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John Boutté Interview by Abby Ellis-Angell
By Abby Ellis-Angell
As you listen to John Boutté speak or sing, you will immediately understand he is the living spirit of New Orleans. A member of a Creole family that harks back seven generations in Louisiana, Boutté expresses his love for his hometown, as well as his deep feelings for a nation which he seems to mourn while at the same time holding out hope for its ability to heal itself. Coming up surrounded by music, at the age of 8, he took up the cornet as his main instrument before realizing that he could best express himself through his talents as a vocalist. His voice, which has been described as a ‘smoldering, spirit-filled tenor’, has garnered him the distinction of being one of this country’s foremost jazz and soul singers, and earned him such honors as OFFBEAT Magazine’s 2003 Male Vocalist of the Year, and the Big Easy Entertainment Awards’ Male Performer of the Year. As is evident from his comprehensive discography, Boutté’s talent lends itself to the full meaning of the music of the soul, including jazz, gospel, and blues, to which he adds his own unique flavoring.* During a recent interview while on the road in Vancouver, he addressed a variety of subjects such as his ability to deal with the experience of finding his native city in ruins in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, his decision to make music his life’s work, and what inspires his songwriting.
In light of New Orleans’ destruction, how has the musical spirit of the city survived?
Its spirit has always been strong. You can stop a lot of things, but you can’t stop the music here. The result of the hurricane is that many of us have been spread around the country. Music and art aren’t stagnant. They reflect life, which means they will continue to prevail.
How did you handle coming home to find the city in complete ruins?
I was very fortunate to run into people who opened their arms to me. When I got home I realized I couldn’t call my mother using the same phone number we’d used for 49 years. Little things like that, like knowing that many of the people I had known all my life had died and that the lifestyle we had enjoyed was gone, just broke my heart .I cried every day for two years, which was a good thing, because otherwise I’d have lost my mind. Thinking about the injustice of it all still makes me well up.
Could you bring yourself to leave it?
I ain’t going nowhere! Maybe I’m nuts, but I believe the place is special, man! I’ll put it to you like this: I’ve loved many cities in this world, but New Orleans is the only city that’s loved me back! You have to understand the whole spirit behind it. There’s something about its soul and spirit that grabs you and keeps you. People in this city are able to trace their lineage back to their beginnings; this is not true of any other city in this country. It’s like it’s tribal.
Are you hopeful that the city will be restored?
Somehow, Mother Nature always seems to return to rectify our distasters. I can tell you that the first time I smelled the Night Jasmine, I knew that things had started to grow back again. It fired my hope and joy, which I believe could never have been destroyed. It’s the people who love this city and who are determined to stay here who are making the difference. They feel it’s their destiny to rebuild it.
How do you think the experience changed you?
It made me very aware of the impermanence of life., and how precious and fragile it is. “The Eternal Now”, one of the tunes on my new CD, “Good Neighbor”, resonates much louder for me than ever before. It’s a reminder that we can’t let anything stop us from what we need to do. The situation has also taught me patience, and made me realize that family has become dearer to me than ever before.
You mentioned that it also changed your career. How so?
My first gig when I got back to the city was at Café Brazil, a club on Chartres Street, where there was a hodge-podge of street musicians, and professionals. The place was packed. I could feel the tension in the room because of the nine o’clock curfew. I asked everyone in the audience to stand up and scream to release their anger and frustration. Man, I thought the windows were going to be shattered! I think the people fell in love with me, and vice-versa. I knew that they had listened to me before, but then, after the storm, they really began to hear me, and we began to appreciate each other. So now I find that performing in New Orleans is very special because I have a great fan base. The hurricane was a kind of catalyst.
When and how did you decide to make music your life’s work?
I’ve been involved with music ever since I was born. You can’t live in New Orleans and not get an education in music. I picked up the coronet when I was 8 and started playing with the school marching band, and later with different groups playing Doo Wop and MoTown. When I got home from Korea, I was playing with the older cats, like Ed Frank, Lloyd Lambert, Joseph ‘Smokey’ Johnson, and Danny Barker…any of the masters that would allow me to hang with them. All this time I had had a banking job at home until one day I met Stevie Wonder who came to town to receive an honorarium at Xavier College, from which I had graduated. The upshot was that when I got to sing for him, he told me I had a ‘signature voice’, and the next day I quit my job. As luck would have it, my sister Lillian, who is a fine jazz singer, asked me to join her on tour in Europe, where I ended up doing cameo performances with her band.
What made you decide to go out on your own?
Well, eventually I decided I needed to be doing more than singing with her. Unless I wanted it to become a Donny and Marie situation, I felt I had to break away! I had learned a great deal from her professionally by just watching her dealing with the heartaches and difficulties involved in keeping people on the road.
What inspires you to write your music?
I believe that all my experiences define me and become part of my music. Sometimes I’m inspired to pull phrases from the Bible. Many times I can find words of wisdom there, as well as the lyrics of hymns. I can sing them to myself. Basically, I feel that my life is about songs that have been sung before me, as well ones that I’m still learning, and those that are in me that are yet to come. I find a lot of solace, wisdom, joy and laughter in them. I can rejoice, I can mourn, and I can relieve my anger, all through the medium of song and singing.
How would you best describe your life?
I guess I’ve always moved with the flow, and it seems to work. I’m fortunate to be in this universe. I’ve had all these experiences…That’s my life…a big old mixture of great songs, great rhythms, and great beats. My life is a song, a continuous song that keeps beating! I don’t think the beat’s ever going to end. It just goes to another level, hopefully to a meaningful, moving ovation, and an encore to a higher ground.
*John Boutté’s discography can be found on his website, www.johnboutte.com
Abby Ellis-Angell is a freelance writer living in Denver.