When New Orleanian and clarinetist/vocalist Doreen Ketchens, one of the few female bandleaders in NOLA, connected with us for this interview, she’d just left the recording studio and was carpooling students home from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where her daughter Dorian is in the 9th grade. “Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans, v. 26: Better than the Rest” is out May 21st. 

What’s something from your background that people probably don’t know?

At church, where a lot of feeling comes up, I tried to sing like a girl, but I couldn’t sing. I have a low voice and didn’t sound like the others. I sounded like a little rat. Later, after playing music for a while, I was lying down and listening to music and Sam Cooke came on with “What a Wonderful World This Would Be.” I said, “Whoa, I can sing like that!” Then Louis Armstrong came on with “What a Wonderful World” and I could sing like him, too. Then I realized I could sing.  

How did you end up choosing the clarinet and avoiding a pop quiz in the 5th grade?

The teacher started on one side of the room with questions. If you answered the teacher’s question correctly, you passed; if not, you failed. I sat in the middle. If you sat in front, the teacher thought you knew everything. In back, they figured you didn’t know anything. I sat in the middle, so I was invisible. I figured out the teacher’s repeating pattern and the answer. But then, the teacher mixed it up a little, so I was destined for failure. I looked out the window and said, “God, if you get me out of this, I’ll do anything.” Two minutes later, the principal announced that if you were interested in joining the band, report to the band room immediately. I got to the band room. There were pictures of instruments all around on the wall. Twelve girls were in front of me and they each picked the flute. So, I picked the clarinet.  

What song would you play for someone not familiar with jazz and you wish to “win them over?”

“When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” because most people have heard it before and can relate to it. So, that’s a good icebreaker and not strange. It’s actually something familiar to you that you can sing along with and clap your hands and not feel strange. My second would be “Closer Walk with Thee.” [Songs played in jazz funerals!] Yes!  

You were reared in a historic and musical New Orleans neighborhood, so were you born with jazz in your DNA or did you acquire it?

I grew up in Tremé and right down the street from where the Dirty Dozen Brass Band rehearsed. But I was never interested in jazz because – though my dad was a dancer with the social aid and pleasure club, so we had music around – when I heard clarinet playing, it had thin tones and the technique was not very good. So I was not interested in playing, not until I fell in love with a tuba and sousaphone player. He was playing jazz and all of sudden it had appeal [laugh]. I started listening to Louis Armstrong and clarinet players who played with him. They had pretty good tones and technique, like Buster Bailey, who was a classically trained clarinetist, as I am.  

In one word, how do you feel when you’re blowing that clarinet?

Blessed, because I always surprise myself with some of the things I play and people cry, hug me, laugh and do all kinds of things, and say things about me that’s hard to believe that they’re talking about me. I told my husband the other day “I sure am glad I didn’t have a crystal ball because if someone had told me that when I grew up, I’d be playing this and making people react like so, I’d never believe I could do that.”