Dancing with Speeches #39 For Keith

Another speech making day has arrived and the only speech I want to give is in my own voice. This week I head into the anniversary of my father’s death. He loved jazz music. The family turntable rotated with strains of Louis Armstrong on the trumpet and Stan Getz on the saxophone. Lena Horne’s voice would be heard along with Eartha Kitt’s sexy voice and we would dance around with air horns. Having been on a road trip with a pop up gospel choir to the towns of Memphis, Chicago and New Orleans, he is haunting me in the lead up to what would have been his 80th birthday on 3 October. So this week’s speech is dancing with his ghost in New Orleans.

I headed to Preservation Hall in New Orleans to sit on a wooden bench, in a dimly lit room home to many of the greats over more than a century. Huddled together with friends and strangers from all around the world to soak up the atmosphere, take in the sound and to pay homage to a heritage that grew so many of us up in the tradition of jazz. The genetic pathway from gospel to speak easy was easily found as each musician took their line, quartet blends and times for individual instruments and their master to shine.

In the confessional darkness of the confined space, the patrons swayed in their seats and  invisible memories formed a cloud in the room, uniting us in a common consciousness to transcend our own journey’s to the music which had lead us all there on this night. This is a no frills space – the most basic and modest of settings where everything has not been stripped back – it has never been embellished – a purity, an intimacy and acoustic. So far away from the loud, raucous, ecstasy moments in church I had experienced on the trip, the modesty of Preservation Hall was disarming. Primitive, not primal, it is a place of deep knowing and sophistication and simplicity writ large.

To listen to a quiet voice you need to be quiet and still, sometimes to even lean forward and strain to hear. A good lesson to learn at Preservation Hall is: in the space between sound you are invited to learn more about the music, the song and the musicians. The rest makes the space for the sounds to be heard. In death, I find I continue to be instructed and parented by my father and to be in such a place as Preservation Hall, I can preserve and reserve these memories and re-interpret them for the age I am in. His first grandchild is next to me in the Hall and we come to the space with him in our minds and to pay homage to his memory and the music he loved.

Tennessee Williams said New Orleans was the last frontier of Bohemia. The liberalism and almost careless abandon of bodies and booze for sale are juxtaposed with the rock solid presence of Preservation Hall. Taking a stroll past 722 Toulouse Street you can find the place where Williams laid his head to rest in the Crescent City. The bohemian lifestyle is not something I would associate with my Dad. He did however hold liberal social values and spent a lifetime of advocacy as an educator in public service for diversity to be celebrated and fostered through equity and access for those who had any number of physical, psychological and intellectual challenges. Perhaps he would have thought of New Orleans as his spiritual home in the same way Williams did. My guess is he would have found himself at Preservation Hall, in Louis Armstrong Park and down at the French Market sipping on a coffee and enjoying a beignet – and that does sound a bit bohemian come to think of it!

I have a new CD from the stars of Preservation Hall that will get a whirl and dance from me with my absent dance partner. And as the saints go marchin’ in, I am pretty sure Dad is sitting at the foot of Louis crooning along about our wonderful world. Cue the music.

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