Friday, June 09, 2006

Sancton’s Song for My Fathers

Song for My Fathers
By Thomas Sancton
Other Press

There has always been an apostolic element to jazz history. Louis Armstrong apprenticed with King Oliver. John Coltrane honed his art as a sideman with Miles Davis. In his memoir Song for My Fathers: a New Orleans Story in Black and White, journalist and sometime clarinetist Thomas Sancton recounts the experience of learning to play traditional New Orleans jazz as a teenager from some of the giants who played at Preservation Hall, foremost of whom was George Lewis.

Sancton writes of many fathers, his often difficult biological father, Thomas Sr., and the musicians of Preservation Hall, the metaphorical fathers who taught him about the music they pioneered. The legendary clarinetist George Lewis was his hero and first music teacher, whose lessons were often more about intangibles than theory. At one point, Lewis told Sancton about one of his signature songs, “Burgundy Street Blues:”

“I guess one reason I made it,” he said, “is because every time I went on the stage in one of them big halls I prayed—like I always do everywhere—that God would stick with me and help me play my very best for these folks who’d been so good to me.” (p. 88)

Other New Orleans giants would teach Sancton more practical musical instruction. Punch Miller gave early instructions on improvisation in his Saturday afternoon jam sessions, and George Guesnon opened the white teenager’s eyes to New Orleans race relations in general, and particularly the complex relations between Creoles and African Americans.

As New Orleans funerals offered ample employment for musicians, Sancton often marched with Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. Dejan explained:

“This is the only town in the world where funerals make people happy . . . that’s the way it’s supposed to be—it’s like the Bible say, ‘Cry when you born, rejoice when you die.’ That’s why we pick up the tempo comin’ out the graveyard. That New Orleans music make everybody happy, man” (p. 107-108)

Indeed, funeral marches are a constant presence in Song for My Fathers, eerily reminding us many of these New Orleans musicians would have little time left on Earth, and that a terrible fate would befall their city in 2005. In the wake of the storm, the city that had always found joy in loss, was suddenly bereft of the healing power of its music.

Sancton is an excellent writer, and his affectionate portrayal of “the mens” is absorbing. His accounts of his family, particularly his complex relationship with his father are also surprisingly compelling, sometimes even bordering on Southern Gothic. Written before Katrina, Sancton added a preface about his return to his parents’ storm ravaged home, adding an additional chapter of frustration to his family history.

Throughout Song it is impossible to forget the fate waiting for New Orleans. Fortunately, Preservation Hall, a true musical shrine that hosted legends like George Lewis, was spared by Katrina. Let us hope there will be another generation of New Orleans musicians to play there and continue the tradition that inspired Sancton.

Note: Sancton has a book signing at Preservation Hall on June 24th.