Brian Coogan Interview
January 22, 2006
BY JASON SONGE
Brian Coogan is the most in-demand pianist in New Orleans. Listen to him play, and you'll see why. Equally comfortable on an organ, synthesizer, or acoustic piano, at his best he creates music that will move you spiritually. The only other ways you'll feel so close to the next world are if you go to church or pray. It's no surprise, then, that Coogan greets and says goodbye to people with a bow and a prayer-like gesture. Coogan is a man in his 20's that moves between scenes and cliques with ease. Funk, straight-ahead jazz, fusion, experimental jazz, etc. I sat down with him in d.b.a.'s back room last Sunday night to talk about the pre and post-Katrina jazz world(If anyone likes Andy J. Forrest, I unwittingly recorded his set when I recorded this conversation).
JS: I get the feeling that something's missing from the jazz scene after the hurricane. Do you get the feeling that's something's missing? Like a before and after?
BC: There aren't as many musicians in town as there were before the hurricane. Including me. I'm here a good bit of the time, but I'm living in Baton Rouge. I'm talking about James Singleton, Eric Lucero. People that maybe haven't permanently moved away but definetely aren't here all the time. Simon Lott.
JS: Is Simon with you in Baton Rouge?
BC: No, Simon moved to New York after the hurricane. He's been back a lot, but it'd be nice to have him here all the time. He's doing great, man. I'm really happy for him. So, the volume of musicians is not as high, but you know, I think the spirit in the music and in the music listeners has been so amazing that I can't say that I feel like anything's missing when I'm playing. The people are really appreciating live music more than ever, and we as musicians are so grateful to have jobs and have income.
JS: I'll just tell you where I was coming from. You don't have places like The Dragon's Den open or bands like Grilly Biggs or Red Shift around. Do you walk around just going, "I wish The Dragon's Den was open so we could do more gigs."
BC: For me, I as much loved going to listen to music at The Dragon's Den as I did playing there. I do really miss--Dragon's Den was a creative music venue, which made it stand out from other venues on the street in that you would always hear something with some sort of experimental edge at The Dragon's Den, which was really, really, really cool. When Dragon's Den re-opens, fingers crossed...
JS: It should, early next month.
BC: Yeah, I'm hoping--the sooner the better. It's not just not "jazz" there, too. There's blues, rock bands. Just edgy music. Sorta unclassifiable genre-wise, sometimes.
JS: Yeah, that's where I found about A Particularly Vicious Rumor. Glorybee. The 40's. Iris May Tango.
BC: 3 Now 4 had great shows there. I loved playing there. Me and Simon(Lott) could go up there and do whatever we want. Freely improvise or play our own compositions. Yeah, OK, I hear that angle. Yeah, there definetely is something that is missing, and it will be great when it comes back. It's mainly how important the venues are to--just like Snug Harbor is an important venue for straight-ahead jazz and traditional jazz in New Orleans, The Dragon's Den is equally as important to creative music.
JS: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that it seems like you're playing with someone different every night. How quickly is the scene rebuilding itself, and how quickly do you see it continuing to rebuild itself in the future?
BC: What we've seen since the hurricane is that there are some very dedicated people to keeping live music happening in New Orleans. Those dedicated people are also very lucky that their clubs didn't flood. It just breaks down along the flood map. Most of the clubs were in areas that didn't flood. That's why we've been able to get back so quickly cause 1. They're dedicated to having live music, and 2. People in New Orleans are dedicated to seeing live music and wanting to have it in their lives, and 3. They got lucky that they were able to come back and their venues were ready to roll starting October and November.
JS: Did things come back quicker or slower than you thought?
BC: Quicker. Definetely. I didn't know if I was gonna stay. Nobody knew.
JS: I remember talking to you at that Freilich gig...
BC: Oh, right, right.
JS: At that point you didn't whether you were gonna stay.
BC: Right, no one sorta knew because we didn't know if it made sense, just like anybody in the city. That's not just a music thing. A lot of people still don't know. Are they gonna have a job? Are they gonna have a house? Are they gonna build the levees to their satisfaction? Are they gonna even have a neighborhood anymore? I'm lucky. That was easy. I came back and the venues started rollin' and the phones started ringing again. Starting November, everything started clicking for me and I started getting all the calls again. I've been able to book stuff myself. I'm lucky. So much of the city is still devastated and so many people are without so much right now, and I have--how could I start to complain? The music scene came back quicker, and it's still coming back. Snug had a limited calendar, and they're starting to be able pump that up as more people come back. It's very encouraging.
JS: Things are on a smaller scale, it seems like, right?
BC: Yeah. It's still a process.
JS: It's still a process. So, I'm wondering if there will be some other characters that will come in and blend with the people that are already here and make this new thing, maybe. But I don't know if people will want to come down here and play, from other cities.
BC: Once...(long pause)
JS: Like an influx, like there was with Rob Wagner, Andy Wolf, Kevin O'Day, even though Kevin O'Day is from Lafayette. Just people that weren't from here, and they're all coming here in the early '90's at the same time. Freilich and whoever else. I'm wondering if that'll happen. That's not really a question, but(laughing)
BC: Well, it's just like anything. If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen.
JS: I guess it'll just have to be small for a while.
BC: It's just so much bigger than music. Do you have a place to live, you know?
BC: Do you have water? It's as basic and simple as that. Do I have a place to live, and therefore, then can I look for a job as a musician?
JS: You have your head in the right place. I apparently don't because after the hurricane I was cool, and I was living in my Mom's place in Kenner. I grew up in Kenner. I remember e-mailing Scott Aiges, who was still working for the mayor at the time(as director of music business development) about bands coming back and whatever and he just e-mailing me back going, "I don't think this is the time to worry about that. There are more important things to worry about."
BC: It's good to be enthusiastic about it. We need people that are catalysts. Keep doing what you're doing. We definetely need people kicking ass. But, you put it in perspective.
JS: Did you just not have any expectations coming back into the city? Did you think there would be enough gigs?
BC: I didn't have any expectations. I was in Austin for a while. I went to New York and hung out there. It was kinda between those two places and New Orleans as far as what I was gonna do. I didn't have power in New Orleans. I play an electric instrument, so it puts it in perspective. I had options to play at a popular place in Austin, and I had connections in New York, but when I came back, it was on Halloween.
JS: If you wanted to stay, that was a great day to come back.
BC: Well, even if I wasn't gonna stay, I wanted to be here on Halloween just to be here and have a great time. It just felt right. I feel like I probably need to be here right now.
JS: Good. I felt like Halloween was a turning point, too. I was at the Circle Bar the whole night, and the guys from the Bally Who were marching around the circle with their portable amplifiers. It was a great vibe. I went to Decatur and marched earlier in the night...
BC: Yeah, like "this culture is too much. I have to have it in my life." Or "I'm not ready to not have it in my life."
BC: New Orleans will always be a part of who I am and what I'm doing, and that's not gonna change, and I think the hurricane really brought that into focus for me. I realized that "Yeah, I am a New Orleanian." I'm from Baton Rouge originally, but all my people are from down here. New Orleans is my home. There are a lot of people down here not from New Orleans that are New Orleanians.
JS: Yeah. I was enthused when I saw you play with Vidacovich because I don't think I had seen you play with him before and also because I feel like you're in touch with people like The Other Planets--new jazz-type outfits, more experimental jazz outfits and you're also in touch with people like Vidacovich, who are in older modern jazz-type--it's funny to call modern jazz old, but--I see you as a connector. Do you see a barrier between the older jazz guys and the younger jazz guys, that maybe they don't mingle as much as they should? Or, has that sorta dissipated since the hurricane?
BC: For me, no. Because I have a lot of respect for somebody like Johnny, who's done it for as long as he has and is still doing it as amazingly as he is. I have a lot of respect for older musicians. I'm not an ageist. But, I can't say that for people in either generation. Some people in both generations wanna play with cats their age. Young people wanna play with people their age, or older musicians wanna play with people who has been doin' it for a long time. A lot of people are exactly the opposite. Miles Davis is a famous example, but someone like Shannon Powell, who's got a bunch of young cats in his band. Not that he's an old man or anything, but they're all younger than he is(nice save). A lot of older musicians say, "I wanna play with younger cats," 'cause that's what keeps them going. Johnny's like that. Johnny doesn't give a fuck. It doesn't matter. You could be purple and 107...
BC: If you can make the music, let's do it. And I'm all about that, man. George Porter's the same way. He doesn't give a fuck either. "You got somethin' to say? You got a pocket? Let's play." I was very fortunate to do a trio with me, Simon, and George. Words can't even express the effortless mastery that George has. He exudes--it's like Shannon, like what we were talking about before, but I'll just say it so you have it on tape--someone who doesn't even have to think about what they're doing. They do it that effortlessly and that great. You can see it. It's easy, like nothin'. It's just a part of who someone is. Like Shannon, what I was sayin', talkin' to the audience, playin' some bad shit, and crackin' jokes in between. He's doin' it at the same time like he's bakin' pasta. To answer your question, people play music with people they like to hang out with, too.
JS: How has the money changed, before and after?
JS: I know the smile, because it's like, "Why are you talking to me about money?" But, really. Has there been as much money since the hurricane?
BC: You know what's interesting, man? On the gigs where we play in clubs that don't have a cover and there's a tip jar, people have compensated. The money's really about the same. The clubs are doing about the same amount of business...
JS: Really? The same amount of business?
BC: Ummm, again, it goes back to the dedication, especially Jason and George at Snug puttin' up guarantees and Hank at The Maple Leaf. It's something we respect as musicians.
JS: What about Cafe Brasil?
BC:(long pause)Well, I haven't personally booked a gig at Cafe Brasil, so I haven't...
JS: had to handle the money. That was a good way to handle that.
BC: It was a good fifth amendment situation. Again, it's been about the same for me. Things vary so widely, and I'm on a lot of different scenes, but there are a hundred more I don't know about.
JS: Me, too.