Connecticut Conservatory, New Orleans Jazz
By Marie Sheahan Brown
From the Faubourg Tremé to The Hartt School performing arts conservatory at the University of Hartford in Connecticut; from orchestral concert halls to the sidewalk at Saint Peter and Royal Streets in the French Quarter; from cathedral weddings to classrooms around the country; from gigs on San Francisco piers to invitations from the nations of émigrés; from below the windows of the lady who makes disturbing-the-peace calls to the venues of four United States presidents—Doreen Ketchens’s silver-and-black woodwind, and her enormous talent to play it, have led this New Orleans native on adventures far beyond the homemade-candy shop her mother owned on the street level of the old house where Doreen grew up.
Though raised in a musical milieu that many associate with jazz, Doreen began as a classical clarinetist—initially as a fifth grader in the school band—in order to escape a dreaded pop quiz.
Doreen says, “We were called in from recess, and the teacher announced a pop quiz in history with eight questions. I usually sat in the middle of the class—not in the first row, because that’s where the smart kids sit who always get called on; and not in the back, because the teacher might pick on them, too. But in the middle, I’d disappear. So, starting with the front row, the teacher began asking each student one of those eight questions. I was getting more and more nervous because I didn’t know the answers. Maybe I spent too much time in class daydreaming, looking out the window. He got closer to me, and closer. . . . Suddenly, the principal announced over the PA system: ‘If anyone wants to join the school band, raise your hand now.’ So I raised my hand, and my teacher let me go! Joining the band in the first place was a God thing.”
In the band room, the music teacher showed a picture of how bands are arranged: clarinets and flutes in the front rows, brass and drums in the back rows. Usually, girls played flute or clarinet. “I loved the way the flute looked—gorgeous. But the girls in front of me started choosing that, and I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. When the teacher got to me, I said, ‘I’d like to play clarinet.’”
She continues, “I feel so comfortable with the clarinet. We’ve had a relationship for many years.”
At the time, the band used the Learning Unlimited Band Series by Art C. Jenson. “It’s out of print now, but I loved it. It taught us how to read music using orange and black symbols.”
The band didn’t generally play jazz, but Doreen recalls, “Our first concert was in The Blue Room at The Fairmont. We played ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and ‘Joe Avery’s Blues’ second line song.” She plays these New Orleans jazz classics all the time now.
Although not drawn to academics, to stay in the band through high school, Doreen had to keep up her grade point average. That led her to college: The Hartt School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where her mother’s hands-on candy lessons came in handy. To help pay for college, during the hours between classes she made classic New Orleans pralines, wrapped them in fancy little packages, and sold them to Northeasterners with a soft-spoken thank you and a winsome smile.
Not until she finished college and returned home with her husband—her handsome childhood sweetheart, Lawrence Ketchens (“a great tuba player”)—did she and her clarinet take up jazz.
“We were trying to make a living after we came home.” She explains that it’s hard to get a job as a classical clarinetist: “There are only two or three clarinets in an orchestra.”
So Doreen and Lawrence were doing anything but playing music to make a living. Then one day in 1987, “We came walking out here” in the French Quarter, “and we saw some people playing on the street. He said, ‘You know, we could play on the street.’ And I’m like, ‘You must be crazy! I’m not playing on no street, man!’ But love makes you do crazy things!”
YouTube clips posted by French Quarter tourists show how exceptionally well she took to this culturally classic style—but not at first. “I was cooking, I was doing all kinds of things, I was cleaning houses, everything, but nothing paid like the streets did. And I wasn’t that good in the beginning. I could play clarinet really well, but jazz, no—it’s hard when you’re used to playing things that are written down. Starting to create your own stuff, it’s a door, like a window you have to go through.”
She credits her husband: “Lawrence suggested that I just start by taking out notes. I was in love, so I was ready to listen to anything he said. I learned that my ear can hear things that my brain can’t think.” She explains that, in order to improvise, she first learns the music from the written score. It’s important first to “follow the rules” of the music, to “respect” the music.
Doreen added jazzy singing to her skilled repertoire. Any given song alternates between soulful woodwind notes, clarinetist feats, and her rich rolling voice.
Other musicians—drummers; trombone, saxophone, and trumpet players; guitarists and percussionists and others—have joined them off and on over the years. Their daughter Dorian, a “very talented drummer,” started at age eight and is now sixteen. Performing at two major festivals in Sweden and Martinique, the young drummer thrived on the large audiences. The band—revolving membership, always with Doreen and Lawrence—has recorded at least twenty-five albums and three DVDs.
In earlier years, strolling tourists would find Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans in Jackson Square in front of Saint Louis Cathedral. The band later moved its regular spot to Saint Peter and Royal, where “the lady upstairs calls the police on us so much that they don’t listen to her anymore—thank God!”
Until August 2005, each day in decent-enough weather Doreen and Lawrence would wake up in Doreen’s growing-up home above the candy shop, take the stairs to street level, and open the ancient wrought-iron grille door, its original sharp decorative details softened by generations of glossy paint. They’d pack up their old red van with musical instruments and donation cans, thread through the French Quarter traffic, stake out their spot on the street, and play—for tips, for the joy of making music together, and for the rush of amazed appreciative reactions from gathering crowds.
Doreen’s incredibly long note leaves the audience more breathless than she, every time.
As of March 2019, a cursory and drastically incomplete count of views of tourists’ YouTube videos featuring Doreen adds up to more than four million views. (She is astonished to hear this figure, saying, “I don’t have time to keep track of these things!”) The following unedited YouTube comments convey the flavor of hundreds of other posted remarks:
“I wish i was there to give her cuddles from new zealand.....You go hard gurl...luv ur music....the blues, & ur clarinet.....awesm... xxxx.”
“I am collecting video’s of Doreen Ketchens for my list of favourites and this one is added too. One week ago I didn’t know her at all. She is really amazing. Thanks and greetings from the Netherlands.”
“I would pay $100.00 an hour to have here teach my 10 year old son who has exceptional talent. I would pay more if I could...A few hours a week would change his world in the right direction! He loves her playing!”
“She is a legend worthy of praise. I was in NOLA this past May. I was fortunate to see her play. I had no idea I was in the presence of greatness. I did some research and I know how lucky I was. I have seen her on the HBO show Tremé. Buy her music and support this wonderful artist.”
“i am a 73 year old swiss. a long time ago i opened a jazz club in zuerich. i have been around the world but in all my days i have never ever heard such purety, love and intensity for the music and the instrument up to this moment. you are the absolut greatest tradjazz-clarinet-player in the world at the moment. i wish you all the very best for the rest of your days in the beautyfull world of new orleans jazz.”
Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath flooded their home and wiped out their transient audience and income in August 2005, the year YouTube hit the Internet. They had to move to higher ground across the Mississippi River, commute into the French Quarter when tourists began trickling back, and scrape together time for labor and money for materials to repair their venerable house-shop in the Faubourg Tremé—a disheartening job they are still working on. The neighborhood is coming back because its long-time residents have DNA singing, in every cell, the spirit to rise up again.
A serious financial setback for entrepreneurs that depend largely on tourism, this sudden loss of customers—like a picture window stunning but not vanquishing a flying bird—did not thwart Doreen and Lawrence for long. Over the years, encouraged by invitations from tourists visiting the world magnet of New Orleans, they have found other ways to make a living.
Masterclasses, or packages including concerts plus an instructional curriculum, have taken their show on the road to many of the fifty states including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and Rhode Island. They visit elementary schools, high schools, and universities to raise “uplifting, positive awareness of New Orleans, its music, and its culture.” The program “describes the cultural gumbo of New Orleans” and the many types of music that have developed in this very old multicultural city. Schools promote “Queen Clarinet” or “The Female Louis Armstrong.”
Doreen’s website explains, “Our mission is to educate through interacting with our audiences. The workshops are jam packed with information through demonstration of jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indian chants, and the origins of the traditional music from Camp Meetings and spirituals through the French, Latin, and Caribbean influences to today’s Funky Traditional and Street Jazz. . . . We have also designed programs for special needs children and adults and the elderly.”
Doreen says most of their Masterclasses lately have been for university students, “which is cool because they ask more complicated questions.”
A second way they make a living far from the French Quarter delights audiences at private or public social gatherings. Many New Orleans tourists have invited Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans to perform at personal or business functions around the United States and even in other continents. They have performed in Africa, Asia, Canada, Europe, South America, Russia, and the United States. So far they have performed for four United States presidents: Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter.
Extraordinarily talented, yes. “Queen Clarinet,” yes. Diva, no. This writer can attest that, when invited to a simple festive gathering at the home of friends, Doreen is right there in the kitchen before and after dinner helping the hosts cook delicious fare and wash the dishes.
“We’re very blessed,” Doreen summarizes, “to be able to do what we love, together, in our home”—and to travel together throughout the world, sharing the gift of a distinctive music born in the faubourgs of New Orleans.
To arrange for Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans to perform or give a Masterclass, please contact:
Post Office Box 1242
Marrero, LA 70073
504-908-7119 or 504-908-7114
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