By Mark Rubin
I backed up the U-Haul truck, now fully loaded with all my worldly possessions, and headed out of Austin for the last time as a local resident, and the truth is, it was easier than I expected. I can’t say I was happy to leave though. It had been about 25 years since I rolled into Austin (from Oklahoma by way of Dallas) and I’d had a good run here, making a life playing bass—but it was not to last. Thankfully, Granddad Rubin had laid a good piece of advice on me, long ago, “It’s your job to be valuable to your neighbors. If your neighbors don’t value your efforts, then you gotta change what you offer, or find better neighbors.” With that in mind, I chose the latter, and it made getting the truck on the road to my new home in New Orleans that much easier.
I should tell you a secret: I had almost moved to New Orleans over a decade before. I was standing on Bourbon Street, celebrating my birthday, when in a moment of perfect clarity I decided finally to chuck it all—divorce my wife, pack up my things, and move here to live the life I do now. All the cats I knew were telling me to come join in.
That day was August 24, 2005—five days before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
What followed entirely upended the narrative not only for me, but for the city itself. Soon I was housing displaced New Orleanians in Austin, and hustling gigs for them. It was quite a turnabout and it delayed my departure from Austin.
Years passed, and with the time came many changes—the ex got the house, I’m on meds now for bipolar disorder, and little by little Crescent City struggled to get “back to abnormal,” as they like to say. Then one day I found myself in the driver’s seat of a U-Haul, finally making my long-delayed move.
There are plenty of folks here in New Orleans who came from someplace else, and each has his or her own imagined version of “N’awlins.” But it wasn’t long before reality set in for me—rents here are high, and I was lucky to find reasonable digs in the Gentilly section of town. The locals have offered some insights into their city—not always what I want to hear. One old-timer warned me, “People have stood in line for the good gigs for 20 years, son.” But then he added, somewhat encouragingly, “If you’re good, they’ll make room for you.”
“Do you have a drinking problem?” I’ve been asked this more than once, with the implication that I might end up with one just like everybody else.
“You play jazz?” I identify as a folk musician and am here to study the local traditions and present them in a way that locals would recognize as “the truth”—the phrase heard most often as a compliment on a well-crafted performance.
My arrival fortuitously coincided with the expansion of new venues on Frenchmen Street, which was once a sleepy, locals-only hideaway in the Marigny neighborhood. It’s now a regular tourist destination with 18 clubs, most presenting live bands every day. Concurrently, traditional New Orleans music is making a modest comeback in the French Quarter, with venues suddenly booking the music I came to play. Even Bourbon Street, mostly a gut-wrenching display of commercial ugliness, has added more slots for the music that thousands of tourists come eagerly expecting to hear.
All of these changes have led to some of the most gratifying musical experiences I’ve had in recent years, and it happens every time I’m playing my bass in the French Quarter. I see passers-by stop dead in their tracks, grab whomever they’re with, and rush into our club to listen. The ability to be a conduit for this music, nearly every day, is humbling and gratifying—and it pays what the tip jar can’t. (Trust me, though. Since you can expect 60 to 70 percent of your income to come from the tip jar, play what the customer wants—that way the tip jar just seems to fill itself.)
I was sure my skills as a tuba player would be my meal ticket here, given New Orleans’ long brass-band tradition, but I learned quickly that there’s what you think and then there’s how it is. NOLA natives Pops Foster and Wellman Braud are two of my bass-playing stylistic guides, so it was my slap-bass chops that got me my first steady work here. Trumpeter Jack Pritchett put me to work first, deciding my arrival would enable him to break out of his sideman role and start leading his own groups, one of which is a string-band approach to the local repertoire using a lineup seen in pictures of legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden. Jack’s New Orleans Ragweeds quartet features fiddler James Hausman and performs a regular stand on Frenchmen Street every Sunday afternoon.
Manouche jazz has hit the local scene in a big way and local guitar-slinger John Saavedra has carved out his own niche here, mining the traditional New Orleans repertoire performed in Manouche style, topped by his own aggressive and unique voice. Together, John and I back his partner, dancer Giselle Anguizola, as her “Swinging Three” act. Our show includes her vocals along with her amazing Lindy hopping, tap dancing, and jazz dancing as percussion. Along with dancer and promoter Chance Bushman, she’s leading a movement to reconnect the music and dance communities, re-contextualizing the music for a new generation. I also play tuba and banjo, and even do a show of my own original music, working four to eight jobs a week.
Early on, Jack told me, “It’ll take at least five years before you get settled in, but you’ll know in two years whether or not to bother trying.” As I write this on my two-year anniversary of moving to New Orleans, I’m staying put.
One of the hardest things for me to talk about is how I justify the space I take up by living here. Today, many of us consider our imprint on the world and look for ways to protect our precious resources, from recycling to cutting back on fossil fuels. But when are we challenged to think about our cultural imprint? By moving to New Orleans, am I taking up space that should belong to someone displaced by Katrina? I grapple with this question: It informs my decisions and, hopefully, informs my work.
I wish to earn that local honorific, “Yeah, man, that’s the truth!” It is an honor and a privilege to live here and participate in the culture of New Orleans. And for those of us from not around here, that’s never to be taken lightly.
In the print version of this article, a reference to a Lucinda Williams song was inserted, citing it as the source of New Orleans’ nickname, “Crescent City.” The source of the nickname actually predates Williams’ song. Strings regrets the error.