New Orleans jazz clarinet queen Doreen Ketchens is beloved by locals and tourists alike. Rain or shine, Doreen’s magnetic performance draws crowds to the corner of Royal and St. Peter each weekend. Although now known for playing jazz, Doreen trained as a classical clarinetist. She started improvising and busking with her husband Lawrence in 1987. He now plays sousaphone with her on Royal Street, along with daughter, Dorian, on drums. Doreen has risen from the street to national prominence, global touring, feature films and viral videos, but she remains rooted in New Orleans.
Doreen Ketchens: I was born in the Treme, and you know, in the Treme there’s lots of music, but we lived on St. Phillips Street, and I went to this nursery school. They had a pageant every year, which was a fundraiser, and it was around Mardi Gras time. Depending on how much money you raised, you could be in the queen’s court. So I told my mom, I ran home, I said, “Mom we have to raise some money because I want to be queen,” and all this other stuff, and she said, “Well what I’ll do is I’ll just sell a little candy out of the front door,” and that’s what she did. Even though the fundraiser was over, the kids kept coming to the door. So a few months later, the barber shop that was there closed, and my mom got the bright idea of opening up next door and being legal. You know what I mean? And they called it Doreen’s Sweet Shop because the reason it all started was because of me wanting to be queen.
Nick Spitzer: Sounds like you kind of became a queen of the neighborhood just by having your name on the sweet shop.
DK: Ah something like that!
DK: I was in fifth grade, we were at lunch, and there was a rumor going around that we’d have a pop quiz. I’m like, “Man, we ain’t never had no pop quiz, we ain’t gonna have no pop quiz, are you crazy?” But sure enough, when we got back up to the class, there was a pop quiz. So I looked out the window as I often did to the sky and I said, “God, if you get me out of this, I’ll do anything.” And about two minutes later, the principal came on the loudspeaker, and she said, “Anybody interested in joined the band, report to the band room immediately.” I raised my hand, and that band director, you know, he was only there for a certain amount of time so, you know, he didn’t pick everybody but he did pick me. And I was just so amazed; I was like “Ahhh!” We were running in the hallways, just having a ball, you know. The band room is bigger than any other class, and it’s got pictures of all of these beautiful instruments and stuff like that, which was really cool. And I was looking around at the instruments and stuff, and I said, “Wow,” I saw a flute. It was so beautiful, you know, it was sleek, it was silver. It was just beautiful. And back then, you know, you had girl instruments and you had boy instruments. I said, “Wow I’m gonna play the flute.” And so when the teacher came up, he asked everybody to look around the room and he’d ask each one what they wanted to play. Before you knew it, almost every girl wanted to play the flute. And I’m like, well I don’t want to play that now! It was a very common instrument. The clarinet was right next to it, and I said, “Well, I want to play the clarinet.”
NS: At what point in all this do you say to yourself, not only am I good a the clarinet, but I could continue to study and become a professional musician?
DK: You know for me, it was just, I was on a track. You know, I said I’ll go to college and I’ll major in performance because we had listened to the symphony, we did a lot of things, you know, and I thought, you know playing the clarinet is something you can do for a living. That would be really cool. And I did my classical and I went to Loyola, and then went to the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. There was no real work here, I mean, we’re back home in New Orleans, the symphony has gone bust for the third time, so we took a walk out in the quarter one day, and there were some people playing in the street. My husband—he was my boyfriend at the time—he said, “Well we could do that.” I’m like, “Man you must be crazy, I’ve been to college, I’m not playing no music on the street.” But love makes you do crazy things. We created our own gigs by playing out on the street, and we’ve gone many places in the world from the street from that very corner.
NS: Well the clarinet and your experience on the street have carried you worldwide.
DK: It has definitely, yeah.
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