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Notable New Orleans Women: Clarinetist Doreen Ketchens

Doreen Ketchens playing on Royal Street in the French Quarter. (Photo: Adriana Lopez)

As a middle schooler, she would fake a headache to get out of a quiz or gym class, but her acting abilities still have yet to help in her career trajectory. For musician Doreen Ketchens, however, it was the decision to sign up for the school band in order to get out of a pop quiz that led her to become a world-renowned clarinetist today.

As the bandleader of Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans, Doreen and her band have become ambassadors for the city of New Orleans, campaigning for her beloved hometown and its well-known traditional Jazz music through performance and education.

Doreen grew up in Tremé, a New Orleans neighborhood that birthed several extraordinary musicians including Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Louis Prima, and The Rebirth Brass Band, just to name a few. In the fifth grade while attending Joseph Craig Elementary, she signed up for the school band in order to escape a pop quiz. She was tasked with learning how to play the clarinet – her second choice, after all the other girls signed up for the flute. It was under the guidance of her junior high school band director that she was pushed into practicing more, and in high school, while attending John F. Kennedy High School, she was accepted into the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts – an arts conservatory for Louisiana high school students, responsible for graduates like Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste, Wendell Pierce, Trombone Shorty, Harry Connick Jr, and Terrance Osborne, among others.

After high school, Doreen attended Loyola University, which is where she met her husband Lawrence. He would also later become her arranger and band member, but, at the time, it was through Lawrence that the classically trained clarinetist found a passion for Jazz.

During her university years, Doreen attended The Hartt School at The University of Hartford in Connecticut through a scholarship from The New York Philharmonic. She also completed an internship with the symphony in Hartford. A woman of many talents, Doreen worked her way through conservatories and college as a chef.

Doreen ran an eatery called “Doreen’s Sweets” until she and Lawrence realized they could make money following their first passion, music, after seeing so many musicians seemingly do so on the streets. In 1987, they started performing on the street together almost daily, giving them exposure and a platform to start selling their music. That same year, Doreen played the Republican National Convention.

She formed her band called the Jackson Square All Stars, and they began playing in the French Quarter’s Jackson Square. The name eventually evolved to Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans, making Doreen the first female bandleader. However, they had trouble booking shows at traditional venues due to the prevalent chauvinism of the club owners. Despite that, they found success with their street shows, and eventually through jazz festivals and sales of their albums..

The corner of Royal and St. Peter became their own stage, and it has been so prominent and  successful, that it is unlikely that any other band will be found playing on their territory. To this day, you can still catch them performing there frequently, in between attending festivals and performing at schools around the world to educate students of all ages.

Rampant chauvinism and her struggles only added fuel to her fire, and never made her change the direction of her band or music in order to conform to the music venues around town. To this day, Doreen continues to perform at Jazz festivals around the world, including her annual spot in the economy tent at Jazz Fest.

Even after playing alongside other famed musicians, such as Macy Grey and The Black Crows, and performing for several dignitaries, including four U.S. presidents, Doreen has never forgotten where she started. She is the woman who defied the rejection she received early in her career, but always continues to go back to her corner in front of the Rouses to play with her family. She’ll never forget her most important mission – to make music accessible and shared with everyone.

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