New Orleans has been a magnet to artists and activists who can’t shake the pass-through experience, feel the pull, and rearrange life’s furniture in the city at the bottom of America. In this season of giving, we turn to Don Paul, jazz poet, performer, raiser of awareness and funds for causes in his soul.
After being the youngest Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, Paul spent time in Louisiana in the 1970s, writing fiction in time away from his day job. In 1980 he went back to the Bay Area, making a name in San Francisco as a performing poet and record producer. Befriended by the fabled Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Paul had his work displayed on a special rack in City Lights, Ferlinghetti’s iconic bookstore.
In 2005, watching Hurricane Katrina’s impact on TV hit Don Paul so hard that in one of those jump-cuts that make sense with the monopoly of hindsight, he moved to the flood-ravaged town and got involved with Common Ground, the grass roots organization in the Ninth Ward led by Malik Rahim.
“We had more than 10,000 volunteers and $2 million in donations in 2006. ” Paul said. “We gutted more than 1,200 houses and 17 schools and and helped to save St. Augustine church.” Paul has since forged alliances with musicians like Kidd Jordan and Morikeba Koyuaté, who performed on the poet’s CD entitledWomen Center Earth, Sea, and Sky. Finding the center put Paul in a new kind of space.
Rain needles the roof
Like a dancing drill
And I wish
That we could be together
As a single cell or rock or reef of coral
As a star is together.
The lines are from “I Miss My Wife,” Paul’s celebration of Maryse Dejean, whose mellifluous Haitian accent on WWOZ radio made him want to meet the woman with those tonal currents. It happened in December 2011: he got himself over to the WWOZ volunteers’ party at Café Istanbul and encountered Maryse in the entryway. He smiled, she smiled. He mumbled, she wondered. A groove began, life waves that took Paul to Haiti with Maryse after they married. There he experienced the island’s beauty and the dignity of Haitian working-people. They have been to Haiti six times since January 2014 with the non-profit they co-direct, Sticking Up For Children.
Don Paul performs on November 30 at the U.S. Mint with his Rivers of Dreams band and on December 14 at SUFC’s fund-raising Festiva #5, at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center (1724 Oretha Castle Haley Drive). Musicians on both nights include Roger Lewis, Carl LeBlanc and Mario Abney. Festiva #5 adds Evan Christoper and Kirk Joseph for a ‘Classic Quintet’.
“Sticking up For Children came about” Paul explained, “when Cyril and Gaynielle Neville in 2013 contacted Maryse and me with drumsticks that they had painted with their grandchildren. Their idea was to sell these drumsticks as art with proceeds to benefit a Haitian orphanage.
Since 2014 Sticking Up for Children has provided over $20,000 in funds and over $80,000 in goods and services to its partners in Haiti and New Orleans. Schools are using 3-D printers to generate musical instruments, objets d’art and parts for prosthetic limbs.
“New Orleans and Haiti feel a lot alike,” Paul said. “Both places of spirits crossing bridges and surprising you around corners.”