A former bureau chief for Time and a certified jazz freak from adolescence onward tells his sweet coming-of-age story in pre-Katrina New Orleans when “the mens” (as the black jazz masters called one another) played the music that won his heart.
Sancton, co-author of a clear-eyed account of the death of Princess Di (Death of Princess, 1998, not reviewed), returns with a memoir about his fathers—his biological one (who once edited the New Republic and wrote two novels) and his musical ones, the legendary black musicians of New Orleans, most notably clarinetist George Lewis, the first to tell the author, “You got music inside you.” Sancton believed what he heard and was soon taking lessons at the feet of the masters, playing in street-funeral processions, sitting in at Preservation Hall, often finding himself the lone white face in the band. He played with these men, fished with them, ate with them, visited their simple (and sometimes collapsing) dwellings as if they were religious shrines. The author’s parents were remarkable: They took him to Preservation Hall regularly, befriended many of the musicians, proudly sat in the audience while their son honed his craft. Sancton kept his love mostly hidden from his all-white schoolmates (one girlfriend chided him for spending time with black people) and even played ’60s rock in a high-school group. Sancton’s great public service is to usher these unique artists—almost all of whom are now dead—back onto the stage for one more encore. They become more than mere names. We learn what angered and amused them, what they liked to eat, how they interacted with one another and, in some cases, how they died. Almost all of them kept playing until they simply no longer could. Music for the “mens” was life itself.
A clear, simple melody played, surprisingly, with very little improvisation or ornamentation, but with enormous respect and affection.