Whether it's gospel, jazz or every genre in between, John Boutte puts his heart into his music

Sunday, May 07, 2006

By Keith Spera / Music writer
John Boutte's bantamweight frame houses a glorious voice, one that is sandpapered enough to convey hard-won experience, yet still nuanced and powerful.

On April 29, Boutte showcased that voice at d.b.a., the popular Frenchmen Street watering hole. The next morning, he lofted "Old Time Religion" and "In the Garden" during the jazz Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church. The sacred and the secular, gospel and jazz -- Boutte is equally at home with both, as well as everything in between.

After those performances, he planned to lay low in preparation for his set today at 2:30 p.m. in the BellSouth/WWOZ Jazz Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

"I've got to save myself," he said. "If I'm out, I've got to say hello, and socialize, and I run my voice down. I want to be fresh for Jazzfest."

His sets at Jazzfest are the stuff of legend. Now Hurricane Katrina has sharpened the emotions in his songs, and added new ones to his repertoire.

Cowboy Mouth guitarist Paul Sanchez introduced Boutte to Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927." Together, they retooled the lyrics to reflect Katrina. Instead of "six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline," Boutte mourns "six feet of water in the Lower Nine."

"People want to hear New Orleans this year," he said. "They're looking for that."

They hear New Orleans whenever he sings.

"John is the story of New Orleans," said Sanchez, who has written several songs with Boutte. "When you spend an evening watching him sing and hearing him talk, or just riding bikes with him to have coffee, it's a sociable, engaging, warm, leisurely, slow-paced, poetically versed experience. He speaks in a language that comes from another time, because he deeply cherishes his history.

"People like John Boutte, Kermit Ruffins and James Andrews represent that in a way that few artists can. They dress differently, they walk differently, they speak differently, because they're authentic. To me, John is it. He's New Orleans."

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Boutte hails from an old New Orleans family with deep roots in the 7th Ward and elsewhere. For many years, he has lived in and around the French Quarter. He owns neither a car nor a house. Material possessions, as the ravages of Katrina made abundantly clear, are fickle, temporary. Boutte prefers to look beyond them.

"I've never been a 'thing' person," he said. "I've been admonished by my friends: 'Why don't you have this or that?' Everything I've owned is worn out, got stolen or I lost it.

"Some people say I have no ambition. But that's not what it is. I know what's important, and it's not what you can touch. All this is temporary, baby."

He earned a business degree from Xavier University, then logged a four-year hitch in the Army, directing military gospel choirs in South Korea. Back in New Orleans, he worked for the 1984 world's fair, and took a job at a bank. Then he spent an afternoon hanging out and playing music with Stevie Wonder at a local hotel. Wonder hugged Boutte and told him he should not squander his greatest gift, his singular voice.

So he quit the bank after two years to become a full-time singer, and never looked back.

"People said, 'Where's your security?' " Boutte said. "Well, where's everybody's security? It changes quick. If I had never left the bank, I wouldn't have made these records and seen the world. The world opened up when I decided to do New Orleans music."

His older sister Lillian Boutte, a star on the gospel circuit in Europe, took her little brother under her wing. He spent seven years touring Europe with her, learning how to sing as well as entertain.

"That being said, I don't want to be Cedric the Entertainer," Boutte said. "I'm a singer. And I'm not a jukebox, either. I like when people ask for requests. But when they demand it, I don't feel that. I want to sing what I'm feeling. I want it to be honest. There's a spin to everything. I want to sing without a spin. Why open my mouth if I'm not saying something?"

Listeners have compared him to Wonder, Harry Belafonte, Rod Stewart, Donnie Hathaway, Jimmy Scott.

"I've had all these comparisons, but the thing is, I'm trying to be Boutte. They can't put their finger on it, because I'm me. I can't be none of those guys."

His take on the Annie Lennox ballad "Why" is a highlight of the recent New Orleans Social Club CD, "Sing Me Back Home." He has recorded with the local bluegrass ensemble Uptown Okra and with Cuban band Cubanismo. He has released jazz albums and gospel albums.

"I don't know if my focus is anywhere other than to sing good songs," he said. "I don't care what genre they're in. I'm looking to sing songs that mean something. I don't want to waste my time just singing anything. I wish I had more confidence as a writer to write what I feel. But I know when I hear somebody that's written something that is for real, it rings true. It's universal."

Years ago, Boutte wrote songs. Then he stopped.

"I didn't have anything to write about. What am I going to write? 'Baby, baby, I love you'?

"Singing is one thing," he said. "But when you're singing a song that you wrote, it's really showing your soul. It's showing everything. You're coming out completely naked."

Sanchez helped prod Boutte to write again.

"He'll say something that is already a song," Sanchez said. "Because he speaks in a rhythm, and because his voice is so melodic just in conversation, I already hear the music in his cadences. It's the poetry of his language and the rhythm and melody of his dialogue."

Together, they came up with a celebration of the city called "At the Foot of Canal Street." At first, Boutte dismissed it as fluff. Then Harold Battiste, the beloved producer, modern jazz saxophonist and grand guru of New Orleans music, pronounced the song an instant Big Easy classic. Boutte has since come to like it.

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When Katrina struck, Boutte was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a New Orleans-themed concert. He joined fellow Louisianians Terrance Simien, Ivan Neville and Corey Henry for a shuttle ride to the airport outside town. For miles, the highway bisected a sprawling slum. The stench in the musicians' van was overwhelming.

"What that was, was people living in sewerage," Boutte said. "They live there every day, and there's no way out. Things may be bad (in New Orleans), but they could be worse. My heart sank for those people."

Boutte eventually made it back to New Orleans. The floodwater ruined possessions stored in friends' and relatives' homes.

"I didn't lose a house, I didn't lose a car," he said. "I lost music, photographs, instruments. If they really wanted to take something away from me, they'd have to give me a lobotomy. And take my heart out, and my soul, and my vocal chords. Because that's all I've really got.

"It's impossible to say I haven't been affected, because it affected so many people who I love. It changed the way they think about things. In a way, it may have changed them more into my corner. Things in life are not secure. Nothing is secure other than the love we have for each other. Even that can go away."

His mother is displaced to Houston; he misses their morning coffee ritual, misses other elements of his pre-Katrina routine. He finds solace in music.

"I get around my guys, and they start playing, and they make me feel better. It's the best therapy I could get. Music is a healing balm, and we need it.

"I feel like Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers. People have been generous and kind. That's how the world should be."

Boutte could sing in Europe, or work the resort circuit. But he chooses to stay in New Orleans, the place he needs to be to be himself.

"I've got to be in the city," he said. "This is where the work is for me. And I feel my ancestors are saying, 'Don't go nowhere. Stay here. Don't let them run you away.'

"This is where I belong. So I'm just going to hang in here."