More than half a million people are expected at the 31st annual French Quarter Festival this weekend. They come from far and wide — and a few of them come not only to enjoy the music, but also to take it back home.
Ron Roberts is the mayor of DeRidder, La., a small town in the southwestern corner of the state. But for 31 years, he’s had a love affair with New Orleans and its music, ever since a spring day in 1984 when he and his wife, Martha Lou Roberts, stumbled onto the inaugural French Quarter Festival.
“It was an accident really,” Roberts recalls. “We booked a weekend in New Orleans, and we were supposed to stay over in the CBD, at the Lafayette Hotel. When we arrived they had a flood, couldn’t put us up, but said, 'We’re going to let you be our guests at the Royal Sonesta.' So we did. We walked out the front door and there was the French Quarter Fest. Having the music out on the street and in the daytime was just magnificent to me.”
Roberts has been to every French Quarter Festival since, except for two — only the occasional graduation or birth has interfered, he says.
And over the past three decades he has become a devotee of New Orleans and its sounds. He reels off a litany of musicians he has heard and admired — trumpet players Duke Heitger and Charlie Spivak and Al Hirt, the Pfister Sisters, and Connie Jones, who played at that first French Quarter Fest and still does today.
The Roberts come about twice a month to the city. In 1993, they bought a condo on St. Charles Avenue. Three years ago, wanting to be “closer to the action,” they moved to a vacation condo on Burgundy Street, two blocks off Bourbon.
“We’re perfect tourists,” says Roberts. “We eat in all the restaurants and go in the clubs and go in the galleries.”
The DeRidder mayor is not only a fan of jazz, but also a practitioner of it.
“When I was 49 years old, I gave up playing golf and took up the trumpet,” he says. “I’ve been very happy with it ever since, because there’s no frustration in the music.” His band, Beauregard’s Courtesy, salutes Civil War General P.G.T. Beauregard, for whom Beauregard Parish is named.
But Roberts didn’t stop there. He starting taking the music home with him. He launched an annual concert series in DeRidder that plays three times a year to sell-out audiences in the 225-seat Wooten Theater there.
“We’re five hours from New Orleans, so there aren’t too many people from around here go to New Orleans.” Roberts says. “I won’t say that New Orleans music compares with any in the world; I say it surpasses any in the world. You just don’t find music anywhere else like New Orleans. And I wanted to expose people to it.”
So he scouts the city’s clubs and festivals for headliners to bring to DeRidder. The most recent was Charlie Miller and the Jazz Masters.
“I walked into the Little Gem Saloon four months ago, and walked up to Charlie Miller and introduced myself. I asked him, can you play Can’t Get Started With You?”
He did, and Roberts was blown away. The gold standard for that song, he explains, is the 1939 Bunny Berigan version. Al Hirt recorded the song in the 1970s, arguably improving on it. So does Charlie Miller, Roberts maintains.
“If there’s a platinum standard, he’s the platinum. He’s extraordinary.”
New Orleans musicians, Roberts had found, are wonderful people to work with.
“They’re easy. We’ve had 16 groups come from New Orleans to DeRidder. I’ve never signed a contract. They’ve never had fancy equipment requests, they hardly do a sound check, and they’re friendly.”
That may be, at least in part, because DeRidder, and Roberts, are friendly, too. When he read in an article that Banu Gibson likes champagne, Roberts put a bottle of Dom Perignon in her dressing room.
Roberts has lots of stories about his encounters with New Orleans musicians. One tale came from New Orleans trumpet player Richie Crosby — “they call him Bing” — who told Roberts that he’d served in World War II and, with time to kill after the liberation of Paris, decided to put together a band. In need of a guitar player, he found a fellow in a corner bar — who turned out to be Django Reinhardt.
“There actually was a photograph of this band, on the cover of Life magazine,” Roberts says. “This band was riding through the streets of Paris on top of a bus. I think that’s a wonderful story about a great New Orleans musician.”
During one French Quarter Fest visit, Roberts’ brother-in-law pointed out Lloyd Washington, who sang with the Ink Spots, sitting on a curb next to Wallace Davenport.
“So we walked over and introduced ourselves and sure enough it was Lloyd Washington, and he told me that for 30 years he had been a custodian at Tulane. So a few days later I was out at Tulane and I asked them if they’d ever interviewed Lloyd Washington. They knew he was with the Ink Spots, but they did not know that he had worked at Tulane. So they called and interviewed him.”
When Roberts arrives at this year’s French Quarter Festival, he’ll park his usual two folding lawn chairs under a tree in Jackson Square. He’s worn out several sets of them over the years. He'll have scoured the schedule, plotting favorite stops.
“I can’t remember the man’s name right now, but he sings with Ronnie Kole, and he sang with the original Crew-Cuts, and he gets up and sings Shaboom. I don’t want to miss that.”
There are some real musical gems along Bourbon Street, he finds, while Royal Street music is a little more, well, refined. But all of it, he says, is “just good music.”
“It’s like Armstrong said, it’s not what you play, but the way you play it.”
He likes to wander by the river late in the day, when the breeze calms down a bit. He enjoys the intimacy of the Quarter, and the fact that the music merges with the environment.
“You can listen to the music and step into a hotel or step into a bar, get out of the sun, go in and have a good meal.”
He sees many of the same people year after year at the fest.
“There was a magnificent couple from Mississippi. He always wore a white linen suit and she always wore a white summer dress and they danced beautifully, on Royal Street, on Saturday night. I used to love to go and watch them dance. About three years ago, I stopped seeing them.”
This weekend, Roberts will also be scouting acts for his DeRidder concert series. Some he chats with before or after a set, and invites them on the spot. That’s how he got banjo player Don Vappie to DeRidder. Not that most local musicians have heard of the small town.
“Actually, Wallace Davenport had heard of DeRidder, but the rest of them usually say, that’s up near Shreveport isn’t it? And I say, no, it’s down around Lake Charles, just 20 miles from Texas. And they all say, well, we know where Texas is. We haven’t had anyone get lost between here and New Orleans.”