Story and Photos by Shelah Moody
New Orleans loved Aretha Franklin. It is perhaps no coincidence that after the Queen of Soul’s transition was announced on major media outlets on the morning of August 16, torrential rains soaked Musicians Village in the 9th Ward and other parts of the city as if the universe were weeping. After the storm, there was calm.
In Pigeon Town, across the street from New Orleans jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis’ house, residents sat in their front yard and sang along to Franklin’s hits, “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” and “Jump to It,” which were played in heavy rotations on local radio stations.
As the city mourned and celebrated Aretha Franklin, I collected stories and memories from New Orleans musicians about the Grammy-winning music legend’s influence on Crescent City.
Who could be better to speak on Aretha Franklin’s impact than Dr. Brice Miller, trumpeter, vocalist and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy? I caught up with Miller after his Wednesday night gig with Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro in Frenchmen Street.
“New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, but it is also the birthplace o R&B, the birthplace of funk; and there’s this great gospel vibe here,” said Miller.
“Aretha Franklin was all of those things. She was multi-disciplined when it came to music. New Orleans is all of those things. Aretha Franklin represented the heart and soul of black Americana, of Black American music. She was borderless. That’s what New Orleans is; our music is borderless. It’s a gumbo. Aretha Franklin represented that. For someone of her caliber, there will be street celebrations and second lines. New Orleans is one of the most African Cities in America. We love our blackness. We celebrate our blackness. We appreciate our blackness. We cultivate our blackness. From the time her death was announced, there was an impromptu second line that took place under the Claiborne Avenue bridge in the Treme neighborhood. There have been smaller, impromptu parades and second lines since then. That’s how we do it. With the expansion of public art, both permitted and not permitted, in graffiti around the city, I can only imagine someone wanting to showcase their artwork by paying tribute to someone of Aretha’s caliber.”
Renown saxophonist Roger Lewis, aka the Dirty Ole Man, made jazz and R&B history as a member of Fats Domino’s band and a member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Lewis, who also performs with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra on Wednesday nights, said he received word via his Facebook account that a mural on a building in New Orleans was being painted in honor of Aretha Franklin.
“Aretha Franklin was one of the greatest female artists we’ve ever had,” said Lewis. “She will be missed. As a matter of fact, I ‘ve been listening to Aretha Franklin all week. How are you gonna improve on greatness? I never had the privilege of meeting Aretha. I wish I had. New Orleans was crazy about Aretha Franklin.”
Delfeayo Marsalis Maurice Trosclair
Trombonist Maurice “Big Meaux” Trosclair, also a member of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra reflected on Franklin’s legacy.
“As a musician, I feel that we’ve lost a really great role model for female vocalists because she pretty much set the standard for so many years. So many hits. So many great, great songs. It is truly a great loss for the music community and the world. Over the years, I’ve played with pop bands in New Orleans, many of which have had female vocalists. Not many could do it like Aretha Franklin, but many have tried to emulate her style.”
Abena Koosmon Davis, Steve Davis and Terrance Taplin
According to Grammy-winning musician Delfeayo Marsalis, the trombone is the one instrument closest to the human voice. Trombonist Terrance “Hollywood” Taplin of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra spoke on Franklin’s influence on instrumentalists.
“Aretha Franklin was a master and she was an inspiration to us all. She was extremely soulful. She was a person who all instrumentalists can look up to and mimic to get all of that sweet soul. We will definitely miss her but we are so thankful for her and the great music that she left behind. She will be with us forever.”
Acclaimed trombonist and music instructor Steve Davis, aka Stevie D., referred to Franklin as “The Truth.”
“She was an incredible, indomitable spirit,” said Davis. “I had the good fortune to be around her a few times in recent years in more of a jazz musical context and hear her actually scat sing once. There was a birthday party for her in New York and I was playing with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Stars. Several of us got to trade eights with Aretha Franklin over some rhythm changes. It was surreal. Her legacy will live forever.”
Aretha Franklin legacy is perhaps most apparent in New Orleans new generation of female R&B vocalists.
Stevie D’s wife, Abena Koosmon Davis, soul singer and musical director of the Resistance Revival Chorus, sees Aretha Franklin as a freedom fighter.
“One of the most compelling things about Aretha Franklin was her music and the passion for social justice in her voice. I think she was a voice that called to other voices. She was a voice that encouraged other voices to sing out. I think ‘Respect’ is an incredible example. Whenever there is strength of spirit and strength of righteousness, it comes out in the music.”
I caught up with neo-soul singer Mykia Jovan (who is seven months pregnant) at her Sunday gig at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street, where she performs R&B covers and original songs from her debut album, “Elliyahu.” Jovan, who is still riding high from her performances this summer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Essence Festival, reflected on the Queen of Soul.
“There’s never going to be another voice like hers. I feel that we should have done a better job at giving Aretha her roses while she was still here. I am so grateful to have her as an ancestor and I know she will influence many artists for many years to come.”
Stopping at a local restaurant after her Friday Night gig at the Blue Nile, New Orleans soul artist Tonya Boyd Cannon honored Aretha Franklin, who she referred to as “Auntie.” On Sept. 7, Cannon will join some of New Orleans finest will dedicate their First Friday Series at the Treme Hideaway to Franklin.
Tonya B Cannon
“We will celebrate Aretha Franklin in the best way we know how,” said Cannon. “Auntie Aretha is not just a queen of soul, she’s an architect. She paved the way for so many artists like myself and so many genres. As a preacher’s kid myself, I can relate to her story because I went through the same things.”
Ben E Hunter
New Orleans Afro-Caribbean artist Ben E. Hunter, who currently opens for Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra at Snug Harbor on Wednesday nights, feels like Franklin feels like Franklin was a dear friend who lived next door, although they never met.
“Let me tell you, she made me feel like a natural man,” said the acoustic singer/songwriter/guitarist. “I grew up with Aretha Franklin. I love Aretha Franklin. There’s no one else like her. There will never be another Aretha Franklin. Her voice is of the angels.”