Return of The Mac (with Ms Morrow)
Doctor John was the first interviewee whoever fell asleep on me.
And until, years later, I waited for Mick Head from Shack to turn up, pinned, for a chat in a Liverpool boozer he was the only one too, smart guys n gals.
The Doc was on the nod in the basement of Beggars Banquet, wherever that was in 1987, when he made a one off single with Grandmaster Flash,Jet Set .
The Doc never made a bad record and Jet Set, while not a career highlight, coming after those two dizzyingly great albums of piano instrumentals he had recorded for Demon, certainly wasn't... bad.
The Doc was always one of those people I had never expected to meet.
More myth than man with all that Gris Gris and Juju dressing swirling about not to mention the fantastical idealised clubs of N'awlins from whence he'd hailed as a child star.
Too distant, too far off to ever get to but there the Doc indeed was - heavy set, squeezed into in a tight fitting tweed suit, pasty faced and prone to nodding off.
"That was when I was at my worst," he explained years later - clean, revivified through the good offices of Tony Wadsworth (he of Young Bucks fame turned record exec) - with an all star guest album and his memoir, Under The Hoodoo Moon, to promote.
In the years he was on heroin he could function , explained the doc also known as Mr Mac Rebbenack.
Looking back to his former self on Methadone, he recalled he was worn down, barely functioning. But at the time he instructed me to "just kick my ass" if he should happen to fall into slumber again.
Mac was always unfailingly polite and musically magnificent. Anytime I got to see him plunder the ivory gold live or dug into his fabulous, always fertile, legacy rewards came there plenty.
Hearing that Sarah Morrow was up for an interview for the reissued 2014 Louis Armstrong tribute Ske Dat De Dat (Sarah played trombone, arranged and co-produced the album) seemed like a good opportunity to share a little bit of the legendary story in the Daily Mirror.
But there was no room for all Sarah's words which seemed worth sharing here at least. So without further ado..
1. When and how did you first encounter Dr John’s music, what impact on you and
how did that match up with meeting the man himself, getting to know and work with him.
I first heard Dr. John play live at the 2006 Newport Jazz Festival—I was there performing with my own band, and I caught his set on the main stage. I was mesmerized by his aura, his distinctive voice and piano playing, but never even thought about working with him. As fate would have it, we met exactly 2 years later, in 2008 in a studio session for an indy film—I was the score composer and Dr John wrote the opening title track. I remember he arrived with a beautiful older woman, both dressed so well, and his vibe was so cool. We connected very easily while working so I gave him a copy of my CD Elektric Air, which ironically I recorded the day after that Newport Jazz Festival where I first heard him play live. Around midnight that same day, he called me and said “You’re a bad muthafucka and I wanna work with yo ass!” I was living in Paris, France at the time, and he would call me every few weeks, telling me there was a project he wanted me to work on with him. In fall 2009 I moved to the USA, and he started calling me weekly, then daily. I was busy with other music commitments, but he never gave up. Getting to know him and working as closely as we did, was one of the craziest, most beautiful and honorable, yet bizarre experiences of my life!
2. I see you worked with Ray Charles prior to Dr John, the best of the best!
Yes, I’m blessed to have worked with many legends in music throughout my career, as well as tour the world with my own bands. Mr. Charles gave me my professional start, at a time when women were only beginning to be accepted into a man’s world. He was a musical grandfather to me.
3. So what lead you to specialize in trombone and does expertise in playing that
instrument give a special advantage, or perspective in arranging songs, and gleaning insights to Mac’s own music.
I’ve always said I didn’t choose the trombone, the trombone chose me! Trombonists are known to be good arrangers—I think it’s in the nature of the instrument and the roll it generally plays. You must have a great ear. All of the masters and legends I’ve worked with tell me they chose me because I have an original sound-or voice-- and an original style of playing. I never tried to sound like anyone else but rather focused on musical expression, time, what I was hearing in my head and letting the music flow through me. It’s a very spiritual practice for me, which is one of the reasons why Mac and I connected so well.
4. Was there a difference between Dr John and Mac Rebennack, the stage persona
and the man who made the music.
Not really, no. His stage persona—at least in his clean years-- was an honest reflection of who he was as a person. When he originally became Dr. John, he created that persona for his singer, but ended up becoming Dr. John himself. Most of his early music, especially from Gris Gris, was based on spiritual songs from his church. The Spiritual Mothers told him he could use the songs but only if he changed the words. Songs like Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya and Walk on Guilded Splinters have nonsense phrases like cornbread, coffee and racoon, but the melodies are based on songs from the church he practiced in.
5. Was the Night Tripper something he had left behind *(Please note the correct spelling is NiteTripper) ☺
That’s a very interesting question. It actually was a point of dissension within himself. When I became his Musical Directoress in 2013, he decided to re-name his band “Dr. John and The Nitetrippers”. I think this was because he was coming to terms with his past, and wanting to re-create his identity for the future. His idea was to do all of his old songs in new and different ways. And based on what he heard in my own music, in Elektric Air, and some music arrangements I had done for him prior to this, he insisted I be a central part of it. I have recordings of our shows and early rehearsals, and they are exciting- he is so happy and sounds absolutely amazing. 4 months into that, his show was voted the #1 Audience Favorite at the 3 week long Savannah Music Festival. As we dove deeper into his earlier repertoire, it made sense to add live show components like he had in his early Dr. John shows—magic, snakes, belly dancers, etc.! But, he wanted nothing to do with that. As I grew to know him more deeply, I understood it was because it was too connected to his days of heroin abuse. He had been clean for twenty-some years at that point, but he confided it was a demon he faced everyday of his life, no matter how long he had been clean.
6. Were Urubu/voodoo practices a natural part of the recording process, what would
it amount to?
Dr. John’s voodoo practices were a genuine part of who he was. This was not fake, nor was it done for show. He was a voodoo priest, he practiced daily and it was a part of his very existence. Before every show or session, he would pray with the entire band; he would have specific candles burning during sessions, and he did a lot of prayers and rituals on his own.
7. Before doing this album did you and he talk a lot about Louis Armstrong and, had
he and Mac ever met.
Oh my, we talked so much about Louis Armstrong! Mac showed me around New Orleans while telling me stories and even insisted I visit the swamps with him, eat crawligator and squirrel brains. No kidding. He repeatedly told me how his dad honored Louis Armstrong, pronounced his name “Lewis” and when Mac was a child, everyday he would drive by the house where Satchmo was born and point out the house to little Mac. They were from the same neighborhood. I think Louis Armstrong was an inspiration to his father and to everyone in the community—that there was the possibility of achieving great things. Mac met Louis Armstrong twice in his life—once as a child while he was sitting outside his dad’s record and electronics shop; and once as a young adult in the office of manager/booking agent—Joe Glaser.
8. A truly revolutionary singer and musician, Sachmo kind of shaped a whole
century of sound.
Yes, that is absolutely correct.
9. Does Louis’s legend still loom large in New Orleans mythology and what did he
mean to DJ
Louis Armstrong is still the Royal King of New Orleans and I imagine he always will be. The musical lineage extends from him and Dr. John is a very important part of that lineage. Dr. John, while mastering traditional New Orleans jazz, also created his own style of music-- Hoodoo. I think growing up hearing his father’s praise of Satchmo was inspiration and encouragement to Dr. John to pursue his own original ideas.
10. Did DJ tell you about the dream he had where he met Satchmo, was there more
than one such dream
Yes, he told me about the dream on many occasions. Louis came to him and told him to do his music, but in his own way. The crazy part is that this type of communication with the spirit world was so common for Mac that it didn’t surprise me in the slightest. It’s like “of course Satchmo would”! Mac was a big dream voyager—he would frequently visit me in my dreams and still does. He also saw spirits in this world pretty much wherever we went. I have an amazing story about my dad, who passed at a young age, 20 years ago. While Mac and I were on tour, we would stop at my mom’s home as a place to rest when it was too far for him to travel to his home in New Orleans. The very first time he entered my mom’s house, no one was home-- he saw the piano and immediately sat down and played the exact song my dad used to play all of the time. It was the piano song I associate with Dad and in fact I had never heard anyone else play it before. I got all teary eyed and when Mac finished I asked him what was that song, why did he play it—he said my Dad told him to and he’s sitting right there!!! Whoah!!!
11. Was the structure sequencing for Spirit of Satch obvious from the get go
Not really. Mac knew 2 things for certain-- that he wanted to do his own unique version of each song and that he wanted a different trumpet player on almost every tune. But it took a lot of work to reach the final result. This project was so personal to him that it was imperative I deeply understand his vision and do everything I could to bring that vision to life in a way that he would be proud of. Remember, this was a calling from Louis Armstrong himself. So, figuring out the Louis Armstrong element, the Dr. John element, the Dr. John interpretation of Louis element, the repertoire (George Avakian was essential in providing rare recordings for us to hear), the guests, the arrangements, etc... it was a huge project. One of the biggest blessings for me was that Mac trusted me with all of this. We had a different approach to every single arrangement. I’m proud of the fact that there are 36 New Orleans musicians on this album—in addition to other guests. His Props to Pops, Tribute to Louis Armstrong Show at the Hollywood Bowl gave us a great opportunity to work out our ideas before going into the studio. We decided the best way to capture the spirit was to record with everybody playing live together in the same room—horns and all. Only the drummer was isolated. That was no easy feat, especially since the arrangements were complex, and we had only one option for a recording studio that could hold everyone, which was a renovated church with enormous reverb and a huge pipe organ built into the room.
12. Were the collaborators recorded separately or do you have vivid in studio
memories of recording with Mac and any of the guests.
Most of the artists recorded with us in the studio. One of my faves was working with Bonnie Raitt on the song I’ve Got The World On A String. The vibe between the two of them was incredible. At the end of the tune, they did some riffing back and forth, just cutting up. It was brilliant— one take, all natural—I’d love to be able to release their ending banter in its entirety because it was simply brilliant.
13. There’s some exultant playing on the album, listening to people playing music to
his great pleasure, right to the end. Did he have other interests, fishing, computer games...
While music was clearly his first passion, his very essence, he did have many other interests. He loved to fish, he’d go fishing in the swamps when he needed to re-center. He loved doing crossword puzzles; took great pleasure in eating well, especially wild game; he despised alcohol, couldn’t stand the taste of it ever since he was a kid. We used to play a fun word game whenever we travelled—I learned it when I was touring in Bootsy Collin’s band and Mac loved it so much he’d wake me up during an airplane flight just to play it. The funny part is that we made up the rules as we went along. During his off hours, he would constantly listen to his own music—mostly old recordings he did that were never released. He liked to dance, that was always fun; and in places where there was a kitchen, we would cook together -- he loved peeling the shells off boiled eggs, crushing them and using them in his chicory coffee, sort of a meditative thing. He said he learned that from his aunt. He couldn’t stand computers—called them “computa-thingys”, wouldn’t touch one, wouldn’t even try to learn how to use one.
14. I interviewed DJ twice once in 1987 Around his one off single Jet Set with
Grandmaster Flash and then when Under The Hoodoo Moon came out, he was obviously in different condition, though total gent, both times.
I reminded him of the first occasion when we talked about his book and he recalled it was when he was at his worst, on methadone. Then when we discussed his early days he told me some of the upsetting stuff he saw in clubs as a child, I made a direct link between that and the years of pain killing. An amateur shrink too far?
I imagine that was part of the equation, but not the whole. Mac was a complicated soul— he lived deeply and quickly in a very short time. He did share with me a lot about his personal life, things not known, but I don’t believe it’s right for me to share those secrets of his with the world. He had my confidence for a reason. Now if he came to me in a dream like Satchmo did to him, and told me to, only then would I consider it! LOL! In the meantime, he approved everything in his book so that’s a good place to start.
15. We’ve lost many protean musicians in recent year, Mac was certainly one of
those what does his legacy amount to and how did his loss affect you
I think the most amazing part about Mac’s legacy was the musical and spiritual influence he had on the entire world. He influenced multiple generations of rock stars, producers, music fans, jam bands, spiritualists, artists and actors. He took his roots and his spiritual beliefs and made them accessible to the general audience. He was the epitome of Light— and Dark—the battle and the balance between the two. He was even an honorary Maori. Concerning the loss I feel—that is still difficult for me to talk about.
16. Is there a final album
We had been working on a country album—which he referred to as Hillbillies and Mountaineers—I have all of our recorded conversations and notes, but when he got a new manager in 2017, we were forced to go our separate ways. I heard he was working on a final album before he passed, but don’t know what ever came of it.
17. DJ’s New York Times obituary indicates a certain mystery over his relatives and survivors,
is that the way it should be?
That’s not for me to say.