A typical ‘Evening in Ole New Orleans’
19th May 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Vernel Bagneris, the renowned New Orleans song and dance man with a true flair and deep understanding of what makes classic jazz jive, debuts his and clarinetist Orange Kellin’s Blue Serenaders’ latest project, “An Evening in Ole New Orleans,” at Snug Harbor, Friday, May 23, 2014. This show is a sneak preview of sorts to the performances the group will take on the road during 2015 and 2016 as a part of a “community concert” series.
As the title suggests, the ensemble that on the Snug date will include pianist Steve Pistorius and drummer Benji Bohannon, will perform music dating from the 1900s to the 1920s from this city’s legendary composers including Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Clarence Williams.“With these authors there are a lot of choices,” says Bagneris of gathering material for the shows. With the exception of the Snug Harbor preview, the performances will be presented in much larger venues. “At Snug Harbor, I’m dancing on a matchbox instead of a big stage with a ‘follow spot’,” he says with a laugh. And, he adds, there won’t be any costume changes. He’ll remain in a three-piece, blue pinstripe suit, a “pimp number,” like he wore in “One Mo’ Time” that beckons of the era.
Deemed “a master of the American vernacular” by the Library of Congress, Bagneris, is intimately familiar with the material from this era having gained national and international acclaim and awards for his musicals “One Mo’ Time” and “Further Mo’ as well as other productions. For his celebrated one man show dubbed “Me-Morton” he evoked outspoken pianist/vocalist Jelly Roll Morton’s spirit in song and dialogue.
Though “An Evening in Ole New Orleans” is strictly music and dance minus a script, Bagneris laughs when he admits he adds some vignettes. “There are little stories here and there – you can’t keep me quiet.”
Bagneris doesn’t feel it’s necessary to play songs with which audiences, particularly those outside of Louisiana, are immediately familiar. Rather he and the group might include one of his go-to dance tunes “Hop Scop Blues.” “If it’s, well done, they react,” he says. “And since it’s from New Orleans, there’s this exotic thing so it (the performance) becomes an evening that they enjoy.”
“Music is healing in itself,” he continues. “I think when people get a feeling that they’re not expecting, when they get the joy of a second-line beat and somebody is dancing to it, for them it’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’ You don’t generally see that on television. It’s a cultural ambassador thing.”
The last time Bagneris and Orange Kellin’s Blue Serenaders toured as part of the community concert series was seven years ago. He looks forward to teaming up with the clarinetist again.
“It’s like having a brother,” says Bagneris of Kellin. “There is total trust musically and, as they said about “One Mo’ Time,” the band is worth the cost of admission.” Bagneris also admires and is grateful for Kellin’s attention to details on the business end of things such as booking hotels, airline travel and such important yet often tiresome tasks.
For the last several years, Bagneris has been enjoying traveling to locales where working as a professional musician and actor hadn’t taken him. “I’m spending some time on me and enjoying it and seeing places I didn’t get to see when I was touring. I went to Fiji, the Cook Islands, South America, South Korea and Kuala Lumpur. It regenerates me so much. Sounds like retirement to me,” he says with a chuckle.
Then again, Bagneris is working on a new musical in a collaboration with pianist, composer, vocalist and producer Allen Toussaint just as he did on the 1987 production of “Staggerlee.” He explains that it will be about the birth of rhythm and blues in New Orleans and the community that developed it. He will write the book and some of the lyrics with Toussaint composing the music and additional lyrics. The setting, Bagneris explains, is centered around the original opening of the Carver Theater in the 1950s. “We both had to step back to our memory lanes,” says Bagneris who is enjoying the fact that he’s working in the relaxed atmosphere of his hometown of New Orleans, where he returned following Katrina after a long stint in New York City.
Bagneris, Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John and Toussaint (though the latter had to leave due to other commitments) were members of a panel discussing their remembrances of and the importance of the Carver Theater in their youth. The panel took place as part of the grand re-opening celebrations of the Carver Theater last month.
“I told this story about my father,” Bagneris says repeating the tale. “When I was about four or five, there was this little white kid who was my best friend – a little blonde kid – and we played together all the time. One day, he said that his big brother said that I might be colored. And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ll have to ask my daddy.’ So I went inside and said, ‘Daddy, am I colored?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s up to you. If you’re white you’ll have to go over to the Tivoli around the corner. If you’re colored you go to the Carver. And you know that the Carver has hot fudge sundaes and hot dogs with chili.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I want to be colored.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ I had to live with that decision,” Bagneris says, again laughing.
This article originally published in the May 19, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.