For books, the definition of a classic is a work that stays in print. A number of bestsellers or mid-list books lose shelf life as time advances. Libraries, and Google searches, provide access. Dante’s The Divine Comedy has continuing translations; the story, the poem, has an almost peerless popularity.
Songs face their own steep threshold to become standards or classics – tunes endlessly replayed as to make people get up and dance, or roll along in the car, plugged in, wafting on luxuriant thought clouds.
“Basin Street Blues” is a sterling example. It may have more staying power than any other tune in the New Orleans canon. Composed by Storyville piano player Spencer Williams, whose aunt was a high-rolling madam, the song softens raw facts of a sex district for an elysian vision of a happy old town down on the river.
“Why don’t you come along with me, down the Mississippi?
We’ll take a boat to the land of dreams,
Deep down the river to New Orleans.
The band’s here to greet us,
All friends here to meet us,
Where do all the hip and elite cats meet?
On heaven and earth, they call it Basin Street.”
The original says “the dark and light folk” meet in reference to white men bedding down women of color. The racy lyrics went even softer when Louis Prima in a euphoric version sang, “Where all the hep cats meet,” and in later variations race references all but disappeared.
The version quoted above is by Yolanda Windsay, who provides a mellow languor to the seventh cut on the new CD, Gerald French & the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band: A Tribute to Bob French. They perform Monday nights at Irvin’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta. Drummer and vocalist French is the third generation of his family to lead the Original Tuxedo, and dedicates the CD to his uncle Bob French, well remembered for his WWOZ radio show known because, ah, Bob did have opinions. He led the band for decades until passing in 2011.
“I keep with many of the songs my grandfather played,” says French, referring to Albert “Papa” French, the banjoist who led the Original Tuxedo for several decades until his death in 1977. “Basin Street Blues” was a staple when French at 5 wore a coat and tie and accompanied the band in tuxedos to high-end Carnival balls or country club dances. He watched, listened and snuck into a garage to play Uncle Bob’s drums, while drumming in grade school.
This Original Tuxedo CD includes two other classics, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A great novel is done at publication; great songs change as different artists maintain melody and seize on improvisations.
“The Saints” was a slow-tempo spiritual in churches until Louis Armstrong’s 1938 recording made it a second line anthem. Paul Simon’s “You can Call Me Al” from the smash Graceland has surreal lyrics (“bone diggers, get these mutts away from me”) but those big pumping horns are a chart bandleaders love, that buoyant cascading melody is perfect for a parade repertoire and words subservient instrumentation.
As a drummer starting out, Gerald French played for several years in Liberty Brass Band, founded by Dr. Michael White, the clarinetist and New Orleans-Style composer.
White produced Through the Streets of the City: New Orleans Brass Bands, a February release by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. White, a professor at Xavier, wrote the long booklet on local marching band history. The 15 cuts feature different brass march styles by the Liberty, Treme and Hot 8 bands. Treme’s version of “We Shall Walk through Streets of the City” is a melody synonymous with “Red River Valley,” and, as White notes in the booklet, “a popular standard in social club parades, church processions and jazz funerals for many years.”
So what’s a standard? When the people like it, the bands keep playing it.