Alex McMurray may be the hardest-working man in New Orleans show business. His myriad projects include the Alex McMurray Band, the Tin Men (a sousaphone-washboard-guitar trio), the Valparaiso Mens Chorus (a sea chanty group), the Tom Paines (a folk duo) and 007 (an all-star ska band).
With a schedule that would make a conventionally employed person’s head spin, McMurray also plays a huge number of sideman gigs. That list features Debbie Davis, Kelcy Mae, the Schatzy Band and Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show.
The singer-songwriter-guitarist’s latest album is the Tin Men’s “Avocado Woo Woo,” produced by British music legend and New Orleans resident John Porter (Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bryan Ferry, Billy Bragg, the Smiths). His most recent solo album is “I Will Never Be Alone In This Land.” It features McMurray’s Bywater neighbor, Jon Cleary, at the keyboards.
“It’s great,” McMurray said of having a music career in New Orleans. “But the secret’s out. People are moving here every day. The trains are full of kids with banjos in their hands.”
A New Orleans resident for most of the past 25 years, McMurray moved to the city from Red Bank, N.J., to attend Tulane University.
“A light went on for me around sophomore year,” he recalled. “There was music here. I had thought New Orleans was just a Dixieland thing. I didn’t know anything about the rhythm-and-blues traditions or the real jazz or brass bands. But when I started seeing and hearing things, I got enthused quickly.”
McMurray earned his degree in philosophy and English, even as he pursued music at the Maple Leaf Bar, Café Brasil, Muddy Waters and Tipitina’s.
“I was slated for a life in academia,” he said. “All of that got thrown out the window.”
In August 1997, New York’s TVT Records released “Happy Birthday, Sabo!,” an album by McMurray’s jazz-rock band, Royal Fingerbowl. But the band’s albums pleased critics more than the public and the group disbanded in 2001.
In 2004, McMurray moved to New York City to be with his then girlfriend, now wife, artist Kourtney Keller. Like every good Jersey boy, he also wanted to see if he could make it in the city that never sleeps.
“It’s hard to get traction up there,” he said. “It’s tough, even for the guys who are up there doing it. You’re competing against the Knicks and Broadway and cinema. Nobody goes to hear a band in New York City and, if they do, it’s like their friend’s band and they go begrudgingly.”
McMurray returned to New Orleans in 2006. Although the city was still in early post-Hurricane Katrina-, flood-recovery mode, he and his wife took it upon themselves to organize the first Chaz Fest.
“It was March, and they’d just announced the bands for Jazz Fest,” McMurray recalled. “A little late that year, obviously. Our band, the Tin Men, was not on the list. And 007, another one of my bands, and the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio and Palmetto Bug Stompers weren’t on the list. And that year they didn’t have the Thursday between the weekends — the ‘locals day,’ as they call it.”
So McMurray and his peers decided to stage their own festival in his Bywater backyard. Six or seven bands played the first Chaz Fest, and a few hundred people attended.
McMurray and his wife vowed not to make Chaz Fest an annual event. Responding to popular demand, the couple has caved in every year since 2006 and staged another Chaz Fest. This year’s event drew about 700 paid attendees and 400 non-paying guests.
Of course, the Alex McMurray Band, the Tin Men and other groups in McMurray’s large circle also play Jazz Fest. The Alex McMurray Band, including its horn section, performed this year on the festival’s beautiful first Saturday, before the rain and mud.
“I love Jazz Fest,” McMurray said. “I get dewy-eyed when I go through that Michael P. Smith book of Jazz Fest photographs from the ’70s. To think of myself as being in that number, that makes me feel good, especially since I’m not from here. To be invited to play at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival makes me feel legitimate.”