Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is a staple in New Orleans' Bayou St. John neighborhood, couched on a street that runs catty-corner to leafy, picturesque Esplanade Avenue. The vibe of the place is both funky and conscientious — you're more likely to hear Leonard Cohen on the P.A. than, say, Dr. John as you sip a sustainably harvested cup — but a month from now, the shop's neighborhood will be overrun with several thousand revelers and music fans as they descend on the nearby Fairgrounds for the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
When Charlie Halloran, a St. Louis native and longtime fixture in New Orleans' traditional jazz circles, sits down for coffee at Fair Grinds, he notes that he'll be playing four sets during Jazz Fest's two-weekend stretch. That's a light load for a trombone player chameleonic enough to play with a host of pop, indie and R&B heavyweights — he has sat in with both Calexico and the legendary Allen Toussaint at past Jazz Fests — and tutored enough in the city's jazz history to be a first-call session player with some of the city's longest-running brass bands.
Halloran's musical education began in St. Louis; the Webster Groves native studied trombone in school and played in a variety of ska and swing bands in his youth. At a young age he was already a standout soloist in his brother Tommy Halloran's outfit the Ambiguous They, but in his early twenties, Halloran's love of traditional jazz led him to its source. He's been living and steadily gigging in New Orleans for almost ten years.
"When I was in St. Louis and playing at ska shows, I was having a ball," says Halloran. "But I would have rather been in a traditional jazz band."
On this day, Halloran is fresh off a recording project with another St. Louis native and longtime Crescent City resident, pianist Tom McDermott. The project is one of Halloran's own devising; as a longtime sideman, he is taking the reins for an album of beguine music derived from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Ever the modern antiquarian, Halloran and his crew are cutting the sessions directly to acetate discs on a Presto K8 record cutter — the same kind Alan Lomax used. Like many things in New Orleans, the recording technique is charming, antiquated and unnecessarily cumbersome.
"They have people over and just record into a mic that's about an inch big," Halloran says of his engineer friends. "It's pretty awesome — it sounds terrible! It has that great, awful, terrible sound. There's even variations between the discs."
While Halloran came to town to play jazz full time, he gradually learned of beguine's many roots and tributaries, and of the interplay between cultures that left its imprint on the city's sound. Halloran found the music "through YouTube and French Amazon and a couple other international record labels that put this stuff out," he recalls.
"I really love that kind of music, but I'm not from Martinique — I don't know if I'm playing it properly. I've never even met anyone from Martinique!" Halloran continues. He hopes to have the album ready for the upcoming festival season, his busiest time of the year.
When he's not researching and playing music from Martinique, Halloran stays busy in a host of different groups: the Little Big Horns, the Shotgun Jazz Band, the Palmetto Bug Stompers and the Panorama Jazz Band. He's also played for years with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the true bright spot of the late '90s swing revival. His connection to the band dates back to his teenage years when he met the band after a show at Mississippi Nights; almost twenty years later, Halloran is currently making a new Squirrel Nut Zippers record in New Orleans with longtime producer Mike Napolitano.
As Halloran reflects on his tutelage in St. Louis and the realities of being a working musician in New Orleans, he points to the crowds of hungry, thirsty and culturally curious tourists who regularly swarm clubs like the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street, just outside the French Quarter.
"It is a drag, kind of, that Frenchmen Street has gotten so popular, but the gigs pay a lot more," says Halloran. "It's a tough nut. But definitely what makes being a musician here viable is that the tourists are different every day, and they're always coming. It's like touring, but they come to you. I'm not sure how much that's happening in St. Louis."
Halloran makes a few trips to St. Louis each year to visit family and play the occasional gig; he even had his brother Tommy sit in with his bands recently. But the musical landscape of New Orleans — the history, the culture, the ravenous crowds — makes living and working there a singular experience.
"I was able to start working with the people I had grown up listening to within a year, year and a half," says Halloran. "I still play with those people. Now, if you move here, you'll definitely have to pay your dues for a little bit longer before you're getting the Palm Court or the Preservation Hall call. But at the same time, there are new venues opening up all the time, so you can start working pretty quickly, assuming you can play your horn good and know the songs. The gigs are there, the venues are there."