Here’s my take on the old New Orleans standard, "Basin Street Blues:"
This tune has a rich and interesting history. Basin Street was in the heart of the New Orleans red-light district, known as Storyville. There were brothels up and down the street, and they had live music, so Basin Street was a great place for music. Say what you will about legalized prostitution - it fostered the environment in which jazz developed and blossomed.
During WWI, the US Navy grew concerned that sailors on leave in New Orleans were getting a little too distracted. So the New Orleans City Council decided to criminalize prostitution. The legal brothels lining Basin Street closed down, and the jazz musicians had to seek their fortune elsewhere.
One of the musicians who left New Orleans was composer/pianist/singer Spencer Williams (1889-1969). Williams wrote “Basin Street Blues” when he was living in New York in the 1920s. For most songwriters, nostalgic songs about the south were pure fiction. They were usually written by northerners who hadn’t been south of Atlantic City. But “Basin Street Blues” was legit. Spencer Williams had actually lived on that street.
When they closed down those brothels, Basin Street was renamed North Saratoga Street. But by the 1940s, “Basin Street Blues” had been immortalized by Louis Armstrong, and it was pretty clear that this North Saratoga business had to go. In 1945, native sons Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson, and Louis Armstrong returned to their hometown for a much heralded concert at Municipal Auditorium, and it was then that North Saratoga was officially changed back to Basin Street. Such is the power of music!
A few years ago, I gave a concert at WHYY studios in Philadelphia. It was a Downton Abbey themed concert, with soprano Melinda Whittington. It was a special donor event - one night only. I flew in the night before, and they put me in a hotel right in historic Philadelphia, near Independence Hall, which is where the founding fathers debated and adopted the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I was hoping to have time to visit Independence Hall before the concert. But I could not...because I was sick.
You see, just hours before the concert I was a total mess. I had some kind of bug, and my body was trying very hard to expel it from my body. I also had a fever and could barely stand up for more than a few seconds without getting dizzy.
But the show had to go on.
Somehow I summoned the fortitude necessary to walk the two blocks from my hotel to WHYY. As I walked incredibly slowly, taking breaks to catch my breath, I noticed another major historical landmark - the Liberty Bell. The bell is inside a building, but you can glimpse it from outside, through a window. As I took a moment to check out the ol' Liberty Bell, I felt an inexplicable jolt of energy and determination. Hey, if George Washington could cross the freezing Delaware, I could cross Market Street and make it to this concert. Slowly but surely, I marched down the street, humming John Philip Sousa’s "Liberty Bell March," of course. I arrived at the concert hall, sat down at the piano, and to my relief, felt great. And the concert went swimmingly! Afterwards, when I got back to my hotel room, I immediately collapsed and went back to being sick for the evening.
This was a very interesting experience. I was truly worried that I was not going to be able to give this concert. But I did. Was it adrenaline? Was it God? Or was it the invigorating spirit of the Liberty Bell? I think it might have been the Liberty Bell. So here is my offering of gratitude to America’s enduring symbol of freedom:
As you may know, I have a big hit on the internet: a video called “Fur Elise in Ragtime.” Currently, it has over 4 million views. Why is it so popular? Well, my theory is that people are sick to death of the traditional Fur Elise. So it's a form of therapy to hear somebody mess with it.
Recently, I reworked my Fur Elise arrangement into a 4-hand version. It is to be played by two pianists. For best results, these pianists should be sick of Fur Elise the classical way. I guess you can call this arrangement a form of couples therapy?
Here it is performed by me and my friend Emily Jarrell-Urbanek, who is a classical pianist here in Charlotte. She does a lot of accompanying for Opera Carolina, so she has a great sense of musical dramatics. If you and your piano partner would like to give this a shot, you can download it here.