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Guitarist Matt Bell explains the art of songwriting to students at the Art Center Saturday afternoon. Bell, a New Orleans-based musician from Wallowa County, returned to the area to teach classes. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
New Orleans jazz guitarist with local roots returns to Northeast Oregon
Eight years ago musician Matt Bell ventured from Wallowa County to New Orleans to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Bell, a member of a team that set up camps for emergency personnel, witnessed unspeakable devastation, much of it caused by massive flooding due to the collapse of levees.
“You can’t imagine what we saw,” Bell said.
Still the floodwaters could not douse New Orleans’ legendary musical spirit. Bell could sense that it was still vibrant. The music provided solace in the face of the devastation.
“The music was definitely a shining light,” Bell said.
This so inspired Bell that the songwriter and jazz guitarist later enrolled at the University of New Orleans where he earned a masters degree in music. Today, he still lives in New Orleans where he and his wife, Joy Patterson, are professional musicians.
Bell’s understanding of New Orleans musical heritage has grown significantly over the past eight years, an understanding he will be sharing with others in La Grande over the next week. Bell, a guitarist and vocalist, is now in La Grande and is set to give a concert with his band, the Bad Penny Pleasuremakers, on Wednesday and will teach a swing guitar class on Saturday.
Bell’s visit to La Grande is a homecoming of sorts. He earlier studied music for two years at Eastern Oregon University after living in Wallowa County from 1991 to 2004. Today his parents, Al and Jennifer, live at Wallowa Lake.
The musician who will play in La Grande this week is one that has been shaped significantly by his eight years in New Orleans.
“I have learned how to connect with people through music. New Orleans is a party town. The music is for the people,” said Bell, a graduate of Pendleton High School.
He said that to be a musician in New Orleans is to be on both sides of the historic spectrum.
“Living in New Orleans and playing old jazz is like soaking up the past and creating something new at the same time,” Bell said. “There are many musicians living and sharing music who have been involved in jazz for up to 60 years. Being able to listen to, talk with and play alongside these musicians is a living study in the traditions of the music.”
The Bad Penny Pleasuremakers is comprised of Bell’s wife, a vocalist who plays the kazookaphone and washboard and also handles noisemakers for the band, Greg Johnson of Summerville who plays the clarinet and Luke McKern of La Grande who plays the upright bass.
The jazz band tries to bring part of New Orleans old musical traditions to life, playing music from the 1920s and 1930s.
“The Bad Penny Pleasuremakers are not a band looking to revolutionize an art form,” Bell said. “We we are trying to recreate a historical music.”