I met old Nocentelli in the strangest way.
It was mid-December, a warm gray afternoon. Having returned to our sweet sassy city after a two-month odyssey through the South, I decided to seek out my ambassador to underground New Orleans, Prince Fatgot Guillermo.
The Prince is a lean, wiry man who changed his name in Spain, wears Panama hats, sketches good pastel portraits, plays the maracas on Sunday nights at Johnny Matassa’s, and roams the city with the savvy of a shrewd street scout.
I parked in front of his house on St. Claude, not far from Industrial Canal bridge. The Prince was just getting out of his car. He roared out a laugh, threw up his hat, and sauntered over to my faithful ’65 Chevy, now diseased from the long Southern trip.
“Where you been, man? I been looking all over for you. I was up there by the Irish Channel with Little Willie one night. We went banging on your door, dogs barking at us, all them neighbors thinking we was police and robbers, I mean we was there. Lady next door says you was off somewheres, up Nawth.”
The Prince ushered me into the sagging shotgun house where they lived and which they’d soon have to vacate. “Some rich cat bought this place, so we gotta move. Wrecking man coming to tear it down. They gonna lay a parking lot, or something not for people to live in.”
“Where’s Little Willie?” I asked.
“He’s in there,” said the Prince, motioning me toward the front room. I followed the Prince.
I still don’t know Willie’s last name. He was a 17-year-old guitar player from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. He had wandered into New Orleans a year ago; the Prince heard him play and began functioning as an unofficial manager of sorts. Soon city life scared the boy back to the country, and now, a year later, he had returned to give it another crack. The Prince and his family are not well off financially, but they are the kind of folks who open their doors to people they believe in; Willie slept on the front couch.
We entered the front room, where Willie was attacking his electric instrument in hopes of recreating the music of departed Jimi Hendrix; weekend nights, the kid played in a battered honky-tonk on Louisa Street, just off the River. This afternoon he was thundering away practicing to the sounds of a cassette recorder on the bed in the front room.
I liked Willie but wished he would pull the bloody electric wires out of the amp, forget Hendrix, get onto a wooden box guitar, and just be Willie.
Several hours passed. The Prince drifted back and forth from the kitchen, where he was preparing an elaborate pot of gumbo, to the front room where Willie and I debated the merits of natural versus electric music. The Prince started playing the maracas; Willie was thumping his feet on the floor, with the guitar balanced along his shoulder as he played with bands behind his neck. It wasn’t a bad show.
Then someone I did not know entered the room.
He was a broad-chested man with thick, strong shoulders and a large stomach, hard as stone. He had skin the color of gold-brown honey and his hair, vivid white, curled back from his temples like a glorious silver mane. From the moment of his arrival, everything changed. Willie turned off the guitar, and sat attentively at his side. The Prince brought him a chair.
“This the fella I told you about,” said the Prince to the old man, gesturing at me. “This the cat writes all the stories.”
“Nocentelli,” the old man identified himself, extending his hand. He had a powerful forearm. He must have been seventy, I thought, but he shook hands like a linebacker in his twenties.
“Jack Nocentelli,” he said. “What you write about?”
I explained that a current project was research for a biography of Louis Armstrong.
Nocentelli nodded. “Satchmo, good man. I knew him, used to see him down by Rampart Street. He was OK. ”
I nodded, found a pen, jotted down his phone number on a card in my wallet, but Nocentelli was already involved in something else.
He took a cassette tape from his pocket, instructed Little Willie to remove Hendrix from the boy’s machine, and put his own tape on.
“I write too,” Nocentelli said. “Listen to this.”
“We sat around the bed, listening to the scratchy tape, and the smooth, natural cadences of a ballad called, “In Lure of the Tropics.” (I learned the title and recorded the poem myself at a later meeting.)
“That’s it!” said the Prince. “This one of his. Listen them words. I mean, ole Jack is kicks!”
Willie was nodding his head in time with the steady, melodious sounds of the tape recorder. Nocentelli was tugging at my arm. “See, it’s a logical and real story. About the old man, who met the young man when he came down there to Tropics, South America — ”
“Let me hear it,” I said.
The tape continued:
“From a limestone cliff I flagged a skiff
with a salt-soaked pair of jeans
and I worked my way for I had no pay
on a freighter to New Orleans.”
Nocentelli was pulling at my arm again. “See, it’s all the advice he can give, what the man done in his own life: he passing it on to this kid outa the States.”
The tape ran out: I had missed most of it because Nocentelli was talking.
“You play music?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Y’oughta see my boy play music. Leo. Y’ever hear of the Meters?”
“The Meters — band that plays here in New Orleans?”
“Same band. That’s them. My boy, Leo. He plays lead guitar. Looks like me, Creole-looking. He got lightcolored skin; plenty Italian blood in Nocentelli family.”
“Leo Nocentelli, yeah. I’ve seen him play. That’s your kid?”
Old Jack pounded a fist on his chest. “That’s him. My boy.”
We sat around the room, drinking beer and talking about music. The Prince wandered back to the kitchen and his gumbo preparation, moaning about the rich man with his wrecking ball. Through the smoke rings of a passed joint, Nocentelli explained his background.
His father was a Sicilian who had come to Louisiana near the turn of the century and married a woman who was part-Indian and part-black Creole. They lived in Donaldsonville. As a young man, Jack played banjo and sang in Prohibition honky-tonks throughout South Louisiana, particularly the Bayou Lafourche area.
Jack talked the whole night. Over gumbo in the Prince’s kitchen, I cursed myself for not having brought a tape recorder. This old man spoke in such a naturally rhythmic voice; stories rolled off his tongue, one upon the next, and with his white hair and gold skin, he looked like a wandering bard in some exotic land.
“My son, Leo,” he explained, “my oldest boy. I bought him a little Mickey Mouse ukelele one Christmas. I was working doing cotton work, used to be gone all the time. And I came back, wrote him a little song, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” — just two chords, C and C-7. I put my family with most families I heard around here. He was playing it better than I could! Then I went to Werlein’s, bought him a better guitar.”
After dinner, the Prince and I drove Jack to his home on Elysian Fields, near Claiborne. He got out of the car, holding his cassette, grinning. “Come see me, Jensen. I got plenty more things to tell you. Got all kinds of poems, too.”
Things changed quickly after Christmas. Little Willie fled back to Mississippi The wrecking ball indeed demolished the house where Prince and his wife lived; they moved into the shotgun apartment parallel to the one Jack Nocentelli and his wife Earline live in, on Elysian Fields.
I visited Jack in late January to record his impressions of Louis Armstrong. As it turned out, he knew little about Satchmo beyond several routine facts of his life. He was uneasy in front of the tape recorder, too, and kept insisting that I turn it off so that he could explain what he was about to say, thus spoiling the spontaneity of his recorded speech.
I wanted Jack to recite the poem that I’d heard only in snatches the first night we met, but, since he was having trouble warming up to the mike in my hands, I started making small talk, asked him some stupid question about politics.
“We need to be re-educated,” he said, startling me. “And just like Lincoln said, be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That don’t make you equal, ’cuz some small, some short, some dark and different colors. But you’re created equal, and like he told you, life’s livin’ in the pursuit of happiness. That’s what we don’t do....Now happiness not promised to you, no man. Seek it, run for it, that’s what the word pursuit mean. You got to get behind it, see you got to gain happiness. You wonder why I’m so happy? Because my mind is free. If your mind not free, you can’t be happy.”
“I wish you could convince more people of that.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Tell me about your poem.” I said. “The one on the cassette.”
He smiled broadly. “This poem, ‘In Lure of the Tropics,’ concerns an ole prospector, down in Tropics, South America. He’d been through the horn, doctors only give him six months to live. So while down there, fooling around, this young kid out the States happened to meet this old man. The old man questioned him: he told the old man what his aims was. He had heard so much about down there in the tropics, read his books and got his facts all together. So this old man looked at him and had compassion on him, and looking back on his own life ...he didn’t want this young man to go through the same thing. Cause he seemed like an intelligent young man, and he advised him to go back, wherever he came from and cool the pill. So this is the story.” And then Nocentelli read me the poem.
I gazed at old Nocentelli and marveled at the fires inside him; I felt akin to the wedding guest in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” drawn out of my own world and into the story unraveled by this strange, multiblooded, compelling soul. We played the tape back again and listened; so many questions I wanted to ask him, but the moment was pure as a crystal, and the sounds of his tongue were too haunting for me to do anything but listen.
We drank a few beers, talked, and I said I’d be back in a few weeks, after I’d transcribed the tape.
Mardi Gras came and I submitted to the seasonal seductions; winter into spring, and writing demands kept me away from the work I still had to do, transcribing the tape so as to be prepared for a second, lengthier interview with Jack, to discuss the references and sources of legend and fact in his verse.
In April, the Prince called.
“Hey man, you heard what happened?”
“Jack — he suffered a stroke. He’s paralyzed, half his body. Happened two days ago. He been asking about you, wondering where ‘Jensen’ was at.”
I told him I’d be over that afternoon.
It hurt me so much when I first saw him that it was hard not to cry. He had lost 20 pounds and was laid back in a reclining cushion chair. His mouth was twisted, his right arm, the strong right arm he shook hands with, was feeble and motionless at his side.
I sat in his house that afternoon, while his wife, Earline, a deeply compassionate lady, answered phone calls and watched over two scurrying grandchildren. The first day, Jack could barely speak. Each time he said something I couldn’t understand, frustration built and he would clench his left fist, pound it softly on the armchair, breathe hard and repeat himself.
“You’re still strong, Jack. You’ll pull out.”
He nodded slowly, held out his left arm. “Feel,” he muttered.
I felt the muscle of his left arm, assured him it was solid. After an hour or so, he began to tire, and I said goodbye. Later that night, the Prince dropped me off at my apartment. “Ole Jack,” said the Prince. “It’s starting rough for him now. Real rough.”
“You think he’ll recover?”
“Sho he’ll recover. He got the will to live, man. You see it in his eyes, like fire!”
Leo Nocentelli’s life has changed considerably since The Meters began to record for national audiences several years ago. The band’s famous song ‘They All Axed for You’ is a modern version of an old creole dance tune; it is played in black and white neighborhood bars all over the city.
The Meters enjoy a healthy following in San Francisco, and are appreciated more in parts of Europe than in New York, as is often the case with New Orleans musicians. (Perhaps city roots in mother France call our music across the ocean for critical reception.)
Leo was on the road for eight weeks during the spring, and once he returned to the city, he disconnected his telephone so he wouldn’t be interrupted. Daytime, he spends hours at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studio, where he writes songs.
And just about every day, he visits his father and mother on Elysian Fields. Jack Nocentelli is a large figure in Leo’s life. “I owe a lot to him. He took time to show me the guitar musically, gave me the confidence to play, to know I could please people. He gave me all that; without that confidence, you can’t do anything.”
Jack’s writing was a backdrop to Leo’s childhood. “I was seven or eight when he started reading his poems. At first, they were just words to me. As I got older, it took on something new. The old man took on words and made something original — it’s his original poem.
“I picked up writing. He inspired me to do everything I’m doing. He showed me not to be afraid of music, not to be afraid of people — and the most important thing, to play in front of people.”
Because of reporting assignments, I did not see Jack or the Prince again for more than two months. Just a few weeks ago, I sought out Jack again, not knowing what he would be like, fearing he might be worse.
Earline ushered me into the bedroom, and there sat Jack, in the same reclining chair. “Where the hell you been?” he growled.
I sat down with a wave of joy washing through me. Here was the spirit reclaiming the man!
“You look great, Jack.”
He snorted, then spoke slowly, with careful emphasis on each word. “Got a speech... th—”
“Right...Comes around...Tuesday ...Thursday...Help me...get it right.”
“You’re getting better, Jack. It shows, all over you, man.”
He nodded. “Poem...you done any?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it transcribed now. Can you answer some questions.”
“The character who tells the story in “Lure of the Tropics,” the old guy, Ostin-Vicks: did you know him?”
He nodded, struggling to enunciate.
“Down...down in Tropics, ’twenties .. .cargo ships.”
“So you met him down there. Did he tell you the whole story?”
He nodded no. “T-talking to...other cats. Then things...things happened to my own damned self...I put it all together.”
“Jack, who was Ostin-Vicks?”
“Kind of a pirate...met him working on Panama Canal... he was — kinda cat who needed something, took it.”
“Was he a sort of Robin Hood figure?”
“NO!” He bellowed the word, sat back and swallowed, composed himself, “...cruel, inhuman son-ofa- bitch. All it’s true. All.”
“So all the things that happened to him were real. And you put it in the poem.”
Jack nodded. “Doctors tole him. . . was about to die. . . matter of days. . . he tole me. . . all stuff. . . then I made up. . . wrote out.”
“When did you actually write the poem?”
“Later. Depression. . . Nobody had job. . . they don’t put you in jail. . . cause they wouldn’t feed you. They had jungles — jungles we call ’em; in railroad yards, by the tracks. . . Hoboes. . . I was hoboing, started writing it North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois. . . in jungles, shantytown . . . Wrote it on anything, anything get hands on, sent pieces back to m’sister.”
“Did other people tell stories in the jungles?”
“Yes, Everybody. . . ate. . . out of pots, over fire. Threw in what they could. . . Guys tole jokes to one another. . . pass time away.”
“How long did it actually take you to write it?”
“Two, three weeks. Been camping around in my head long time before.”
Now as we talked, his speech became less strained, words began to flow in careful rhythms, and his body, more limber than when last we’d talked, moved a little as he began to elaborate. He told me about another poem, “The Tramp,” based on the misfortunes of a middle-class man, cuckolded, who fled to shantytowns in self-defeat. Then he talked about writers he loved.
“Dixon. Charles Dixon.”
“Yeah. He talked about what it is, and not what’s supposed to be. Every time. Then Shakespeare. In Caesar — Brutus: good, real, ‘Lend me your ears.’ He would have got fucked up for turning on him, but saying that, he got off the hook. Sherlock Holmes, Hemingway — I liked his damn writing too.”
We talked for a while about other things, and then he returned to poetry. “Ending of a poem: I like it to be sad. I always did, I don’t know — all my life. That’s the way it’s true.”
It is August now, and in the evening, when tropic rains release the city from the sun’s possession, steam rises in the street, blanketing everyone in odors of concrete and the scent of stones laid decades ago.
Jack Nocentelli passed on the poem to me, and it’s my honor to record it. Each time I go see him, I realize that our friendship and the fact that his verse has reached a New Orleans audience doesn’t surprise him much. Fate decreed it. Once, he said of the black Creoles in New Orleans: “Well, most families here got a musical background. Like a gene, you know: produces.”
But the Nocentellis are more than Creoles. They are noble repositors of a melding of different races — Indian, Creole, Italian. Jack’s second son, Angelo, is just out of high school and has started a band. A daughter, Rosalyn, has read and knows by heart many of his poems. Their father’s words are drawn from different sources, many lands and travels, and the immemorial allegory of the human struggle to endure.
Jason Berry is the author of Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi, and co-author of Up From the Cradle of Jazz, a forthcoming history of New Orleans music. This article was re searched with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C. (1984)
Jason Berry is the author of Amazing Grace, which chronicles Charles Evers’ campaign for governor of Mississippi. He has written for numerous national publications, and last appeared in Southern Exposure in “Long Journey Home,” with a profile of the Creole poet, Jack Nocentelli. (1978)