Ben Redwine left Annapolis in 2016, off to New Orleans to pursue a wider audience for his beloved jazz.
Friday, the retired Naval Academy Band member picked up his clarinet and finally made it to the storied New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, one of the biggest music festivals in the world.
Canceled twice by COVID, the festival returned this year: a hot, crowded mix of jazz, blues, gospel, rock and more. Names you remember like Elvis Costello, Zack Brown and Stevie Nicks are mixed with names you should know, like Samatha Fish, Irma Thomas and Erykah Badu and names I wish you knew, like Jermaine Landrum and The Abundant Praise Revival Choir.
A festival like this is one of the zaniest of human experiences, packing yourself into a throbbing field of people, sweating and swaying together as a band grinds out music on a stage far away and giant screens to the left and right magnify the act of playing guitar 10 times lifesize.
The last two years certainly made it weirder than normal. Trapped in a claustrophobic crowd escaping a field one half-step a time, I was sure this was the moment I would get COVID while The Revivalists’ “Wish I knew you” was still ringing in my ears.
Even Chris Isaak, clad in a sequined, powder blue suit, couldn’t help but comment on the feeling that we were all celebrating music on the edge of whatever terrible thing comes next.
“It's crazy the last two years,” he said from the stage in his rockabilly crooner’s voice. “And the whole world feels like it's about to go to war.”
The AARP Rhythmporium wasn’t any of that. It was the smallest stage at the Jazz Fest, and the crowd Friday morning didn’t fill it as Dr. Ben Redwine's Trio launched into their set, with songs like “Mood Indigo” and “Up the Lazy River.”
It was one of the first shows of the day. Rain pushed gate openings back at the Fairground Race Course infield and the crowd was slow to build, maybe worried about mud, maybe just waiting for the big acts.
Ben the jazzman was leading the trio, but Dr. Redwine showed up on stage, too. Redwine is an actual doctor, earning his degree in music from Catholic University while living in Annapolis. He's studied Barney Bigard, a legendary Creole clarinetist who played for more than a decade with Duke Ellington through some golden days of jazz.
Redwine clearly knows Bigard. As he introduced “Mood Indigo,” he explained how Ellington, who made the dreamy tune a signature piece over his decades-long stardom, shared credit for the song with Bigard. But Bigard said he heard it first as the “Mexican blues” from his teacher, Lorenzo Tio.
Tio, along with his father and uncle, created the jazz clarinet solo – and that line of music passes down to musicians like Redwine.
Music is about stories, too. It’s good to be proud of what you love.
Launching into the song, the trio was tight, polished and intimate. Half the joy of good jazz is listening as musicians trade measures 4 and 8 back and forth, clarinet-to-guitar-to-bass-to-clarinet again. Previti’s enormous hands fly across the strings for his solo. Mitchell’s face contorts with concentration as he works the chords on his guitar. Redwine cooly keeps it all together, bringing it back to the middle with his clarinet.
The Jazz Fest was the first time the trio has played together since 2019, and COVID twice canceled this performance. In advance of the show, Mitchell and Previti stayed together at Redwine’s home on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, catching up with Ben, his wife, Leslie, and their chickens.
“Well, you know, playing music together is having a conversation,” Previti said a few days before the show. “I feel we’ve gotten to the point where we can understand other... it’s just gotten stronger over the years, and we didn’t want it to end.”
Redwine found his dream in New Orleans. He’s performed in bars, clubs, private parties and even on the streets of the French Quarter. This year, as the restrictions and deaths caused by the pandemic eased, he’s pouring his music out to audiences that seem almost insatiable.
“Right now,” he said. “I’m playing more than I ever have.”
The Jazz Fest isn’t the only big show Redwine has ever played. There’s the Naval Academy commissioning ceremony in Annapolis, too.
The Navy Band troops into Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium each year to play for the graduating class and their families. They’ll be there this month again when President Joe Biden addresses the mids.
Redwine won’t be among their number. He retired from the Navy back in 2014 after 27 years in the service.
Most of that career was served with the academy band as the e-flat clarinet soloist, as well as tours with other groups across the United States and Europe. For some of those years, he was working on that doctorate at Catholic, but also playing in clubs and bars with Mitchell, Previti and other musicians, part of the intertwined network that forms and reforms into trios and quartets.
Then retirement from the Navy came along, for both Ben and Leslie, who was an educator and administrator at St. Andrews School in Annapolis. So, they packed up and moved South. The opportunities to play just started happening, first through education and classical music.
“Pretty soon after I got here, I started teaching at Southern University in Baton Rouge,” Redwine said. “I was teaching woodwinds and some other courses. And we were part of a recruiting effort for that university. I played with a pianist and we toured Brazil. We played, I believe it was nine, nine concerts in seven cities,” Redwine said.
But he wanted to play more jazz, so he started looking for openings.
They’re not hard to find in New Orleans. If you haven’t been here, it can be hard to understand the way music saturates the city. Annapolis is a small music town, with someone playing somewhere every night if you know where to look.
In New Orleans, it’s everywhere. Bars, restaurants and street corners. Want to find a band? Just listen and follow the sound. And so much of it is so good, it’s difficult to accept just how much talent is just sweating it out under the morning sun, or passing a bucket for tips after killing a midnight show in one of the 19th-century buildings turned nightclub.
My wife and I traveled to the Jazz Fest with friends, and one of them was Seth Kibel. He’s a regular performer in Annapolis, playing clarinet, saxophone and flute – often with pianist Sean Lane, another of our other traveling companions – in many of the places Redwine and his trio once occupied. Together with their wives Sandy and Kathy, they’ve been numerous times to the festival.
Seth not only managed to find front-of-the-crowd seats for Elvis Costello, he also scored two places to play – one of them on Saturday at the Jazz Fest with guitar titan Bill Kirchen. Kitchen saw on Facebook that Kibbel was in town and reached out with an invite.
“It was a lot of fun and very exciting,” he said. “And now I can say I played at the Jazz Fest.”
With that kind of space for talented musicians, Redwine decided to drop his teaching job in early 2019 and turn to a heavy schedule of performing in clubs on Bourbon and Frenchman streets, and at places like Madame Vic's in Elysian Fields.
Downtown New Orleans is about an hour away from his home on the north shore, so he also started finding regular spots closer to home, the English Tea Room and the Southern Hotel in Covington.
“Now that of course, was before the pandemic shut everything down,” Redwine said.
COVID certainly shut down live music almost everywhere, not just in New Orleans and Annapolis. But in a city filled with musicians, there was suddenly no work.
“I had my Navy retirement so I didn't really pursue a lot during the shutdown. I basically stayed home,” Redwine said.
Not everyone was as secure. With clubs closed, musicians were selling their spare instruments to stay afloat. Many experimented with playing concerts online, putting up Venmo accounts to collect tips. Live streaming from empty clubs was a way to play, but it often earned only a few bucks for a whole night’s work.
In New Orleans, musicians were going out to play at the Mississippi River-front just to keep the sound of their lives going.
“Just for whoever was walking by,” Redwine said. “So, I don't know how much they gained from it. It was definitely difficult.”
Back up in the Annapolis area, Previti and Mitchell were experiencing the same thing.
“Oh, man. It was pretty bleak really,” Mitchell said. “For the most part, I stopped playing inside… I’m in my 60s and I didn’t feel comfortable playing inside. I’ve been watching some friends who were doing it anyway and getting sick.”
Last year, Redwine started busking – playing on the streets for tips and pocket change. There are about five corners on Royal Street, which parallels Bourbon Street with its bars and wrought iron balconies, that are famous for street performers.
“A friend that I play with quite often who has busked in, he thought, over 70 countries … said that Royal Street is by far the best busking street in the world,” he said.
Eventually, as COVID cases eased, things began to slip back toward normal, if anything about a pandemic that has killed 900,000 in this country so far can be considered normal.
“Clubs started to slowly open up again,” Redwine said. “There were some pretty funny restrictions like musicians had to sit six feet apart from each other. If there was a trombonist, he had to sit 10 feet apart from everyone… The mandates were that you had to put a cloth covering on the bell of your instrument, and you had to wear a mask with a cutout for your mouthpiece, which is kind of ridiculous."
In early March, New Orleans allowed the clubs to let people in without masks and then a few weeks later stopped requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. That was about the same time music indoors started opening up around Annapolis, Baltimore and D.C., too.
“People are so eager to hear music again,” Previti said. “It’s fascinating to me. Some of our gigs we only make tips. It sounds awful, but people are so generous. We’re OK.”
It’s hard to tell how OK New Orleans is as a city. Before COVID there were the hurricanes, none more deadly than Katrina in 2005. Blue tarps still line many roofs.
We caught a ride Saturday to the festival with Clarence, who was outside our hotel in a battered pickup with a jumpseat in the back of the cab. For eight bucks a head, he took four of us to the festival grounds.
He pointed out the elevated highway where his mother spent days after her home in Treme flooded. Now new people are moving in, changing what is one of the city's great neighborhoods.
"Treme is changing," he said.
He pointed out the buildings along the way through the city with windows still boarded up.
The Times-Picayune, now owned by The Advocate up in Baton Rouge, was full of the things you see in newspapers in any city. Politics, features on the festival, and a great story about why a local college baseball player looks so much like former New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees.
But there were stories too about fights over zoning that makes it illegal to have music in many places, and how the city is changing with the arrival of new people who just don't get it.
I simply don't know how the city is doing. I'm just passing through. Canal Street looked like a vibrant urban center, but the bus driver who brought us home Sunday lamented the loss of almost all the manufacturing in the city and the decline of the port.
Maybe it's best to just believe in what Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, said before offering lessons to the crowd on how to dance The Second line to celebrate.
"We celebrate everything in this city," she said.
There were few masks anywhere during the second weekend of the festival. At Cafe du Monde, a tourist spot famous for chicory coffee and beignets, the hurried staff inside wore them over their chins while busily handing out cafe au laits and bags of doughnuts in powdered sugar to thousands waiting in line. They don’t disappoint, by the way.
But COVID was certainly still around. Willie Nelson canceled his show after someone in his band tested positive, and Melissa Ethridge did the same after a member of her crew got the same results.
It just hasn't stopped the energetic reopening that Redwine says put music in greater demand this spring than he’d experienced in the four years before the shutdown.
“I think maybe just because everybody was cooped up for so long. I was booked more than I've ever been booked in my life,” he said.
Over the years, Redwine has played in a lot of styles with a mix of bands and other musicians. There was that time he played with a friend for a recording of free jazz, music made popular in the 50s and 60s that broke down the traditions that came before.
He plays early jazz, but he doesn't always love with it. That music from a century ago was innovative and hugely influential, but some of the musicians were just winging it.
“Honestly, a lot of them were completely self-taught,” Redwine said. “So they were just creating sounds on their instruments that they came up with themselves. I come from a classical music tradition, I didn't play jazz until I got into really into college... Even when playing the early jazz, I still try to always get… the beautiful classics sound and notes early guys did not have .”
His favorite clarinetist came a generation after those first days, Artie Shaw. Early jazz originated by Black musicians in clubs and bars in cities like New Orleans.
Shaw was famous in the big band era from the 1930s and ’40s; when the music had been coopted and adapted by white players. His sound became the pop music of the mid-20th century, played by white musicians in still segregated America, played everywhere.
It's not an unfamiliar story. Thomas put "I've got Time on My Side Recently" because she wanted to remind everyone she released the R&B song months before The Rolling Stones covered it and made it their hit.
“But really, one of my favorite quotes of all time is by Duke Ellington, who said there are two types of music: good and bad,” Redwine said.
There’s always a debate about whether jazz is dying. It isn’t pop music anymore, and Redwine said with a lament that Fritzel’s European Jazz Club is the last true place to hear it on Bourbon Street.
“I don’t know,” Mitchell said. “I mean, it depends on which side you listen to. Once you decide you want to play that, it doesn’t matter if anyone’s listening or not...
“There's people who are really playing this kind of music and really doing it justice. That makes me hopeful for it."
The age of streaming music also means styles of music never die anyway, they just go off in a corner with the people who love it and play on forever.
Redwine said he’s just happy to be playing small group jazz again with Mitchell and Previti.
“There are many great musicians down here,” Redwine said. "Those guys are just the best that I’ve played with, and I'm not taking anything away from anybody down here. Just the way that we interact, it really seems to click between the three of us.”
Things are coming back for Previti and Mitchell, as well. Previti’s booked somewhere most weekends through June and Mitchell is busy with his own group, The Blue Rhythm Boys.
They’ve found time to arrange a show in Annapolis again, at 7 p.m. on June 18 in the back room at 49 West. Tickets are $20. It’s one of those small rooms that are so important to keeping groups like the Dr. Ben Redwine Trio going.
It’s a homecoming to the spot where they played their last show final in Annapolis.
“That room, I don’t care what, famous or not famous, there’s more world-class music played in that room and consistently for a long time,” Mitchell said. “It’s a very important place for Annapolis.”
As they wrapped up their set in the AARP Rhythmporium Friday with “Sweet Georgia Brown” as their finale, Redwine brought the doctor of musical knowledge back on stage by explaining the piece and its history.
No matter how crazy the idea of listening to three musicians playing quiet, intimate music amid a fairground full of blasting amps, power vocals and cheering crowds, Redwine expressed the same hope a lot of musicians must have held all weekend long.
“I hope we’re back next year.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a reference to Ben Redwine's doctoral dissertation, his tours during his career with the Naval Academy Band and some statements attributed to Redwine regarding music and musicians.