Walking & Talking History – with Detroit Brooks

blues musician

Another day and another interview with a New Orleans musician. With his name mentioned twice within a week, I find his website to figure out what he plays and who he is. Met with a grainy b&w photo that appears to date to the days of Robert Johnson and FDR’s New Deal, I wonder. But he is a contemporary musician – still I cannot shake the feeling he represents a bygone era.  

I email, with no response. Hmm… I have his phone number – Barry Martyn provided it,  and call to leave a message. Still no response. I wonder.. some of these guys are loathe to be interviewed imagining someone is making money from these sessions – I only wish it were true! 

It is strictly volunteer work for Offbeat, a way to keep my hand in the city and, oddly enough, now more people know who I am than before when I once tirelessly walked the streets in search of images and networked / pleaded for exhibition space. In any case, one night Detroit Brooks checks in, gives a call while I’m watching an evening sports event on the tube. If it were a local area code, I would never have answered, but when any call comes in from the 504, I pick up. Always. And we make a phone appointment for a week later. 

Detroit Brooks? What kind of name is that for a guy born and raised in New Orleans? He was to have been named “Detroy” (after his mother’s uncle) but whoever recorded his birth probably thought the child’s mother had either misspoke or misspelled his name and recorded it as Detroit, and it has been that way ever since. Questioning him on why and how his name is so very different, and assuming perhaps that this line of questioning  with which I began the interview was inappropriate, he reassured me; many people have asked the same.  

He mentions others whose names I have only heard recently but not their music – including a legend – Danny Barker. Same initials – DB – I found that interesting as he organizes a guitar and banjo festival to honor the late Barker and his music, postponed a couple months until March while working on a medical benefit fund for ill musicians. This guy is a good Samaritan as well as an accomplished musician. 

Danny Barker, musician
Danny Barker – A beloved legend in town not only for his music but his stories and sense of humor

A jazz guitarist and banjo player – there are few in the city and Brooks has mastered his instruments and happy to recede into the background and play backup, i.e. keep the beat in the absence of a drummer or bass with the ensembles he has been invited to join or while joyfully playing behind a banjo player’s recreation of Barker’s repertoire – two very different styles, both a tangible slice of music history, like stepping into a multimedia museum. 

There are few jazz guitarists and fewer still banjo players in the city – an apparently disappearing art? Our initial interview session went well; taking the spoken word and  turning it into proper writing while preserving the spontaneity and tone is not always easy. Detroit is a thoughtful person, acutely aware of what he says and means to  communicate to a listener like myself. I pay close attention to this person who appears to be very quiet by nature. Not getting carried away with any story, he methodically lays out his thoughts for me to understand and hopefully write well enough to publish.  

A second phone call ends with personal discourse, speaking of plans, our paths through life, and ponder the future of New Orleans and its viability as a livable place. Few New Orleanians will ‘bad rap’ the city, i.e. speak of unspeakably awful criminal activities that have become all too apparent as has the fallout from Covid. No more casual socializing / networking in the Quarter after playing – it has become too weird.  

Snooks Eaglin album cover front

Snooks Eaglin album cover back

His influences and local loves? Guitarist Snooks Eaglin. Banjo master Emanuel Sayles. And others whose names I do not recognize and must look up on the net to figure out who they are, and what they play. 

Emanuel Sayles, banjo player
Emanuel Sayles, banjo player

It is a long list of musicians … all with the grace and elegance one could only hope for and appreciate within the repertoire of a jazz guitarist. Think George Benson (the most well  known or familiar name), Barney Kessel (a joy to discover) and Henry Johnson, a fellow whom Detroit met at Jazz Fest long ago, someone who has become a friend, giving him  an expensive guitar upon discovering all he had lost to Katrina – home, business and his instruments.

Henry Johnson, jazz guitarist
Henry Johnson, jazz guitarist

In an effort to communicate who I am (and yes … engage in shameless self-promotion …  I’m allowed, right??) we ended our interview as I tell him of the photography book, how  it has been received by a few born and raised New Orleanians. I add that even Jason Berry used one of the photographs (actually two but one stands out) in his recent film documenting jazz funerals and the traditions. Detroit asks about the image, and I have no trouble recalling which one – a colorfully painted sign appearing high on a solitary wooden utility pole that caught my eye – titled “The Inevitable” in the book.  

Sex, Death and Fried Chicken sign
The Inevitable
from Standing in the Shadows: New Orleans in Focus

Sex, death and fried chicken! “That was yours?”, he responds. “Everyone in the theater noticed that shot!” – creating a buzz at both showings he attended. With that.. a bit of  unexpected credibility and recognition – what more can a ‘damn Yankee’ ask for?  

We part company and end our conversation with the desire to actually meet one another in person. Too often some of these interviews terminate in a similar fashion, but then..  afterwards… nothing… not a word, no response to even a text, much less voice message or email. Oh well.. such is life, that’s how it is these days – everyone is busy and consumed with life. I get it, so am I.  

But somehow I am guessing (and yes, hoping too) that we shall meet in person upon my return to town. He is real. Authentic. And devoted to his artistry as well as the good family values learned from his parents so long ago.  

New Orleans… though teetering on the brink of extinction in terms of the culture for which it is renowned, meeting people like Detroit is a pure joy and reminder that all is not lost even at this late date in the 21st century. New Orleans is a people town and Detroit Brooks is good people. 

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