INTERVIEW: Sandy Burnett (ACE Cultural Tours’ first From New Orleans to Memphis tour, late March/early April 2019)

Sandy Burnett
Publicity Photo
SANDY BURNETT is a musician and former BBC Radio 3 broadcaster. He has worked as tour director for several cultural tours in Europe and the UK exploring locations with a rich cultural heritage. In late March and early April, he will have the chance to combine personal passions and his job: having done substantial research and reconnaissance of the tour locations, he will be taking his first party to North America, on a tour exploring and delving into the musical heritage of the Southern USA, starting in New Orleans and ending in Memphis. A few of the 22 places on the tour are still available. Interview by Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: How did you get into this tour-directing lark?

Sandy Burnett: It logically grew out of what I’d been doing ever since 1994: playing a lot and conducting a bit, in both classical and jazz environments, and talking about music on the radio week-in week-out for a decade. In 2007 I passed a stiff audition process and got to take my first tour to the Leipzig Bachfest. It’s a great opportunity for me to do my thing, which is to talk about music and its cultural context from the point of view of a practising performer, plus it’s really interesting and a lot of fun. Although I’ve clocked up 35 classical music tours since then – I now fit in half a dozen a year – this is an exciting departure for me as it’s the first one I’ve done that’s centred on jazz and blues.

LJN: There is a logic here in starting the tour in NO and ending in Memphis, I guess…

SB: In fact I’d originally wanted to do the tour the other way round: tackling the intensity of Memphis first, with its fascinating 1960s history of civil rights and the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, and the racially integrated recording boom at Stax Records, and then heading down Highway 61 to New Orleans for five days of having an absolute blast.

But my colleagues at ACE Cultural Tours talked me round, and of course, they were absolutely right.

So yes, first up we’re examining the fascinating way that all the different elements of early jazz came together in New Orleans a century ago, and then we’re travelling up the Mississippi Delta with its fantastic blues heritage, making Memphis our grand finale. We’re checking into the legendary Peabody Hotel there, and also including visits to the two Elvis shrines, Sun Studios and Graceland.

The Royal Sonesta Hotel in Bourbon Street,
New Orleans
Photo from Google Streetview
LJN: Your hotel is right in the centre, in Bourbon Street I see…

SB: Wowzers – when we first pulled up there to check in I couldn’t believe my eyes. There’s club after club cheek by jowl with each other right the way down Bourbon Street, each with a live band blasting out all sorts of music: rock, zydeco and blues as well as jazz. Just like the movies! It’s a great place to be based, right in the heart of the French Quarter, really vibrant and a little bit wild. But may I be middle aged at this point and say that our rooms are super quiet and at the back of the hotel?

LJN: What are some of the things you and the group will do in NO. Presumably a mix of the touristy and the off-the-beaten track….

SB: Preservation Hall – yes it’s touristy, but it’s a must, and they do put on a great show. People queue round the block for hours, but we’ve got fast-track access. We’ll be taking in a gig at Snug Harbour over in Frenchman Street, and the Palm Court Jazz Café has great food and a top band steeped in the New Orleans tradition, so we’ll be dining there one night. Last time I was there we hopped in a cab uptown to hear the Rebirth Brass Band, which was a pretty epic night out…

LJN: And will you get to play the bass at some point?

SB: James Evans, brilliant clarinet player and former bandmate of mine in the Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra here in the UK, has moved out to New Orleans and is part of the scene there. He’s getting some players together so that I can lead a private workshop with a borrowed bass especially for our group – I can’t wait for that, and it’ll be great to see him again.

LJN: And after New Orleans?

SB: We’re heading up Highway 61, staying one night in Natchez – remember it from the Johnny Mercer song One for my Baby? – and another in Clarksdale, right at the heart of Mississippi blues country. Morgan Freeman has a fantastic club there, so that’ll be our entertainment for the evening, before we head to Memphis for our grand finale.

LJN: And you will take in some sights that have nothing to do with music… up to a point?

SB: I don’t think you can ever understand music without its cultural heritage, and especially not in this case. Hurricane Katrina in 2006 was horrific and Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke is awful and essential viewing, but New Orleans really has bounced back, the music, food and people are wonderful, and the hospitality is amazing. There’s lots of really difficult stuff to take on board, by which I mean the legacy of slavery and racial division which still endures today. On our route north we’ll be visiting a Louisiana plantation, now a museum, which offers a sobering picture of what life was like on both sides.

LJN: Why late March/early April?

SB: It happened to fit with my diary plus it’ll be after the mayhem of Mardi Gras, and the weather should be perfect. Not too hot!

LJN: You have done a lot of tours for ACE with classical destinations. What are the hallmarks of a successful tour?

SB: It’s all in the planning, and the office is brilliant at that – getting good hotels and restaurants, building a trip full of great music and things to see, but not making the easy mistake of cramming the itinerary so that everyone’s exhausted. Downtime is important, as well as the uptime!

LJN: Are you the one who ends up dealing with the tour party’s medical and logistical problems or is someone else assigned to do that?

SB: I’m with the group as the in-house music expert; travelling with me is my super experienced, sympathetic and efficient tour manager. She’s there to help everyone settle in, make everything run smoothly, confirm bookings in advance and cope with logistical issues. But in reality we work as a team.

LJN: Is every aspect of the tour now fixed or is there still scope for (eg musical) surprises?

SB: We’ve got the key elements in place, but we’re sure to come across spontaneous things while we’re there, so yes, there’s scope to head off independently now and again for late night musical adventures. I for one am not counting on any early nights. (pp)

LINK: ACE Cultural Tours From New Orleans to Memphis tour

Categories: Features/Interviews

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