Alton Carson, lovingly known as Big Al, has been a fixture on Bourbon Street for most of his life, whether it was busking in brass bands on the corner, or at his current home in Tropical Isle's Funky Pirate singing the blues. Big Al's soulful voice has carried him from the neon-lit clubs of the French Quarter and across the world. He's also a regular of music festivals around town, including the 2014 Jazz and Heritage Festival. Big Al sat down with Where Y'at and discussed his long musical career, the nature of Bourbon Street, and the future of live music in New Orleans.
WYAT: How did you begin your career?
Big Al Carson:Being in the public school system, my mother and grandmother said, "You can't just be a part of this thing; you've got to do something." So I said, "I'll play music." I started on trumpet way back in elementary school, and, while at Andrew J. Bell, I switched from trumpet to tuba. Played music all the way to Xavier University. Playing tuba brought me all over the world, and it was a great experience to be a part of all those [brass bands].
WYAT: Brass bands seem to be more popular than ever. Do you have any desire to go back to it?
Carson:I would love to go back; I still have my instruments. The brass band was my foundation. I lost one in the storm; I wish I could have found it. Another one I had restored and I had one given to me by Preservation Hall when they were helping musicians get back on their feet. I love the more traditional brass bands. With the evolution of the brass band, it's hard to find one that plays all [old stuff] which I do believe these guys should know. I'd love to see the old style come back a little bit more. It's a combination of rock and rhythm and blues. It's a good thing, but they need to experience the original, the stuff that brass bands were built on.
WYAT: Speaking of mixing music, I find that it can be hard to find pure blues in New Orleans. It's always mixed with other elements like jazz. Have you noticed this?
Carson: Yeah, but we have a lot of good blues guys; they're just not recognized. True blues, and rhythm and blues, are over shadowed. I don't think it's missing, just a little bit under the radar. I'm very happy and very blessed to be able to be one of the main guys on Bourbon Street for the blues. A lot of club owners set out to make money with a band and just bring them in, but the people will go back out. There aren't too many sit down venues like Preservation Hall. Tourists want to sit down to hear the groups. I wish Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse would incorporate a little more blues. The Blues Masters do our part in town to keep it alive, but also keep it fresh and add our own spin to it. We are making people aware that the blues is still a part of the scene here in New Orleans. You can sit down and listen to a few sets. Every set is a new set, and you have to stick around to hear it all. We pride ourselves on that. Our club owners think about that; people come here for the food, the music, and the atmosphere. We present more of that. Musicians are the ambassadors of jazz and blues just being from New Orleans. It's good to have a steady place and the Tropical Isle Corporation has been a stage for live music for as long as I've been there. There's a regular band in every place and keeps Bourbon Street alive.
WYAT: Have you noticed Bourbon Street changing?
Carson: There hasn't been a big change on Bourbon. The economy has changed a lot of things. There are more groups coming just to say I played on Bourbon Street, but the longevity has changed a lot. Katrina misplaced a lot of musicians, and took away a lot of the quality of music that was being offered. Club owners stopped having live music; they did what they had to do to make money. I take my hat off to Tropical Isle because they brought their regular musicians back. We were one of the first bands back on Bourbon Street. We were right there a month and a week later. We were back on the bandstand playing for the troops, for the workers, for whoever was out there, and obeying the curfew. We would entertain them and it carried over, and some of those people still come back. That's part of the joy of Bourbon Street and New Orleans.
Also, I've been a street performer, but groups who set up shop outside of established clubs…it's not kosher. Let's work together and not step on peoples' toes. They stop the crowd before they get to the club. And Frenchmen Street is a plus to Bourbon Street, not a hindrance, because it carries the music over into another part of the city that people might not enjoy. It keeps the music alive. Usually when I get off, I take a stroll down Frenchmen Street or up Bourbon Street at 2 a.m. and see what's still going on. The clubs are open, but the bands are gone. It doesn't go until the wee hours of the morning anymore. You can't expect the band to play for six or seven hours.
On the attempts to impose decibel restrictions on bands in the French Quarter: Live music is how people are brought in to the clubs. "We heard you singing out on the street, and that's what we were looking for." How can you live in the French Quarter, and the French Quarter and live music was there before you, [and complain]. You should have known what you were moving into. All the bureaucracy that's going on to stop the progress of New Orleans with our music and our culture. We can't forget our culture -we can't. As soon as you forget your culture, you lose it. They want to feel it and be a part of it. They want to experience another culture, and New Orleans has that.
WYAT: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Carson:I'm just blessed and grateful for all the guys in my band that's been with me for 15-20 years, and grateful for the tourists. Come by and support this. Without them, there's no me, and without the man above, there's no us. I feel like I'm a contribution to this city, I'm a part of the gumbo called New Orleans. We need to put everything in it to make it taste good. Without the musicians and the restaurants and places like that, New Orleans is not New Orleans. We don't need more t-shirt and bead shops. We need more clubs that support live music; whether it's blues, jazz, second line, traditional jazz, whether it's rhythm and blues.