On a sleepy Saturday in 2008, tables were moved around at the now- defunct Sound Cafe to make way for the Panorama Jazz Band, who were scheduled to play a program intended for children. A few parents and their kids scattered around the cafe had clearly been waiting for this, and they moved in close to the band to sit cross-legged on the ground. Jazz concerts intended for children in the languid afternoons of unassuming Saturdays are among the charming quirks one comes to expect in New Orleans, but this ensemble had something unique. In addition to their traditional jazz-meets-salty Eastern European sound, the alto saxophone player was a girl—and girls are rare in traditional jazz music. Her name was Aurora Nealand.
Nealand, who sat near the front, showed a curious, curly-haired girl how air moved through the holes in her saxophone. A squadron of toddlers danced recklessly in the back. Still, it was impossible to look away from Nealand, whose gentleness was hypnotizing, and whose very presence on the coffee shop stage quite simply lit it up.
Nealand was born in Pacifica, California, and lived there until she was three in a self-described “house-shack on the beach.” But the house washed away during a flood surge, and so her family (she’s the youngest of four) moved to a remote mountain town in Colorado until she was 11. Then they moved back to California, where she spent the rest of her childhood experimenting on her mother’s piano, playing in the school band (flute and oboe), and earning a reputation as a spirited tomboy. She spent most of her free time with her slightly-older brother Tosh, with whom she shared a room and a close age proximity.
Considering Nealand’s reputation as one of New Orleans’ most sought-after and multitalented young musicians—she is the current bandleader of two enormously successful bands, an accomplished composer, and a multifaceted performer—it’s surprising she wasn’t formally trained in music until she went to college. She remembers asking her mother for piano lessons when she was a kid, but was told, “If you’re going to learn, you’re going to figure it out on your own.”
When she came to New Orleans for the first time in 2004, Nealand rode her bike every night seven miles from her house uptown to Frenchmen street to listen to the music. She liked to hear the Jazz Vipers play at the Spotted Cat music club, and she would stay late to talk to the players. She eventually got a small gig playing with a women’s band called Some Like It Hot. “I got paid like $30 to play at a crawfish boil,” Nealand recalls, “and I was like, ‘this is amazing!’ It just felt like free money!” Then Nealand met Sidney Snow.
Snow is a revered New Orleans musician who has played with everyone from Etta James to Elvis Presley. He took an interest in Nealand after his son introduced them, and booked her at his regular weekly gig at the Market Cafe. “I had never played a gig like that before, and I knew basically nothing. I mean, I knew, like, ‘The Saints Go Marching In,’ and a few Preservation Hall songs, because we had those records when I was a kid, but that was it. Sid gave me a book and said, ‘You’re gonna suck, but then you’ll learn the stuff, and then you’ll be fine.’”
Nealand had just settled into playing music regularly in New Orleans when Katrina hit. She had intended to study composition at UT Austin in the fall, but deferred to stay and help in the wake of the storm. In February 2006, Ben Schenck of the Panorama Jazz Band reached out to Nealand to play with them for the Mardi Gras season after Katrina. Marching in the streets, surrounded by music even after all that was lost, Nealand felt like she was home.
More recently, Nealand’s work has expanded. She did a self-composed, self-directed performance at the Contemporary Arts Center abstractly around the theme of the 19th century “medical condition” known as hysteria. She performs regularly under an alter-ego as the front woman of a bizarre, dark rockabilly outfit called Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers. And in a packed, tiny, neighborhood venue, she helped bring together musicians from Pakistan, India, and the U.S. to create sounds from a wide variety of traditions.
I met Nealand at her house while she was unloading a bass drum from the covered bed of her 1994 Nissan pickup after a morning of dancing. Inside, she took me up to the top floor of her house (which she shared with two other female artists), and invited me to sit on her couch. For a woman I’d recently watched make out on stage with a stranger in the front row of one of her shows, she was surprisingly quiet and shy.
“My family is made up of very delicate people. I was very shy for a long time. In some ways, I still am shy. I think that’s just the identity that I hold on to,” she said, putting her feet up on the couch. We sat next to a bookshelf, filled with books on subjects like Philip Glass, Björk, and hysteria. I asked her to tell me about her instruments, her childhood, and her family.
“Wow, three girls and a boy in one family! That poor boy!” I said. “All those periods all synced up around him! That can’t have been easy.”
Nealand laughed. “Yeah, but we were really close. He was the closest to me in age. That’s why I’m more of a boy, I guess.” She paused briefly and then said, “He’s not alive anymore, but we were very, very close.”
Nealand’s brother, Tosh, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 19. Their parents didn’t subscribe to ideas about Western medicine— they were the kind of family that didn’t keep Advil in the house and didn’t see traditional doctors—so deciding on a treatment for the diagnosis was contentious. After graduating high school, Nealand’s brother began to struggle more. He smoked some pot laced with angel dust, which Nealand said “triggered what was probably already there—some real chemical imbalance in his mind.”
After smashing a rock through a store window, he was put in a state mental hospital where he was administered anti-psychotic medication for the first time. After a few similar episodes, Tosh had to return to the mental hospital for more treatment. Aurora even volunteered there during her senior year of high school to spend some time with her brother.
“My brother was the closest person to me up until that point. We had grown up together. He is the reason why I know how to throw a football, and my sisters don’t. He is why I dress the way I do. We shared a room for my entire life,” she said.
One day in 1997, Nealand’s brother went for a walk and never returned. Later, he was found washed up on the beach near their house in Moss Beach. It’s unclear whether the death was a suicide. “It’s kind of one of those things where everyone believes what they need to believe,” Nealand said.
After her brother’s death, Nealand felt trapped. She was a senior in high school, and as much as she wanted to be supportive of her family, she also felt like she needed to get out of California. She went to Oberlin College in Ohio without even really knowing where Ohio was on a map. Nealand had picked up the saxophone a little at Oberlin, because it was similar to the flute and people always told her it was easy to learn. “It actually isn’t so hard to start,” she said. “But then to get past the hump of not sounding like a dead duck, that’s the work.”
In the early 2010s, Nealand and her band The Royal Roses played a gig at Mimi’s that I tried to catch every Wednesday night. I clung to the walls in the back while Nealand, often in a pre-Janelle Monae-style suit, sat on a black chair in the front of her balmy-sounding bandmates, alternating seamlessly between sax and vocals. One night, as the band played to a half-full room, a couple took to the scaled-down dance floor to dance a simple waltz. Once the couple was in full swing, another man, about 65 years old, who had been sitting near the front, got up and put his hands on an invisible partner. He moved in perfect time to the music, all alone.
I saw Nealand notice him as she played a wandering saxophone solo. Then, when the solo ended, she put her instrument down, stood up, and began dancing with the man. When she touched him he tensed up for a moment. But then he saw Nealand’s face, smiling at him, and she followed his lead as though she had been in his arms all along, and he relaxed. In fact, the dance took on a new swagger, and he moved her across the floor as though he had known her his entire life, as though he had known that she would come.
Nealand can plainly see other people’s humanness. This is what comes out in her music, not because she has a super power handed down from the heavens, but because she has been given this gift through necessity. When a person experiences a loss as powerful as Nealand has, they must find a way to carry the weight of the loss. For Nealand, this has meant seeing and recognizing the beauty of misfits. Indeed, it has meant becoming one of them.
“I feel like I have known a lot of people who have died,” Nealand told me. “A lot of people who were beautiful people, who struggled and then committed suicide. There are beautiful people out there and this society is hard, the way it is set up. Not everyone is born to fit into it. Some people get lucky and figure out how to maneuver around this world, and some people don’t.”
The year after Katrina, Nealand did go to UT Austin. She was there for exactly four weeks before she got into her Honda Civic and drove back to her chosen home. “In New Orleans, music is integrated into society. It is a part of the functioning of the community,” said Nealand. “The truth is, the arts don’t need to happen for people to eat or have shelter or reproduce. But the arts uplift the society. They make it better.”
You can catch Aurora Nealand every Monday with the Royal Roses at the Maison and every Thursday with Tom McDermott at Buffa’s. You can also catch Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers Saturday, December 19th at Siberia. For more info, check out auroranealand.com