MUSIC: Norwegian Seamen’s Church … and jazz

On a steamy May morning (before coffee) my phone delivered a producer from CNN: Can you do a satellite interview about the priest in Rome the pope just removed? My last book exposed that reprobate priest. You bet I said yes. We need you downtown in forty-five minutes. I, uh, have to take a bath. We’ll send a car, she replied. “Fifteen minutes?”
Of course, I said (as if CNN sends a car every day.) Then I dove in the tub.
Ten minutes later, the doorbell chimes. One minute after that, in shirt and pants, trailing tubwater bare footprints, I opened the door.
MUSIC: Norwegian Seamen’s Church … and jazzHe stood on the porch, hefty with gray-white hair, a rustic beard, pink cheeks. “Your driver is here,” he smiled, with a dapper hint of irony. His car was sleek behind him, and I, no portrait of celebrity. “Have a cup of coffee while I finish off?” I offered. He agreed.
Soon after we were threading through streets still dead from Katrina, telling each other what we did during the flood. I realized he was Scandanavian. Norwegian, he explained, and a longtime resident of the holy city of New O. I mentioned a jazz service I’d gone to back in the day at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church on Prytania Street. His eyes brightened. “You know the church?”
“Not very well, but I know a lot of guys who have played there.”
On this wave of good cheer we reached the CNN bureau off St. Charles Avenue, where the camera was stationed in a corner of the garage that was unavailable for parking from the street. The driver went off to park. The interview was delayed, which allowed my hair to dry – these little things add up when you’re burnishing an image. After the taping was done the limousine returned and we resumed our dialogue about Swedish and Norwegian musicians hereabouts. Theresa Anderson, Anders Osborne, Morton Gunnar Larson, Lars Edegran, worthy musicians all – and then some.
When we got to my house he had me sign a form that would be sent to CNN confirming services provided. Then he handed me a CD, “Jazzkirken: 100 Years in New Orleans. The Norwegian Seamen’s Church.” I thanked him profusely.
“People don’t usually invite me in for coffee,” he replied. He’d actually driven to the church, got the CD and returned while I was being interviewed. My cell phone went off right then. In the harried exit I waved, pulled into other matters.
The next day on a drive across the Causeway I put in the CD. The first cut fills the vehicle with a rolling rendition of “Li’l Liza Jane,” with Willie Humphrey signing lead and Sweet Emma Barrett on piano chiming in the harmony, a version I’d never heard, “… gonna take my gal to the country store, dress her up in calico.”
The seventeen cuts on this grand recording feature a lineage of New Orleans-style musicians interlaced with Norwegians, Swedes and Danes playing the classical idiom quite beautifully. “The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in New Orleans celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2006,” the liner notes report. “Over the years, hundreds of jazz musicians have performed in concert or in jazz services at the church. The tradition began during the pastorate of Reverend Paul Dasvand (1970-1979). Banjoist Narvan Kimball was the church’s postman, and he would frequently take a coffee break at the church.” Kimball and his Preservation Hall colleagues soon performed at the church, which began featuring Scandanavian jazz groups on their American tours. Kimball died earlier this year at 96, having been evacuated to North Carolina by Benjamin Jaffe, the bassist who runs Preservation Hall.
There is a glorious cut of “We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City” by Bytunets Antikvariske Jazzensemble, a group based in the coastal town of Stavanger, Norway, recorded in 2004. Uncle Lionel Batiste, of the Treme Brass Band, sings a lusty “Someday You’ll Want Me to Want You” with Lars Edegran on piano and a retinue of locals. Another song has stayed with me these many weeks – the CD is still in my car. It’s called “Han Er Oppstanden,” a soaring choral work performed by a group called Skruk, “among Norway’s most popular and well-known choirs,” according to the liner notes. The “allelulias” in the piece summon imagery of blissful clouds, and the harmonic arrangements, so floatingly serene, echo memories of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African a capella singers. Skruk is directed by one Per Oddvar Hildre. How wonderful it would be to see them perform in New Orleans.
The guy who gave me this wonderful gathering of songs never told me his name. Whoever you are, Monsieur de Norway, merci bien y muchimas gracias.

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