As a child, my instruments of choice were: a tennis racket with which I’d rip wailing imaginary guitar solos, pots and pans I’d bang upon with the feverish tenacity of John Bonham, and, the classic, a hairbrush to sing into. As I got older, I quickly became ashamed of those primitive attempts at musicianship, but sometimes a musician comes along that can show you that music can be made in simple but unorthodox ways, and it serves as a reminder of the universality of music.
Take Washboard Chaz , for instance, a staple in the jazz clubs on Frenchmen Street. His instrument of choice is a washboard with his name inscribed near the top, two tin cans mounted on the bottom, and a little bell on the side that he flicks intermittently. He straps this contraption onto his chest in front of crowds nightly and, along the way, has become a little bit of a New Orleans legend.
“I picked up the washboard in late ’71,” Chaz told me. “I liked that I could make it sound like a full drum kit.”
He spent his early years between New York and Bolder, Colorado, and first visited New Orleans on a trip in 1998. He quickly realized this was where he’d like to live. He first started playing at The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen in 2001, and the next year it turned into a weekly gig that continues to this day.
Chaz says the crowds on Frenchmen Street have changed over the past decade.
“Back then it was more locals and a few hip, music-loving tourists.”
Now, many tourists who want to check out the music New Orleans is famous for are advised to avoid Bourbon Street like the plague, unless they should feel willing to subject themselves to endless covers of Sweet Home Alabama. Chaz relishes the influx of out-of-towners that have discovered the music on Frenchmen.
“Having people from around the world come to see us is pretty amazing. Some folks plan their vacation around when certain bands will be there.”
His popularity and nimble virtuosity on his washboard have allowed him to travel extensively and show his tunes to music fans across the world. He has played extensively across the United States, toured around Europe to countries like Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Austria, and he recently played a stint in Japan.
“Playing in other countries is fun because the people that come out have a love of New Orleans musicians,” he explains. “Some rural places I play, the people can’t speak English and have never heard our music, but they get into it and have a good time.”
However, back at home is where Chaz finds inspiration and thrives musically.
“New Orleans has music oozing out of the fabric of everyday life,” he says. “One can make a living here without having to travel much. The culture is incredible and unlike anything else in the U.S.”
Chaz is able to coax a variety of sounds out of his washboard. Sometimes, he sits back and keeps it sparse, making it skip and rattle like a snake in the grass. Other times, it’s a full on rhythmic symphony, proving an engine-like backbeat. This versatility allows him to play in a number of genres in a number of bands including: The Washboard Chaz trio, Tin Men, Palmetto Bug Stompers, and Washboard Rodeo. He’s known as one of the most constantly reliable good times in New Orleans, and if you’re checking out music in the French Quarter, your chances of stumbling onto one of his shows on any given night are pretty high.
When asked why he thinks music lovers in New Orleans have taken such a liking to his style that he dubs “country blues” he made a modest reply.
“Oh I don’t know. I guess I play a lot of styles with some great bandmates and have a lot of fun doing it. ”
Below, check out a video of Chaz fronting the Washboard Chaz Trio at the Spotted Cat.
You know you’ve seen this guy on Frenchmen. If not, be sure to check him out. Remember tip your musicians and tell us about great music in New Orleans in the Comments Section!