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A New Orleans Street Musician Tells All

INTRODUCTION: Some pretty famous jazz autobiographies have come out of New Orleans. A.K.A. DOC: The Oral History of a New Orleans Street Musician, offers a different perspective than Dr. John or Wynton Marsalis. James May is not a world famous musician, he is a street musician, or "busker" (a European term for street performers who play for tips), who regularly sets up outside the famous Cafe Du Monde -- a must-sit coffee circus for tourists located on Decatur Street across from Jackson Square in the broken heart of the French Quarter.

New Orleans has worn down some of the greatest musicians in the world, and didn't just hand over the territory to the tourist-pleasing May. He's had to fight every week, every year, for his few feet of concrete. If it's not a T-shirt shop suing him for a million dollars, then it's some travelling junky musician who got kicked off the tour bus and is using May's corner to earn a ticket back to Highville. Arrested over 25 times by New Orleans' Finest for violating noise or permitting ordinances, May has beat every single charge thrown against his practice. In fact, he helped lead the charge against the seemingly endless attempts by residential newcomers to silence the street musicians of the French Quarter.

A.K.A. DOC contains numerous straight-talking anecdotes that haven't been touched by a libel attorney. Without being either vindictive or pulling punches, May tells who's a thief, who's a junkie, and who has weak chops. You'll read about the musician who almost single-handedly destroyed Preservation Hall, learn what happens when you ask a black band in New Orleans to play "Dixie," and travel with May as he accompanies the bizarre touring group, The Flying Neutrinos, into a landlord's worst nightmare. These are precious stories, told straight from the street -- not from a celebrity dressing room. No other book gives a better feel for the real life of journeymen musicians who have tried to made a living making music in New Orleans. More about the book and author follows the excerpt.


By James May (a.k.a. "Doc Saxtrum")

I guess I sort of look at playing music as a way of living with a little dignity, no matter what type of music I was playing. I was always limited and restricted to certain venues because of my competency level. However, over the year I was able to be exposed to and interpret a lot of material, some music material that could be called, I guess, immortal, because it's been around so long and it's tried and true.

In one sense, being a street performer rather than a union musician in the clubs has freed me from politics and ass-kissing that has nothing to do with good playing. But you still have to deal with other performers, the police, and establishment owners.

When the street performers first went to the Cafe Du Monde to play, they didn't want us there, and they used to call the police and whatnot. It was a hassle. I got arrested over there, and it was always a big scene, a nasty scene. I always went to jail, but when we went to municipal court, it was always thrown out. Then I found out that we were within our First Amendment rights to be playing on the sidewalk, as long as we're not too loud ( which is why our opponents are now passing a lot of city noise and nuisance ordinances). But I still like what I'm doing more than waiting for somebody to call me up and offer me a job.

Musically, I'm now free to explore. It's not just the same club repertoire. I got tired of that too, always playing the same repertoire, even though it's quite varied. A lot of the people you played with didn't even know all of that, and when you play in a club, the patrons turn over after a couple of sets, so you never really need to have more repertoire to get by.

With busking, I feel good about being able to explore new material and present it to the public over at the Cafe Du Monde, because there are so many new people who can relate to the music I'm interpreting.

I would define busking, playing music on the street at the Cafe Du Monde, as being something like participating in a sidewalk cabaret. The sidewalk cabaret atmosphere of the Cafe Du Monde features clowns, balloon-blowers, musicians, and a telescope operator at night. So there's never really a dull moment.

I can select and pick and choose the material that I play, as well as answer requests from the customers, if I know the tune. A funny thing about music, some people that ask for a request, even if you don't know the whole tune, if you play at least two or three bars correctly, they are satisfied and will walk off happy. However, I do try to be more thorough than that. I'm always trying to learn new material, as well as old material, so I will not have to play just three or four bars of a tune, so I will be able to play it completely, make a complete rendition of whatever song is requested of me.

Most of the comments are favorable. I guess this goes back to the early '50s when I was playing with "Poony" the piano player who always stated, "Play the pretty melody!" and reminded me that "White folks might ask you to play anything!"

Some of my experiences while playing on the street have been pretty good. Maurice André, from Paris, a very renowned classical trumpet player, was down here. I spoke with him, and he complimented me. He liked my jazz playing and whatnot. It was a great experience to meet him. He was very receptive to my way of playing. I consider it was a great experience that I got to meet him.

On the subject of playing melodies again, especially at the Cafe Du Monde, this guy came up to me and my accompanist one day, and he told me he knew me in San Francisco and the he remembered hearing me play in San Francisco, which I didn't really remember. So he told me that he was dealing drugs on the North Beach in San Francisco and that he actually knew me! But he stated that he had done some time for drugs, and he had gotten out and was going straight. He had gotten married and into the jewelry business. So he gave me $100 and asked me to play some dope-fiend music for him. He was on vacation in New Orleans and enjoying himself, so I proceeded to play "All the Things You Are," which is a Charlie Parker tune. He enjoyed it, and when he left he gave us an extra $20.

There are all kinds of stories that happen when you are playing for the public, especially for an audience as vast as the audience that comes into the Cafe Du Monde.

Street performers have a code of etiquette, and we do not invade another performer's spot where they perform. At the Cafe we have a rotating system. There are about seven or eight players who play there during an appointed time, and we get together on the times. I usually start at 9:00 a.m. and play from 9:00 to 11:30 Or 12:00. then another guy will come on from noon to 4:00. Then another player will come on. So we rotate ourselves. It's a peaceful operation without any animosity. It wasn't always like that, but after a lot of verbal skirmishes and bad feelings, the people performing at the Cafe now have worked it out, and it's a pretty good system.

Of course, you can still get confrontations between the musicians and other types of street entertainers. the most recent clash came with some of the sketch artists and painters who are set up around Jackson Square, trying to turn a buck from the tourists. Their business has been hurting for a while now, so they've taken to claiming that music is responsible for "distracting" customers from buying their work. They tried to have the police run us off,but the police are tired of this stuff. They know the sketch artists don't have a legal leg to stand on, so they just ignore them.

Some of the sketch artists have tried to take matters into their own hands. They're like some kind of a street gang! They're very clannish and don't want anyone else to be over in the Jackson Square area -- it's like they think they own the public streets. One time, when I was over there, they actually started banging metal chairs to try and drown out my music, and then they actually attacked me. They were like some kind of pack of vicious dogs. That scene was written up not only in the Times-Picayune, but also the front page of the Wall Street Journal. And even the reporters had to admit that whatever the sketch artists say, the public loves the music. Personally, I think there's a racist element in the sketch artists' attack. Most of them are white, and one of them even told me I had no right to be out there playing, because "Niggers don't have culture." But I let the public decide, and my business is going great, while the sketch artists are hurting!


The Oral History of a New Orleans Street Musician

by James May (a.k.a. "Doc Saxtrum")
Published by Cadence Jazz Books
(ISBN: 1-881993-36-1, 103 pages, paperback, $15.00 includes audio CD)

On the surface, this is a simple story of a man's journey from here to there. It is also a story about art and entertainment in 20th century America. James May (AKA Doc Saxtrum) tells his tale without bitterness or rancor but also without sidestepping its realities. In simplicity there is truth.

AKA DOC is not readily available in bookstores. Your best bet is to order directly from the publisher. Send $15 plus $4 shipping to:

Cadence Jazz Books
The Cadence Building
Redwood, NY 13679


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Geoffrey Edwards is an award-winning author and stage director of theatre, musicals, and opera. He is also an active lecturer and educator whose musical interest include both classical and contemporary performance.

Ryan Edwards, a leading baritone with the Metropolitan Opera, has received international acclaim as a singing actor. In constant demand for master classes, lectures, and vocal competitions, he is also a respected author who grew up with the music of his childhood home, New Orleans.

Copyright ©2000 by Cadence Jazz Books. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here with permission.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: James May
  • Subtitle: A Special Article by James May, a.k.a. Doc Saxtrum
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