A Lake Pontchartrain breeze blew through the open windows and doors of the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Hall Saturday.
Still the members of Dr. Michael White’s Quartet, wearing ties and long-sleeved white shirts, wiped the sweat from their faces with handkerchiefs and towels.
As has been repeated for more than 100 years, people yearning for jazz packed the simple wooden building in Mandeville.
Cross ventilation common in southern structures of that period let the people inside breathe, and let the notes of New Orleans jazz seep to those sitting outside in the shade.
Whether acoustics were considered when building the hall, sound brewed richly inside. White’s clarinet talked back to the trumpet in superb counterpoint as the banjo filled out the slapping, thumping bass.
Billed as a lecture performance, White’s knowledge of New Orleans jazz and its history was topped only by the speech of the instruments conversing eloquently.
Once, the conversation got low down and suggestive as the group took obvious pleasure in playing “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.”
Between numbers, White said jazz bands always had to save that piece, even though instrumental, for the end of concerts after the churchgoers had gone home.
For the church ladies Saturday, there were renditions of hymns like “In the Sweet By and By” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” done in a slow-walking, jazz-funeral style.
The conversation between instruments was at its best in W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”
The improvisational conversation became an entrancing monologue as White’s clarinet told a wordless story in “Decatur Street Blues.”
During a noon intermission, the First Free Mission Baptist Church next door sold box lunches of dirty rice and fried chicken as the audience gathered beneath the oaks.
The food, the lecture and especially the music were enhanced by the club itself.
It was built by the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Association, whose dues-playing members helped each other deal with illness, hunger and funerals after the Civil War. The organization’s African-American members also cared about entertainment — especially jazz.
Steaming over from New Orleans, legends like Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson and Buddy Petit played there. Some add Louis Armstrong to the list.
Still unpainted, with a few signs of white wash, the building’s shotgun style has the feel of a community-hewn church. Its doors and shutters swing open to screenless portals that let the air in and the spirit out.
Backless benches can be moved aside if the music demands dancing.
Gospel music wouldn’t be out of place here, but it’s jazz — pure New Orleans jazz that permeates the wooden walls.
Bob Anderson welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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