I watch Doreen play for five days straight and I still don’t know her surname. In fact, any information you find on of Louisiana’s most celebrated performers only refers to her as Doreen’s Jazz, which I like because it sort of sounds like she is the entire genre of music. See the woman in action for more than a minute and you’re liable to believe it. According to her biography, Doreen and her lower brass-playing husband have been an institution in New Orleans for decades. She’s released 23 albums, which I believe, because even though she spends most of her time sitting down now, it’s likely that she could bust out her brilliant renditions of standards from dawn until dusk. Only in this city will you find decorated musicians who still enjoy getting out every day and playing on Royal Street, which is where I first encounter Doreen, or should I say, her sound wallops me over the head. There are five or six acts that stake out space from midday, setting up umbrellas for shade, rolling their over gear in carts, but Doreen soars over all of them. You can hear her over the cheeky stunt men fleecing rich white guys for cash, the blues band alternating between rolling cigarettes and playing ‘St James Infirmary’ for the 25th time. The city is known for Second Line brass bands which occasionally bluster through the intersection, annoucing a wedding, a festival or nothing in particular. And still, Doreen commands the most attention. People stand rooted in their spots and do not leave. They shell out more money than they intended to spend in a day. All because of one woman and her clarinet.
When I was in the music program during high school, clarinet was potentially the least sexy instrument in the band after the bassoon or the oboe. Certainly, it never got a look in when we played jazz, and it was only after I discovered Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’ that I realised how versatile – and loud – the woodwind instrument could really be. Doreen plays a clarinet like it’s a saxophone, trumpet and Beyonce’s voice all rolled into one. The first time I see her, she pulls out these solos that actually defy imagination, flinging her clarinet to the sky as she executes devastating runs that tapdance between scales and modes, her fingers moving so fast you can barely even see them. Random audience members, who, I will remind you, have just rolled in off the sidewalk, start cheering in raptures. It’s like what happens on a talent show like Idol when a vocalist hits a high note, except it happens multiple times in the same performance.
The third time I see Doreen, she opens with ‘La Vie En Rose’. I know this song because my ex-girlfriend encouraged me to learn French last year, and that included listening to a lot of Edith Piaf. But I haven’t ever heard it like this. Everything about it moves me, from the tone of the clarinet through to the surprisingly gruff vocal take on the verse. But it’s the solo that really does it. It takes me to another planet. I am in raptures and it’s the middle of the day, listening to an art form that’s been given an expiry date for at least the past ten years. But the spirit is alive and it is inside Doreen. They call her the female Louis Armstrong, another New Orleans native, and it isn’t hard to see why.
This is what we talk about when we talk about music.