Originally published in The Clarinet 48/2 (March 2021). Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
The Jazz Scene: Queen Clarinet: Interview with Doreen Ketchens
by Ben Redwine
For all of the nicknames for New Orleans (the Big Easy, the Crescent City, etc.), it could also be called “Clarinet City.” There are more professional clarinetists living and working in New Orleans than any other American city, except, perhaps, for Washington, D.C. because of all of the military bands stationed there. Of all the clarinetists in the city, only one is sometimes called “Lady Louis,” or the “Female Louis Armstrong,” or “Queen Clarinet.” Doreen Ketchens has been performing in New Orleans, mostly on Royal Street, for decades. In addition to holding court as a street performer, Doreen tours internationally, has performed for four U.S. presidents, and regularly educates the youth of the world, spreading the culture and music of New Orleans. I sat down, virtually, with Doreen Ketchens in November 2020.
Ben Redwine: Good afternoon, Mrs. Ketchens, it is a pleasure to speak with you!
Doreen Ketchens: Hello! Oh, man, I just learned about you. We are clarinet cousins!
BR: Yes, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s jump right in! Will you relate your memories of growing up in New Orleans, what your perception of the city was, and when it was that you first became interested in music?
DK: I grew up in the Treme neighborhood. Jazz funerals and parades passed in front of my home several times each month. My school had an arrangement with the New Orleans Philharmonic where we would hear the symphony several times a year, so I had a pretty wide exposure to two genres of music, funky jazz street beats and classical music. I started playing clarinet in the fifth grade. It wasn’t like a dream, I was really trying to get out of a history test! We had a pop quiz one day. It was a brutal test, each student was asked questions – you were either right or wrong, pass or fail. When the first question came to me, I got it wrong. So, I looked out of the window, like I did most days, and I prayed, saying, “God, if you can get me out of this test, I’ll do anything!” Almost simultaneously, the principal spoke over the loudspeaker, and she said, “Anyone interested in joining the band, report immediately to the bandroom.” I was “saved by the bell”! I remember running down the hall breathing a sigh of relief, having gotten out of the test. Back then, girls played certain instruments and boys played certain instruments. I sat on the side where the girls had congregated, and I saw a poster of a flute. I thought to myself, “Man, that instrument is pretty, I want to play that!” By the time it got to me, the flutes had been all accounted for, so I chose the next instrument on the poster. I didn’t even know what it was called, it just looked pretty, so I chose the clarinet! None of my family members were musicians, but my dad was a member of a social aid and pleasure club, and he used to Second Line all the time.1 He played the stereo constantly, so I’m sure that’s where my musical influence came from.
BR: Were you able to hear local musicians before you started playing the clarinet?
DK: Roger Lewis, with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, lived five doors away from me, and they used to practice at his apartment, so I heard them a lot! They would practice marching, and pass right in front of my house. At that time, there were four funeral homes within three blocks of our home, so Second Lines would pass constantly, passing my house and my school several times every week.
BR: There are some locally and internationally famous music educators associated with New Orleans. I’m thinking of Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste. Did you have any contact with them when you were growing up?
DK: I used to call Alvin Batiste “Uncle Al,” because I went to NOCCA (the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) with his niece Rachel. I remember we were auditioning for the Louisiana Music Educators Association honor band, and I was feeling low because I didn’t think I did very well on the audition. I was walking around, feeling sorry for myself, and I heard a clarinet being played in a room. I looked in, and there was Mr. Batiste. He caught my eye and said, “Come in!” We started talking about Rachel, music, and my audition earlier that day. He told me, “You know, you probably didn’t do as badly in that audition as you think you did. You must have confidence when you are playing music!” Mr. Batiste was a rocket scientist. I don’t care what you were talking about, he was a genius. He had ways of communicating which flew over your head, but you might actually catch a few stars, you know? So, he said, “You must think positively. How are you thinking?” I told him I was positive. He said, “There you go, you got it!” And, that was that. I won first chair in that audition! So, he was “Uncle Al” after that. I considered him my guardian angel, and it set the course for me to think positively for the rest of my life!
Ellis Marsalis was my ear training teacher at NOCCA where I was strictly a classical player. He used to call me Ms. Joseph, my maiden name. I wasn’t interested in jazz at all. You know, the jazz clarinetists that I had heard, like George Lewis and others, I appreciated their tones and I respected them, but that was not my concept of tone at all. Their styles at the time were against what I was studying, trying to get a perfect classical clarinet tone. Now, in my class with Mr. Marsalis was another musician, Harry Connick, Jr. The only relief I got in that class was when Mr. Marsalis stopped trashing me in class to start trashing Harry! Mr. Marsalis had a way of looking straight through you when you didn’t do what you were supposed to. If I had been raised by Mr. Marsalis, I would be the greatest clarinetist in the whole world, I’d know everything there is to know about music, and everything, because he had this way of pushing you and making you feel like dirt if you didn’t live up to his standards. That happened quite often to me – they move pretty fast at NOCCA! I already thought everyone was smarter than me, because they came from prestigious schools, and I didn’t think I belonged there. I made fine grades, and kept up musically, I just didn’t think I was! He had this way of shaking his head – first he’d shake it up, then he’d shake it sideways, and I always thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” He was amazing, but my life with him was challenging. I liked him as a person, and he liked me as a person, but, boy, he shook his head side to side quite often at me!
As I got older, I remember one of my first recordings with Kermit Ruffins. I was warming up, and Mr. Marsalis walked in. He passed by me, then backed up and said “Ms. Joseph, what are you doing here?” I said, “I’m playing on this recording session.” He said, “You mean to tell me, all those years at NOCCA, you weren’t interested in jazz, and now you’re playing jazz? I’ve got to hear this!” I was very intimidated at that recording session. At that time, I wasn’t really educated in improvisation, just playing by ear. I’d find a recording of the song we were supposed to play, and just play along, figuring out the tune, and what to play to sound good. I remember “Honey Child.” It’s a pretty simple song, but, for some reason, I just couldn’t figure it out. I approached Mr. Marsalis, and said, “You know, I need some help. I can’t figure out this tune. He’s a rocket scientist too. He gave me some advice which I didn’t really understand, then he said “retrogression.” I still didn’t understand him, but he said it again, then showed me on the piano. And, it was like a key opening a door, which made me able to play the song!
We were supposed to play with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) in March of 2020, which, of course, was postponed because of COVID. Back in January, I was recording a film for Branford Marsalis, Ellis came around a few times, and we had worked out what we were going to play – one song together, and one song as a solo with the LPO. I needed some rehearsals, I thought! I had rarely played with a symphony, and it had been a long time since I had played with him. So, I went to his house for the rehearsal. We were going to play Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” “Caravan” has two bridges, and he played one, while I played the other. Of course, he knew all of that, but he said to me, “I kind of remember your bridge, but show me what you’re doing.” I said, “You want me to teach you something?” So, I showed him, and he nailed it, of course. He was just being kind to me, I think, and showing that sometimes the teacher can become the student. He was a special man and musician! Then he said, “But, you still have to practice!” I was really looking forward to that performance, and it really hurt me when he passed away
on April 1.
BR: Who were your musical idols when you were learning your instrument?
DK: Classical wise, Stanley Weinstein. He was my clarinet teacher, principal clarinetist with the New Orleans Symphony. Still to this day, nobody plays like Stanley. He had this sound! People tell me all the time, “Oh, your sound is so beautiful,” but I’m really still chasing the Stanley sound! He was a perfectionist. If I knew then what I know now, I’d be a much better clarinetist and musician than I am today. I would have known what to concentrate on. You know, God protects little children and damn fools, and I did alright, I just didn’t do as much as I could have. I’m not a child anymore, but I’m going to be okay!
I started playing jazz because I fell in love with a tuba player! Lawrence, my husband, had a jazz band, and all of the sudden, jazz wasn’t so bad. I started to listen to jazz so I could learn the tunes and fit in with his band. I started listening to Louis Armstrong. He is my biggest influence. Some people call me Mrs. Satchmo, I guess because that concept is in my head. I’ll hear something he plays, which I’ve heard thousands of times, and I’ll think, “What? How did he do that?” Then, I listened to the clarinetists who played with him: Edmund Hall, Buster Bailey, Barney Bigard. Those cats were awesome too! Edmund Hall had this thing he could do, where it sounds like he was playing two tones at the same time. People today might hum while they play to achieve something similar, but I don’t think that was what he was doing. Buster Bailey had a similar background to me, starting out with classical music, then learning jazz. Early on, I emulated Jerry Fuller, clarinetist with the Dukes of Dixieland. I would steal so many of his solos just so I could keep up with my husband’s band. Eventually, I realized what he was doing, and it translated into me being able to improvise. I’d start out transcribing solos, then playing by ear, copying what those clarinetists were doing. I don’t remember those solos now, but I’m sure that I still play snippets of them that creep into my improvisations.
BR: Do you have advice for a young musician who would like to pursue a career as a performer?
DK: It’s a passion. Even if you’re successful, it’s not easy. You have to practice and be ready to perform at the drop of a hat. Listen to other people, find what stimulates you. Listen, listen, listen! There are so many good clarinetists out there, and they want the jobs too. Even if you get told no, keep pursuing your dreams. You need to find your voice so that your personality can come out in your playing. You don’t want to sound like you’re playing an etude book. This is for all types of music – even classical. You want to move the audience, you want to touch them.
BR: You are known in New Orleans as a “street musician,” and you have performed on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans for many years. How long have you been performing on your “stage” on Royal Street?
DK: It’s been 30-35 years, 4 days a week. Early on, 12 hours a day. We’d start at 9 in the morning and play until 9 or sometimes even until 11 at night! As we got older, we realized how to make more money in less time, so now, we play for about 5 hours a day. When it’s really busy, sometimes we’ll still play for 8 hours. It’s crazy, but it’s what you do!
BR: Please tell us about your band and its instrumentation.
DK: Dorian, my daughter has been playing with us since she was 4. She is our main drummer. That’s a godsend! My husband, Lawrence, is a tuba player. My favorite band is a quintet – we add guitar, Dave Hammer, and trombone, Steve Wonker.
BR: There is a protocol for claiming a spot on the street in New Orleans. Now that you are established, do any other bands steal your spot?
DK: Yes, all the time! But, there is a great level of respect among street musicians. Since we’ve been playing for so long, if someone is in my spot, and I show up, they’ll say, “Oh, Doreen, I didn’t know you were coming today.” There is respect among musicians.
BR: There is a lovely tradition in the music scene in New Orleans where bands allow and encourage other musicians, regardless of ability, to “sit in” with their band. When I have experienced this, the look on an amateur’s face is priceless, as they seem to be having the time of their life. Do you have any thoughts about this cultural phenomenon?
DK: When I started, all I could do was play melodies. People would come to sit in, and they could play circles around me. We’re very approachable, and give everyone an opportunity to play. It’s their privilege to lose. Someone will come up and say, “Can I sit in?” And, we’ll say, “Sure, you can play one or two songs.” Sometimes we have to say, “Thank you, thank you,” just to get them to not play any more. Sometimes people surprise you! We’ve had 80-year-olds sound like they are 17, and we’ve had 17-year-olds sound like they’re 80! As long as people don’t overstay their welcome. Sometimes having someone sit in is a pleasure, and other times, you’re looking at your watch, waiting for them to leave!
BR: Please tell us about your formal music education.
DK: I started at Delgado Community College, and while there, I studied with George Jensen, a trumpet player at the New Orleans Phil, until he had a stroke and couldn’t play anymore. He was a very gifted educator. He could communicate even what he couldn’t demonstrate any longer. Then, I transferred to Loyola University, where I studied with Stanley Weinstein. I had a great scholarship, but as the years progressed, the tuition kept rising, but my scholarship didn’t, so I started looking around, and was accepted at the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut, where I studied with Hank Lawson. He was principal clarinetist of the Hartford Symphony, but had Lou Gehrig’s disease, and couldn’t play anymore. He was a wonderful teacher and could explain what you had to do in a way which was so clear. I learned a lot from him! In the meantime, my husband’s father passed away, then shortly after, my father passed away, so we moved back to New Orleans.
BR: How are you faring with this pandemic we are all suffering through, and how are you coping with the sudden change in livelihood and lifestyle?
DK: I always have saved for a rainy day, but I didn’t know it would be a rainy year! I don’t like using savings, as opposed to saving savings, but thank God we had savings! I’ve been teaching private lessons online, and I did weekly clarinet lessons on my YouTube channel, but we had to stop once the storms started – we are still cleaning up from that. It’s been about a month since I did a YouTube lesson. We’ve been doing Facebook Live concerts from our dining room, where we ask for donations to our “virtual bucket.” Most mornings, I get up in the morning, play some etudes, then we record some tunes. We haven’t played on the street since March, but we have been playing. It’s nothing like before the pandemic, but we are surviving.
BR: Tell us about the equipment you play.
DK: I recently got a Shine clarinet, a composite instrument from Korea. It plays really well, and I don’t have to worry about the heat or cold.
Before that, I played Buffet and Selmer, but I played them so much that they fell apart. I have a gold-plated Selmer that I had pinned so many times my repairman said, “Doreen, you need to retire this instrument.” So, I did. The weather really does wreak havoc on instruments. I was destroying these beautiful instruments in the weather, so I’m glad I found this composite clarinet.
I played Mitchell Lurie reeds in college. When my teacher moved, his wife gave me about 600 boxes of Mitchell Lurie 5.5 reeds. I still have some of those reeds. Only recently did I start looking for other reeds. I’ve been playing D’Addario Reserve 5 reeds too.
When I went to college, I didn’t know what an A clarinet was, but I learned that I needed to buy one. I found a set of clarinets and they came with two Kaspar mouthpieces, which I fell in love with. I played those until 2018, but I played them so much that I wore indentations through the beak of the mouthpiece. So, I started to look for a new mouthpiece, and I saw the D’Addario marbled mouthpiece. I just thought it was so pretty, but when I played it, it sounded terrible until I changed reeds to 4.5, and then it was amazing. I’ve been playing it for a few months now.
BR: Thank you for sharing your life with the readers of The Clarinet! We look forward to a time when we can hear you perform again, whether it be on Royal Street, or at an International Clarinet Association ClarinetFest®!
DK: Thank you! I encourage readers to visit my website: doreensjazz.com, where you can learn more about me and where you can purchase recordings, and even get in touch with me yourself!
1 Second Line is a New Orleans tradition in which a “second line” of revelers follows behind a “first line” of parade participants and musicians.
About the Writer
Ben Redwine retired from the United Stated Naval Academy Band in 2014. He earned degrees from the University of Oklahoma (B.M.E.), Louisiana State University (M.M.), and The Catholic University of America (D.M.A.). He “retired” to New Orleans, where he performs frequently in both classical and jazz genres.