Clint Maedgen is a musical chameleon.
He is the respectful, awestruck student apprenticing with men up to nearly twice his age in the venerable New Orleans institution Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
He is also the audacious showman who fronts the punk cabaret act New Orleans Bingo Show, a troupe that includes a burlesque dancer and foul-mouthed clown.
Some nights he plays three sets of traditional jazz with Preservation Hall, then doesn’t even pack up his saxophone, just walks with it on its strap through the French Quarter and right onto stage for a late Bingo gig.
Preservation Hall is the G-rated home of standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” while Bingo Show might feature abstract multimedia or a trapeze artist and is no place for anyone offended by language or nudity.
“I don’t feel like I could do one without the other,” Clint told me recently. They fuel different parts of his creativity, as does his one-man electronic work.
He probably couldn’t have done Preservation Hall without Bingo – PHJB creative director Ben Jaffe saw Bingo about six years ago and was so lovestruck by the energy of the show that he proposed a collaboration with Clint before they even knew each other.
“I immediately recognized I was in the presence of true performers,” Jaffe recalled last fall. “I knew nothing about them but I was immediately touched by what they were doing.”
I asked Clint to talk to me for Newvine Growing because he’s landed a full-time job with a revered NOLA band not known for taking on skinny young roll ‘n’ roll singers, and he balances that with his own side projects.
It’s a tale of dedication and luck.
“My getting this opportunity is like Willy Wonka proportions,” he said with a laugh.
Boy meets saxophone
Clint Maedgen was born Aug. 15, 1969. His parents divorced three years later and he lived a nomadic life with his mother and stepfather, moving to 12 different states before he was 10. He rattles off the names of the cities, including “someplace in Ohio.”
Then he settled with his father in Lafayette: a Texan, ex-Marine, Vietnam veteran, deep sea diver. “There’s not a lot of sensitivity happening with my dad,” Clint said. “I love him, he’s half of who I am. We’re just very different.”
Clint grew up singing, then his stepmother fueled his interest in music – she took him to concerts like Alice Cooper and KISS, and pulled Clint’s dad’s old high school saxophone out of the attic.
It was not love at first sight with the sax. He hated playing for more than three years, joylessly learning scales, but then went to a friend’s house and heard the friend’s older brother playing sax solos inspired by Grover Washington Jr. “I was like, ‘Show me how to do that,’and I was hooked.”
He went to University of New Orleans to major in music, but ended up doing more of his studies on the streets – he saw Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Bad Brains, Jane’s Addiction, stayed up all night, slept all day.
After flunking out of UNO, he enrolled at Southern University, where he studied under Alvin Baptiste. “Ultimately, I’m very glad that happened,” Clint said. Although he laments his timing – just after he left, New Orleans icon Ellis Marsalis arrived at UNO to start a jazz program– Baptiste’s tough love teaching style gave Clint some discipline he was lacking.
Clint studied at Southern for two semesters – long enough to rethink his dreams of becoming a bebop musician. “It would have taken me 20 years to get half as good as the gunslingers,” he said.
He got married, had a son, started his first band … but soon, New Orleans was calling him back.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
Clint’s family has roots in New Orleans back to the 19th century. His uncle was a cop who once arrested Lee Harvey Oswald on Canal Street for distributing controversial literature.
“I always knew that NOLA was in the cards for me,” Clint said.
He got a job as a bike delivery boy for French Quarter fried chicken joint Fiorella’s, where Bingo got its start. Using a set of bingo cards Clint found at a second-hand shop, an ensemble of musicians and performers began a weekly run at Fiorella’s that quickly grew in popularity.
It was there that Ben first saw Bingo, and invited Clint to sing with Preservation Hall. “The electricity of Clint’s voice and the entire experience stopped me cold,” Ben said.
Clint continued working at Fiorella’s and fronting Bingo while doing guest appearances with PHJB, sometimes popping into the Hall to sing a song or two in the middle of a delivery. Eventually, Ben asked him to join the band full time.
In some ways, it was like a marriage between two powerful musical families – today Bingo clown Ronnie Numbers is also Preservation Hall marketing manager Ron Rona by day, and the former Bingo keyboardist Madd Wikkid is PHJB recording engineer Earl Scioneaux III.
“I think it has been great for both camps. We’ve obviously learned a lot and we love to share our talents with The Hall,” Clint said.
The surreal life
Joining Preservation Hall was getting called up to the musical major leagues – Ben has memories of being chased by the Land Shark back stage at Saturday Night Live in the 1970s while his dad played on stage as the musical guests.
Clint said the most surreal opportunity so far was singing the National Anthem at the BCS championship.
Last year, Preservation Hall played Madison Square Garden with an all-star line up for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday and earlier this year, they released a CD collaborating with 20 artists including Terence Blanchard, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ani DiFranco, Merle Haggard, Richie Havens, Jim James, Del McCoury, Bobby McFerrin – and Tom Waits.
“Tom Waits is my hero,” Clint said, still awestruck by the experience of recording with someone who has so inspired him. “It’s a big deal for me.”
“It inspired me to such a great extent that I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror if I wasn’t pushing it as hard as I can,” Clint said. “I have to be able to believe in what I’m selling.”
That moment of reckoning prompted Clint to shake up almost the entire roster of Bingo just before leaving on an Australian tour. They had one rehearsal together before doing five shows in seven days, and the intense experience of 13 different airplanes in a week bonded them.
It brought a freshness to Bingo songs going on a decade old.
“I feel like it’s just the beginning, even after nine years in,” Clint said.
The man in the fedora
Clint rocks a very particular musical image – you’ll often see him in a three-piece black suit with a fedora, his dark hair slicked back and the tiniest John Waters moustache. He’s dressed the same whether it’s 90 degrees in the sun at New Orleans Jazz Fest or a late-night bar show.
I asked him whether he was cultivating his musical persona and he laughed off the implication.
“I’ve worn a fedora forever,” he said, recalling a time years ago when he and a friend both wore wife-beaters and fedoras into a bar, where the bartender asked, “What is this, the Depression?”
At least one part of the look is a conscious decision: he used to spike his hair straight up, like a startled cat, but in deference to the traditional vibe of Preservation Hall, he switched to combing it back.
“When I cut my hair, it opened doors for me,” he said, recalling that the older band members saw it as gesture to fit into their world. “Had I known it would be received that well, I would have done it years ago.”
Also part of his unique appearance is a white ceramic saxophone. Ben asked Clint what kind of sax he’d play if he could have any in the world and he immediately replied he’d want a Selmer. He picked a limited edition white sax, but then had to try about 30 mouthpieces to get a decent tone. The ceramic was deadening the sound, making it sound like a kazoo.
Today it’s as much a part of him as the fedora, though he also plays clarinet, keyboards, drums, bottle, theremin and electric guitar.
And, of course, he sings. Vocals like this one below put Clint on the short list of vocalists — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jim Morrison — that I could listen to for hours and never get bored.
After Clint remarried, he and his wife, Tara, briefly lived in Los Angeles, with Clint commuting to New Orleans for PHJB and touring while Tara spent time with her family in her hometown.
Today they’re back in NOLA — “just had too much happening to be somewhere else,” Clint said.
His son, Trinity, lives in England with his mother, and they talk frequently via Skype. Clint misses having a closer relationship, like the days when he drove to Baton Rouge weekly for visits, but Trinity talks him through it.
“He’ll say, “C’mon dad, you’ve got a chance to build something really cool, just stick with it.’”
And, of course, he’s following in Dad’s footsteps and wants to be a musician. Clint is trying, unsuccessfully, to talk him into pursuing a practical day job. Seeing his father get international recognition as a musician makes it tougher to see the merits of choosing another career.
“I’ve got a lot of plans, a lot of ideas,” Clint said, somewhat cryptically. “The next five years are going to set the direction of my next 30 years.”
“P-HALL has some major goals and it’s an honor to be part of the machinery making it happen. Stay tuned, we are just getting started,” Clint wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “Bingo is getting closer and closer to the experience I’m trying to get across. Best received Off Broadway or some theatrical setting — a listening audience that dances, too.
“My one-man show is part of the future as well. I’m really only just now getting started on so many things,” he wrote. “What a great feeling!!!”
He doesn’t mind the manic pace of 150 dates on the road with Preservation Hall and another 100 or so at home. He feels he’s only 20 percent the sax player he’d like to be so the more time on the horn, the better.
“Music makes me feel euphoric. I’ll do anything and go anywhere to get that fix,” Clint wrote. “Nineteen-hour day? No problem. :) Surfers seem to have the same level of addiction.”
Now that he’s collaborated with his musical hero, Tom Waits, who else is on his fantasy list?
“Can I just keep working with Tom? Dylan, Prince, Beck, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Al Green, Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Keith Richards, Hermeto Pasqual, Thom Yorke, REM…..”
Clint also loves playing side by side with Preservation Hall clarinetist Charlie Gabriel. He shows off pictures of Charlie on his iPhone like some people brag up photos of their kids. Does he see himself growing into the Charlie Gabriel of his generation in Preservation Hall?
“I’d LOVE to be a member of PHALL for the rest of my life. Such a beautiful feeling bringing New Orleans to the rest of the planet. I love my job!!!!”
If 2,000 words ain’t enough: