ELLIS MARSALIS / “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans”

If you’d grown up in New Orleans, as I did, “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” would be as ubiquitous to you as a Christmas Carol. Jazz musicians from New Orleans are virtually obliged to play the tune, consequently native New Orleanians like me hear it so often that it's possible for the melody and lyrics to lose all meaning.

It was only after I moved away from New Orleans that I actually ‘heard’ the song. Something about being 1,800 miles away from home lent “Do You Know What It Means” extra poignancy. I never went out of my way to listen to the song, but I did start looking forward to hearing it. 

Now, New Orleans is gone. Not literally, of course. I know that the powers that be will rebuild the city. But New Orleans wasn’t about just infrastructure, highways and buildings. New Orleans, above all, was about people and culture. Watching the evacuation process on television, I can’t help but wonder: if a family is so poor that they couldn’t afford to leave, how will they afford to come back? 

Earlier today, I listened to “Do You Know What It Means” and all I could think about were all of the New Orleans families who are going to be spending the coming winter in faraway, snow-covered states like Utah, New Jersey and Idaho. Of course, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with Utah or New Jersey and I certainly don’t intend to insult anyone who calls those states home. But the point is, the poor New Orleans families we’ve all seen on CNN and the Weather Channel didn’t choose any of this. They’re going to have to adjust to bland food, cold weather, antisocial people and stale music. (This is all relative, of course. If someone born and raised in Idaho were forced to live in New Orleans, they’d have to adjust to food that is too spicy, weather that is too hot, and so on.)

Of the numerous versions of "Do You Know What It Means," I chose Ellis Marsalis' version because it is understated and sophisticated, yet evocative. Ellis' playing is never flashy or overstated. He is master of his instrument, but he never goes out of his way to prove it. Ellis' is a style that says what it means. Right now, what his playing says to me is, for a lot of my people who've already had it too hard, life is about to get that much harder. I really do hope I'm wrong, but I think a lot of us are going to be missing New Orleans for the rest of our lives.

—Mtume ya Salaam


     Something positively incomparable    

Every jazz fan and most music fans in general have heard of the Marsalis family. Although far from the only jazz family in New Orleans, and not even necessarily the leading jazz family, they are however the best known, and the fame of the sons have far ellipsed the father, which Ellis pere says, is the way it should be. But regardless of what should be, there is something positively incomparable about Ellis at his best. I guess, it's sort of like New Orleans... but I won't go there.


I have nothing else to say except: listen.

—Kalamu ya Salaam 

Click here to purchase Heart of Gold 

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 11th, 2005 at 12:01 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “ELLIS MARSALIS / “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans””

Dan Says:
September 11th, 2005 at 9:45 pm

Mtume & Kalamu –
I’ve been following bol since early on and must say, as a fellow blogger, I am humbled my its extremely high class design and execution. With the songs you select and what you have to say about them, you have taken this medium to a higher plane of appreciation and thoughtful, intelligent cosideration of what the music means, as well as how it makes you feel. I was somewhat familiar with the earlier writings and WWOZ show of the father, and am very glad to have now read what the son has to say about his music. I sincerely hope y’all can keep this thing going amid the unheaval and uncertainly in your lives. Now more that ever, everyone needs to focus on the cultural legacy of your great home.

Though I’ve never lived there, I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans and immeresed in its music. I consider the city my “spiritual home” (and you can take that however you wish). To say I am heartbroken by what has befallen it is to trivialize what I feel. You are right, Mtume. New Orleans, as it was, is gone. What will take its place we can only hope will do some justice (justice?) to that cultural legacy and somehow bring back the far flung people who are the heart and soul of the place.
Sorry for the long comment. All the best to you and your family.

Ron Franscell Says:
September 12th, 2005 at 7:59 am

From http://underthenews.blogspot.com

A note this morning from my daughter Ashley, a photojournalist:

The man puts his weary lips to the cold, metal mouthpiece.

At his feet there is an occasional clink of spare change into an old coffee can. The low sound of a trombone stops for a brief moment as he bows his head and breathes, “Thank ya, ma’am.”

But the couple staggers on down Bourbon Street, a street where all inhibitions are lost and souls freed.


The night was almost over. The sun’s rays would be cutting through the musky Gulf air in a matter of hours. New Orleans really was a city that never slept. There was too much to miss if eyes were closed.

We made our way through the street lined with strands of beads, empty cups and vagabonds.

All of a sudden the three of us recognize the distant melody. As if it were scripted we sing “Ain’t to proud to beg, sweet darlin’, Please don’t leave me girl” in to our fists. We wiggle, jiggle and laugh to the music and nearly trip over the coffee can.

I step across the street for a picture. The trombone player under a single street lamp laced with beads. Chris moves in and out of the frame, dancing. My laughter keeps me from steadying the camera in the dim light. It takes three frames before Chris lands in one of them.

“I can feel it, man.” It’s soul. It’s a spirit. A Big Easy spirit that Chris feels. The sensation is an infatuation with a mysterious city. A city so mysterious that not even the inhabitants can solve its secrets. It keeps them there long after they thought about leaving.

The music ends but not the laughter, nor the dancing. He plays another Motown hit that at age 21 I really shouldn’t know but I do. I sing along or try to. Laughter comes much easier to my inebriated mind than love lyrics from the 1960s.

Just like our night, the music winds down and we slow down. We’re exhausted, our minds and our legs numb from the alcohol and walking.

We search our pockets for any remaining money from the evening of indulgence. Collectively we have a couple wadded up bills and nearly two dollars in change. We drop them into the can one by one to hear each clink.

And, just as before, he tips his hat and says, “Thank ya.” Except this time he asks our name. Shakes our hand. And says, “You’ve got soul, man.” Chris wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead and smiles modestly. He lowers his head, embarrassed.


Hurricane Katrina hit five months later: August 28, 2005.


After our trip to the Crescent City in March I couldn’t get the city and it’s charisma out of my head. The mystery. The memories. The escape. The freedom.

Someone told me then that she’d never understood New Orleans and its appeal. She’d obviously never been. “But,” she said, “I’ve never wanted to go.”

Now New Orleans has been stripped of its power, its secrets floating away never to be told. It will never be the same. The streets have washed away its wrongdoings. Its soul, its food, its music has all left. Just got up and walked away.

“Someday I want to visit,” she said lately. “I don’t care if I’m 70 years old, I will see New Orleans.” What she doesn’t know, is that there is no New Orleans. The Big Easy is no longer The Big Easy. She will never know the infatuation the way I have. She will never have the sensation that I’ve had then and now. She will never feel the freedom the way I have.


Days later, Chris and I were driving. In silence we each looked out of our windows. He turned to me and asked, “What do you think happened to the trombone guy?” In all honesty I’ve thought about him a lot, especially lately. In mere minutes, he gave a persona to New Orleans. Soulful. Liberated. Gracious.

The possibilities ran rampant through my mind. I hoped he was safe. I hoped he made it out of the chaos. I didn’t even know his name if I wanted to check. Maybe he made it to the safe camp in Salt Lake City. Maybe I’ll dance by him on a street corner someday.

I turned back to the window. That was all we spoke for the rest of the ride.

luna Says:
September 16th, 2005 at 9:35 am

would someone please tell me how to download music now?? i’m really confused by the change to the site design. thanks for your help, peace & love to y’all esp those with loved ones down in mississippi

          Why no downloads         

it occurs to me that many folk don’t realize that breath of life was new orleans based and is now operating in exile. we all evacuated and are now scattered literally coast to coast.

kalamu is in nashville, mtume is in san diego, our webmaster is between miami and dallas. we are aiming to solve the download problems by september 25th. bear with us folks. we are holding it together as best we can. our goal was to keep it going at a minimal level until we could gather all our resources and bring the site back to full operation.

we don’t have mp3 downloads because there are some technical problems with the site.

we have not changed formats. we are temporarily running on partial-power, but soon come. we will be fully operational and the downloads will be back. i wish i could tell you exactly what the problem is but, at this point, we don’t know and won’t be able to find out immediately, but we will get it fixed. meanwhile, enjoy the jukebox.

we’re in it for the long haul. fear not. a fully operational muscial mothership will be flying soon, we’ve just been in emergency mode, crew dispersed, but we’re slowly getting it all back together.



Taxi Driver Says:
September 16th, 2005 at 7:17 pm

What ever happened to the mp3s????

Taxi Driver Says:
September 16th, 2005 at 7:18 pm

Ok.. sorry! .. I just read the above comments .. All the best… PEACE!

Leave a Reply

| top |