, explains. “We are 10 brothers in the Paulin family, and six of us play music. My sisters sing in church choirs.”
Such largesse of music in one nuclear family is unrivaled in a city where musical kinlines stretch back to the dawn of jazz. Roderick and his brothers came up in the their father’s band – Ernest “Doc” Paulin, a trumpeter who led brass bands from the 1920s until the second Clinton administration. Born June 26, 1907, upriver in St. John the Baptist Parish, Doc Paulin got his start in a country band that played for “dances, picnics, all through the week … sometimes when people got married.” (So he told me in a rare interview, to which he begrudgingly consented in order to promote a 1996 CD made with his sons, The Tradition Continues.) “In the country we didn’t play funerals,” Doc Paulin stated. In town they did. “You have to play that trumpet, representing it like a preacher … The trumpet’s gonna talk that funeral talk.”
Paulin and his wife Betty lived on Seventh Street in Central City; he ran the Property Owners Voters League, a get-out-the-vote political organization. When Xavier University undergraduate Michael White approached him in 1977, a white-haired Doc Paulin said: “Wha’ instrument you play?” Clarinet. “I call you for work, you gon’ show up on time?” Yes, sir. “You gon’ dress right?” Yeah.
The old man was legendary for lecturing musicians about scuffed shoes and sending some away if they displeased him; Doc was tough.
He died at the age of 100. The funeral began at Holy Ghost Church on Louisiana Avenue. “When I looked at him in the casket,” Roderick Paulin says, “I said, ‘I was meant to be a musician. Whatever I play, I want to do it well.’ You don’t want to get near the end of your life and not be happy at what you’ve done.”
Roderick studied jazz under Kidd Jordan at SUNO and ramped up with Rebirth Brass Band in the 1980s, playing some 300 days on the road. Those years were shadowed by the sadness of losing his wife from severe asthma when she was 22. He relied on in-laws to help raise his daughter; he sent money home from the road. Road life wore him down. He came home, settling into a groove of recording and performing with many bands. He remarried, became a stepfather and remade a home with his natural daughter. His wife gave birth to a boy. Today his eldest daughter is pre-med at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and his second daughter is studying pharmacy at McNeese State. His son is 11. They have lived in Denham Springs since the month before Katrina – luck of the draw. A lineman with BellSouth, he took a job transfer.
“My dad returned from the army in World War II and paid cash for his house. He was a King Edward cigar smoker.
He went cold turkey to marry my mother. Most of his life my dad made a living with a working band. He didn’t make many records. His bread and butter came from gigs. I’m waiting for that Monday morning when I don’t have to go to a day job.”
That won’t happen soon. Paulin is attending night classes at Southern Law School in Baton Rouge. “So many musicians have made mistakes because they don’t know how to read contracts or take care of the business side. I decided to get my grasp on that.”
With most of his siblings (and his mother) still in New Orleans – as are the locations that have serviced his last two decades as a jazzman – Paulin does a lot of driving on Interstate 10. He works out arrangements in his mind as the swamps and billboards pass by. His latest CD, We Do What We Do: Roderick Paulin and the Big Easy Groovers, is a paean to funk music such as James Brown’s redoubtable “Funky Good Time,” the first cut, arranged by Paulin to facilitate bouncing reed lines. Stevie Wonder’s “Summer Soft” is here, and so, more memorably, is Paulin’s composition “Blow Roe Blow.”
He is in good company with Roland Guerin and Nicole Slack-Jones sharing vocals, Jamelle Williams on trumpet, Craig Klein on trombone, Detroit Brooks on guitar and vocals and Carl LeBlanc also on guitar. The songs include Larry Sieberth, Arnette Hayes and Fred Sanders on various keyboard roles and percussionists Troy Davis, Herman Jackson and Doug Belote.
“What I learned from my dad is you gotta be true to yourself,” Roderick Paulin explains. “He had a third grade education. He said if you don’t have common sense you’ll never make it. A law degree won’t get me up at 4 a.m. to work on an arrangement; but the common sense, I got that.”
He plays May 1 in the Jazz Tent at Jazz Fest.