New Orleans Culture at a Tipping Point Part 5

This is the 5th and final part of Roger Hahn's "New Orleans Culture at a Tipping Point." Part 4 is on the home page. You can find Parts 1-3 elsewhere here by searching the site--ed.

Like Tearing Up an Encyclopedia in Front of an Electric Fan

Several factors contributed to the late 1970s-early 1980s renaissance that blossomed in full during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These factors included local culture supporters inspired by the original New Orleans traditional jazz revival, a new generation of revivalists focused on rock and R&B origins and the inception of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, originally intended as a tourism catalyst, but initially providing the inspiration for a sustained cultural renewal.

Assisting in the second major New Orleans musical revival of the 20th century were three powerful national trends. First, there was a cultural climate increasingly fascinated by the subject of cultural origins (surfacing with the unexpected popularity of the 1977 television miniseries 'Roots,' Alex Haley's fictionalized tale of his own African ancestors).

Second, there was a renewed determination on the part of recently marginalized music enthusiasts and businesses--especially small, local record labels around the country--to resist and defy increasing mainstream commercialization.

And third, there was a growing realization on the part of major urban centers decimated by suburban flight, which began in the 1950s and peaked in the wake of 1960s civil rights legislation throughout the 1970s, that something like a tourism industry would be required to replace revenues lost with the departure of its tax-paying residential base.

One necessary component in the birth of a revival is the implied re-assessment of value imposed by revivalists. When a revival succeeds, we naturally adopt a more-accurate re-assessment of value that had previously been overlooked or ignored.

The instigators of the traditional New Orleans jazz revival, for instance, started out as hunters of obscure, discarded jazz and blues records that might be hiding in the back rooms and dusty shelves of small-town, second-hand stores. Later, that music and many of those recordings came to be seen as essential elements of American popular culture.

The second New Orleans music revival, coinciding with the founding and early growth of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, eventually unearthed a host of forgotten R&B pioneers, most notably 'rumba boogie' pianist Henry Roeland Byrd, Jr.

Known professionally as Professor Longhair, he was a national recording artist in the early 1950s for Atlantic Records who, until the event entered its own recent period of hyper- commercialization, served as one of the Jazz & Heritage Festival's primary cultural icons. If a resource of tradition and creativity is simply allowed to shrivel and die, on the other hand, it may take decades, even centuries, to accurately re-assess the lost cultural value.

In the case, of those locally based New Orleans music traditions now severely threatened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, someone in a perfect position to anticipate the likely value of that loss is scholar, music entrepreneur, and author Ned Sublette.

His 'Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo' (Chicago Review Press, 2004) offers both an erudite and deeply textured account of the political, social, and cultural 'pre-history' of Caribbean events that created the unique conditions for the flourishing of one the world's great musical traditions.

Just before Katrina, Sublette spent a year in New Orleans as a Rockefeller Foundation scholar, teaching at Tulane University and compiling research for 'The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square' (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008).

It's a highly readable and culturally essential history of the Crescent City's origins in royal intrigue, European imperial policy, shifting economics, and the implications of the slave trade leading up to and following the U.S. purchase of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory.

Sublette's account of assessing the potential loss caused by Katrina's tropical fury, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' incompetence, and post-storm stalled rebuilding is particularly enlightening.

'Three months after we relocated back to New York,' Sublette writes, 'New Orleans was catastrophically flooded. We watched from a distance as the city was trashed, its people drowned, degraded, and dispersed, its vitality destroyed, and its viability severely compromised...

'The little record collection I had put together from buying CDs at gigs and at a French Quarter store called the Louisiana Music Factory acquired a whole new significance.

'I could no longer listen to these records without shuddering, but I couldn't stop listening to them (as I tried not to think the worst): We lost the city that was the pride of American music. To lose any American city would have been unthinkable. But to lose New Orleans.

'Dozens of our friends were displaced as New Orleanians became a modern-day diaspora '

'African America (especially) took a terrible blow when the collective knowledge of black New Orleans was scattered to the four winds. Dispersing that population was like tearing up an encyclopedia in front of an electric fan...'

Fending Off a Truly Tragic Sense of Desolation

I'm one of those people who moved here in large part for the music, and I've been having a hard time the past three years, living through what seems like wave after wave of disaster and dislocation, denial and discouragement, a sort of psychic cocktail that combines post-traumatic stress syndrome with the succeeding stages of grief that might accompany any kind of ongoing loss.

In the past three years, I've gone for long periods of time, weeks, months, whole seasons, trying not to think about what's happened, what is happening, what it all means.

With the city I've come to know fairly well and love pretty well just completely overwhelmed, transformed, and apparently changed to its very core by forces beyond my own or most individuals' control, the temptation is irresistible just to put your head in the sand and make believe it's not happening.

If you can't stop what's happening, what's the point? Just this summer, suburban Metairie police, acting a missing persons request, discovered 'a skeleton partially covered by a blanket' in the upstairs bedroom of a man's home. The skeleton belonged to his 81-year-old father, who had likely died a natural death, perhaps a year earlier.

Police immediately took the homeowner into custody, sent him to a local hospital for an eight-day evaluation, and then released him. A retired project manager for AT&T and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, the man had lived next door to his father for more than 20 years, and every weekend, father and son regularly had lunch together.

Reporters later learned that roof damage to the man's home sustained during Katrina had gone un-repaired, that power to his home had recently been cut, and that he had been caring all this time for a 31-year-old mentally handicapped son.

Why had he simply left his father's body there? Why, police wanted to know, had he not reported his father's death? 'He died,' the man told reporters. 'I couldn't deal with it, so I just left him there. I blocked it out of my mind. I just don't know ' I can't explain what happened.'

Faced with a far lesser toll of personal loss and stress, I have nonetheless felt a lot like that man for long stretches of time over the past three years. After visiting the city regularly for nearly a decade, I moved here more than eleven years ago, living for most of that time in a funky old rented carriage house in the heart of the Lower Garden District.

If you visit New Orleans and take the streetcar ride out St. Charles Avenue past the Garden District and all the big mansions, you'll recognize the Lower Garden District as a kind of unseemly commercial strip you first must ride through after leaving downtown and before encountering all that exquisite 19th-century architecture.

Across St. Charles Avenue from where I lived is one of the largest concentrations of poor black neighborhoods in the city, an inner-city landscape that has been home to New Orleans black street culture for centuries.

And when I first moved here, I loved following the frequent second-line parades through those narrow, ancient streets, raucous parades that snaked their way through residential neighborhoods while black citizens of New Orleans came pouring out of houses all around to check out the scene, walking block after block after block to find the parade.

In those neighborhoods where I would normally go to see second-lines, a long-standing and benign sort of third-world poverty prevailed, one rooted by succeeding generations having been raised in the same location and one made livable by the existence of vast networks of family, friends, and acquaintances.

Today, that benign sense of poverty has given way to a truly tragic sense of desolation.

'Keep in Mind, I am Still Fighting-(but) on my Own Terms'

Just the other day, a friend with whom I share a love of American popular and folk music and one who has come to visit a couple of times asked if I knew, of the many incredible musicians he'd come to know about while visiting here, which had left in the past three years and which had stayed.

I knew what he was getting at, but even if I had been able to answer his question, it wouldn't have helped much. While it's become abysmally clear what the forces intending to makeover this city in their own image have been up to, it's much harder to answer, in any real coherent way, how the deeply proud and long-suffering black community has been responding. It's hard even to get a firm handle on how many black folks are gone from the city and how many remain.

Estimates on people currently living in New Orleans vary widely, but you can still do the basic math. Prior to Katrina, the city's population was approximately 450,000. Recent surveys have estimated New Orleans' total post-disaster population at anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000. And before Katrina, New Orleans was two-thirds black; now it's roughly one-half.

So before Katrina, two-thirds of the total New Orleans population would have meant the city had approximately 300,000 black residents. And after Katrina, roughly one-half of an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 population would mean the city now has approximately 125,000 to 150,000 black residents.

That means a previous population of 300,000 has been reduced to somewhere between 150,000 and 125,000, with its relative proportion reduced from two-thirds to one-half, in a city whose overall population is now half white (with a small segment of imported Latino construction workers thrown in there somewhere).

Perhaps the clearest measure of the shift in New Orleans' black population--and the complexion of city life in as a whole--is the recent decision by Bishop Paul Morton, founder of Greater St. Stephen's Full Gospel Baptist Church, to shift his focus away from New Orleans in order to concentrate on building his congregation in Atlanta.

A leader in the 1990s 'full gospel' black Pentecostal movement, St. Stephen's had been one of the most notable examples in the country of the transition from old to new, a wave of contemporary revival that supported the rise and expansion of a number of media- and business-friendly mega-church organizations.

From a struggling, inner-city congregation with something like 500 members, St. Stephen's had skyrocketed in little more than a decade to a burgeoning and active enterprise with three multi-purpose campuses and a total membership of 20,000 located throughout the metro New Orleans area.

Reduced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to just 5,000 members in the greater New Orleans area (and even that may be an optimistic estimate), the church was forced to retreat back to the single structure of its original inner-city sanctuary--and even that was subsequently destroyed by an accidental fire this summer.

It would be wrong of me to imply in any way that I understand New Orleans' black community, either, even though I've lived here for more than a decade, have spent some time in the poorest neighborhoods, have friends who grew up in those neighborhoods and still remain true to their soul and spirit.

In fact, it would probably require a much longer article, and one written by someone more knowledgeable with greater degrees of hard-earned insight, to fully explain the variety of responses and complex motivations of New Orleans black residents in what is now clearly becoming the post-Katrina 'reconstruction' of the city.

I know there is a feeling that many, having been displaced, are now choosing not return, having found a climate almost anywhere else that offers better employment opportunities, better housing opportunities, better educational resources, and freedom from a long history of exploitation, subjugation, and exclusion.

I also know there are strong currents of political resistance here, running mostly very deep beneath the surface, expressed for a sustained period during the civil rights era of the late 1950s and early 1960s as visible and determined protests, then occasionally thereafter as outbursts of disgust, frustration, and resentment.

And I have come to realize there is a Southern temperamental instinct--very different from my Jewish New York default-instinct for outspoken protest--that prefers avoiding engagement, separating from the source of irritation, and concentrating solely on building refuges where there are sources of strength.

This may help explain--at least I think it does--why there has been no aggressive protest arising from local black communities in the face of what can only be seen as the post-disaster white transformation of a black Southern city.

I don't know what to call it exactly--deference, or maybe just keeping one's own counsel--but the sense of that response is captured, I think, in an e-mail I recently received from an acquaintance whom I also consider a sympathetic soul, a well-known musician both locally and nationally.

I won't identify him for both our sakes, because I'm pretty sure he would take this as an invasion of his privacy, and because I want to keep him as a friend.

I contacted him because I had learned that the state history museum's New Orleans headquarters is preparing to follow through on plans that would vastly increase the presence and profile of its music-related activities in the city. And in that regard, administrators have advertised for the position of music curator, a job for which this man would not only be well suited, but may well be the perfect candidate.

Here's what he wrote me: 'What I have come to realize is that what I definitely don't want and need in my life is more STRESS. My dealings with and observations (from serving on many boards, commissions, committees, etc., on local, state, and federal levels) of politics, bureaucracy, egos, lies and dirty dealing, etc., have completely turned me off of putting myself in those types of situations ever again.

'Frankly, I would rather play music on the street for tips to survive rather than deal with that kind of thing--and that's really too bad because I could probably make some real good things happen there. But my happiness is not negotiable. That's what THEY have done to people like me. But keep in mind, I am still fighting--and very much so; it's just that I'm doing it on my own terms, not THEIRS.'

Stand at a Cultural Crossroads in the Inner-city

There is an intersection of way back in the black neighborhoods of uptown New Orleans, where Washington Avenue crosses Lasalle Street, that I have come to see in my 20 years of visiting and living here as a major cultural crossroads, a meeting ground of enduring importance, the sort of geophysical power spot that spiritually motivated cultures often reserve for important community rituals.

Washington Avenue itself comes out of the tourist-friendly Garden District--passing directly by Commander's Palace restaurant (the high-walled and photogenic St. Louis Cemetery just across the street) before heading straight north toward Lake Ponchartrain.

Lasalle Street is a continuation of Loyola Avenue, which comes out of New Orleans' downtown business district--passing by the Superdome before heading upriver in an arc parallel to St. Charles Avenue, for just a short stretch along the way becoming Simon Bolivar Boulevard, in honor of the great South American freedom fighter.

What has now become the the former site of the massive C.J. Peete public-housing project lies on the northwest corner of the intersection of Washington and Lasalle, and just across Washington, on the northeast corner, is the expansive A. L. Davis Park, a prominent site for Mardi Gras Indian gatherings.

In the oral-culture universe of black New Orleans, however, where nearly everything (and everyone) has both a formal name and a familiar name, neither of these landmarks is referred to by its official name.

In this case, the C.J. Peete housing project is known simply as the Magnolia, named for Magnolia St., which passes through what had previously been its boundaries. And A.L. Davis Park, renamed in 1980, is referred to by its original (and more evocative) title, Shakespeare Park, which commemorates a revered 19th-century city mayor.

Down Lasalle Street less than a block toward the west and directly across from where the Magnolia project used to be is the site of the famous Dew Drop Inn nightclub and hotel, one of the major stops on the national 1950s rhythm-and-blues circuit, a place of near-legendary proportion where nightly shows and a much-respected house band backed both local talent and national stars.

Down Lasalle less than a block toward the east, there used to be a little club called Kemp's, owned by Fred kemp, a former horn player in Fats Domino's band. When I first started visiting New Orleans almost 20 years ago, I used to like to come and see the young and rip-roaring Rebirth Brass Band here on Thursday nights, a completely different setting from their regular Tuesday night gigs at the Maple Leaf across town, with its Tulane-friendly crowds.

And after I moved to New Orleans more than a decade ago, I used to stop by Kemp's during the week to pick up a 'route sheet' (route rhymes with 'out' in New Orleans) --a hastily assembled list of planned stops that basically provides an outline of the planned route for the next weekend's second-line parade.

I liked getting my route sheet at Kemp's because I knew the next Sunday's parade would be just one of the many second-lines that year cascading straight up Washington, passing by the Magnolia's porches and balconies, built in such intimate contact with the street, and marking the same location where Mardi Gras Indians, resplendent in their great plumed feathers, would come twice or three times a year to honor their great cultural heritage.

Recognizing the Cultural Connotations of Subsidized Housing

When I first arrived in the city in the late 1990s, in fact, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Harold Battiste, who told me about growing up in the Magnolia projects.

Harold is a very interesting man now in his late 70s, a New Orleans musician, record producer, and visionary entrepreneur who started the first black label to be cooperatively owned by the musicians who also served as its studio band.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s when he was still a kid, he said, he could hear music from the Dew Drop most every night just sitting on his front porch. And told me about how he eventually hooked with another couple of boys who also grew up in the Magnolia, clarinetist Alvin Batiste (no relation) and drummer Ed Blackwell.

In college in New Orleans, Harold met and befriended Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and Branford, creating the nucleus for a New Orleans-based modern jazz movement. When they were young, Harold, Ellis and James all followed Ornette Coleman to Los Angeles, hoping to make their fame and fortune. Only Ed Blackwell stayed, becoming a much-in-demand jazz drummer.

Ellis returned to run his family's motel and raise a family. Harold eventually did become a Los Angeles-based producer for everyone from Sam Cooke to Sonny & Cher to Dr. John. And Alvin Batiste, who died last year, became in an influential clarinetist and even-more-influential educator at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

What I came to realize talking to Harold was that, within the cultural landscape of African-American New Orleans, the housing project projects and their associated landmarks were famous places where important people lived and treasured things came from--music, attitudes, a sense of community.

So it comes as no surprise that The Neville Brothers name-check the power nexus at Lasalle and Washington in 'Wild Injuns,' from the masterful Yellow Moon album and one the group's best songs about the Mardi Gras Indian tradition (in which their family has been intimately involved): 'All the Injuns head uptown,' sing those four powerful brothers, 'to meet in Shakespeare Park ''

And the Soul Rebels Brass Band, one of the most forward-looking and musically interesting entities to emerge from New Orleans in the past two decades, offering a socially conscious, reggae/Latin/hip-hop re-interpretation of the classic New Orleans street-marching band, gives a shout out to each of New Orleans major housing projects in the spoken prologue to their 1994 anthem 'Let Your Mind Be Free.'

'When we speak of 'Let Your Mind Be Free,'' the song's vocalist recites over a bed of rhythmic brass-band funk, 'first we speak about racial discrimination. Black, white, red, brown, yellow--it doesn't matter what color you are, because we all believe in the same Lord, and we all bleed the same color: red.

'We talk about world peace. We're talkin' about our brothers and sisters in South Africa, in Bosnia, in Haiti, over in Japan, in norther Iraq, in North Vietnam, in South Vietnam, over in Germany, Brazil, Russia.

'We're talkin' about here at home, in Washington, in Dallas, Seattle, Miami, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, we're talkin' about Pittsburgh, talkin' about everywhere in the United States ''the St. Thomas, the Magnolia, the St. Bernard, the Florida, Desire, the Fischer ' 'Let your mind be free ' 'Stop the killin', stop the killin', stop the killin', stop the killin'!'

'Disappearing' the Landmarks of Cultural Inheritance

At the corner of Washington and Lasalle, one of the constants over the past several years has been a Vietnamese-run neighborhood fish store that's occupied an open corner lot for several years now.

Sometimes I go there for a fried fish-and-oyster-and-shrimp takeout plate. The other day, waiting for my order, I leaned against the tiny shop's front floor frame and stared at the devastated landscape before me.

The Magnolia project has now been completely leveled, its multiple square city blocks wire-fenced in and a flimsy sign has been erected facing the Washington and Lasalle intersection that reads, 'C.J. Peete Redevelopment: Recovery in Progress.'

The FEMA trailer park that formerly occupied Shakespeare Park is long gone, but it's unclear whether the trailer park's infrastructure of power and sewer lines has also been removed. What is evident is pile after pile of construction gravel and sand wating to be used, along with piles of collected timbers and cobblestones.

Kemp's is long gone now, and some of the men who might have gathered in the midday refuge of its air-conditioning chilled near-darkness are hanging out further down the block in front of a corner quick-stop. Another group has gathered across Lasalle, under a majestic living oak.

A few kids shoot hoops in the street-side Shakespeare Park pavilion, where Mardi Gras Indians proudly display their beadcraft to the public on a chosen Sunday in the spring they like to call Super Sunday.

But what dominates the scene is blaring, sullen, hyper-aggressive rap music coming from a neighborhood sno-ball stand across Washington, facing the fish store.

Sno-ball stands are another local New Orleans custom, small-scale purveyors of sweet, flavored syrup poured over finely shaved ice, they may also sell other foods, including snacks, lunches, and desserts.

Next door to the sno-ball stand is a recently constructed, single-family bungalow, and on its front porch and steps neighborhood kids and young adults are assembled--maybe this is where the loud rap is coming from. It's hard to tell.

Various pedestrians and drivers stopping at the fish store also animate the scene, but any coherent sense of life happening here is eerily absent--I feel like I could be looking at life on the surface of a distant planet.

And I think about how much worse the local residents' sense of displacement and resentment is going to be once the spanking-new, post-modern, mixed-income housing of 'C.J. Peete Redevelopment: Recovery in Progress' gets built, and they feel even more like aliens in their own backyard.

Observing this scene it becomes even clearer to me: the loss of these neighborhood monuments means a treasury of cultural history has simply been 'disappeared,' made to vanish from both the physical terrain and the even-more-vivid plane of meaning and memory, imagination and possibility.

Urban Renewal: Mobile Gentrification Come Home to Roost

As I stare out at this now twice-devastated landscape, I can't help escape the realization that there is a direct connection between the dissection of urban neighborhoods to build Interstate feeder extensions and the scene of forced transformation at the corner of Washington and Lasalle that lies before me.

Tram Nguyen, executive editor of Colorlines magazine, in an article about the housing-project demolition in New Orleans, explains it pretty well.

'By the 1960s,' she wrote, ''urban renewal' and interstate highway construction were displacing tens of thousands in cities across the country. Affordable housing and community spaces were torn down to make way for highways that helped pipe economic growth away from the urban core and toward white-flight suburbs.'

The drain on resources only served to exaggerate the plight of trapped inner-city residents. Then, drugs became epidemic. And, after that, violence. In essence, a version of mobile gentrification come home to roost.

In the old, dysfunctional New Orleans, residents took comfort in poking gentle fun at the city's political, economic, and social shortcomings--shortcomings that, in fact, made possible the relaxed pace, varied texture, and consistently human scale of daily life that residents and visitors alike treasured almost beyond measure.

A small, funky dress shop uptown on Magazine Street even had it own T-shirts printed: 'New Orleans--Third World and Proud of It.' Now, the joke has become reality. And it's not so funny anymore.

New Orleans cast as a Third World capital seemed, in fact, to be the inspirational source for a local political campaign's clever strategy.

In her attempt to win a criminal court judge's seat in the fall of 2007, one of the candidates in the race sent out two separate and very different mailings this summer, one targeting voters in mostly white-populated New Orleans zip codes, the other targeting voters in mostly black-populated New Orleans zip codes.

The first brochure, highlighted in red, white, and blue, has the candidate smiling in several centrally placed photos and touts her record as a married mother of two, a long-time prosecutor under former D.A. Harry Connick, and the winner of a death penalty verdict in a prominent murder case.

The second shows the photo of a young unidentified African-American woman peering out a window over the caption 'We shouldn't have to live in fear of crime,' and lists the endorsements of seven well-known local black officials, including a state representative, city councilwoman, and criminal sheriff. That brochure contains no picture of the candidate or any mention of the fact that she happens to be white.

It's a brilliant strategy in its own way and if it fails this fall in New Orleans, the candidate might have more success with it in Rio de Janeiro or perhaps some other Third World capital, maybe New York City, or Bangalore, or even Dubai.

Because the notion of urban renewal in post-WWII America connects directly to the theme of globalization that will define--has already come to define--21st-century history.

And when we talk about globalization, we need to remember we're not really talking about a social or political movement, not even an economic phenomenon, developing organically from a preceding series of social or political or economic events.

Instead, what we're talking about is urban renewal--a set of policies being imposed on a variety of landscapes with a single objective in mind: gentrification.

In the case of urban renewal, those policies are imposed by federal and local agencies largely on behalf of local developers and contractors, but in the name of social betterment.

In the case of globalization, the policies are imposed by international trade councils largely on behalf of an exclusive cohort of trans-global corporations acting like nation states, with economic growth and social betterment promised on a much larger scale. In both cases, no matter what's promised, what's delivered is gentrification.

And gentrification is really just another version of the old European con game the founders of the American experiment naively hoped to transcend: class privilege.

The Privileged Few, Telling a Joke on the Rest of Us

The way this works, in a specific and subtle context, can be gleaned from an editorial cartoon that ran in the Times-Picayune smack dab in the middle of this year's Jazz and Heritage Festival.

It depicted two couples on either side of the frame. The couple on the left--scruffy, urban, bohemian--gestures back at the couple on the right--cheerful, suburban, and preppy, with tennis sweaters draped over their shoulders, him holding a tennis racket, her a martini glass. The caption reads: 'Those $50 Jazz Fest tickets really are attracting an undesirable element.'

What is this cartoon about? Never mind that it's based on a tired and uninspired joke. What's really interesting is that it actually serves to deflect attention away from the controversial issue it's purportedly trying to address. Which, in a nutshell, is the unabashed commercialization and gentrification of an event whose creative inspiration, early success, and core audience all shared an appreciation of local culture celebrating the achievements of 'common' people.

And as part of that 'event culture,' daily admission ticket prices purposely remained low, specifically to prevent their becoming a barrier to participation.

But now, it's the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell, with an Acura showroom at the center of the event's layout, corporate hospitality tents packed into the center of the site but away from major traffic routes, special pavilions outdoors and exclusive grandstands indoors for the high rollers, champagne and wine stands scattered casually about the festival grounds, and ticket packages, complete with parking, that run as high as $1,000 a weekend.

This determined gentrification of a 'people's' event is most-often justified by producers as a necessity to meet the growing costs of event production. But the kind of hyper-commercialization that requires hiring headliners like Billy Joel, Sheryl Crow, and Tim McGraw--national celebrities with no ties to anything vaguely resembling 'New Orleans,' 'Jazz, or 'Heritage--is a actually conscious choice, and one meant to attract a much larger audience of corporate hipsters who can afford to fly in for the weekend, book tables at the trendiest restaurants, hit the festival grounds for a couple of hours, and then tell all their friends what a great time they had last weekend in New Orleans.

There's clearly a certain amount of guilt attached here--turning what is mostly poor peoples' culture into an entertainment backdrop and spending lure for mostly rich folks--but focusing on daily ticket prices hitting $50 last year, itself a distraction from the main topic, was the best that public discussion in New Orleans could do to recognize what has been, for more than a decade now, one of those 'there's-an-invisible-elephant-standing-in-the-living-room' kinds of issues.

(I was actually tempted here to make a point, by way of exaggeration, that would have involved asking just how far it might be to go from Billy Joel, Sheryl Crow, and Tim McGraw as headliners to several years down the road accepting Seigfried & Roy, Celine Dion, and Janet Jackson as upcoming Jazz & Heritage Festival headliners, but then I thought, I really shouldn't do that, it's too cruel).

At any rate, what's not funny about this year's Jazz and Heritage Festival cartoon in the Times Picayune--the only 'critical' comment the paper has made about the city's second-largest tourist event in more than decade--is the cartoon's intended subject of derision and the intended audience for that derision.

If you think about it, it's a kind of double-hinged joke, actually. On the surface, it's asking us to laugh at the bohemians. And it does this by making the yuppies absurdly stereotypical.

But what happens if we substitute corporate hipsters for the unrealistic yuppie couple? The comedic balance-of-power suddenly shifts. Now we see the joke for what it really is.
While seeming to be a little joke about ticket-price complaints, it's actually an attack on anyone with the slightest hesitation about rising ticket prices, homogenized entertainment, or using poor folks' culture as a spending lure for mostly rich folks.
Not to mention the downside of being used by corporate sponsors.

Shell's apparent 'good-will' gesture in becoming the named sponsor for the Jazz & Festival, for example, has to be seen as an effort to win favor in a Gulf Coast region where it has, since 1983, dredged away 22,000 acres of coastal wetlands. That figure comes from the Gulf Coast Restoration Network, an activist group based in New Orleans which recently presented the Shell Corporation with a $362 million bill, payable to the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund, for the damage it has caused.

So the inability to address an uncomfortable cultural issue becomes an editorial cartoon. And the editorial cartoon then becomes a joke, not about the topic at hand, but simply about the anxiety related to raising any kind of discussion related to the topic.

And the joke then becomes, not a question about the behavior connected to the topic that could be under discussion, but an unspoken attack on anyone questioning that behavior. And an indication of how truly taboo it's underlying subject must be.

A Public Policy Void in the American Vision of Culture

Faced with the possible extinction, from unprecedented threats, of a rare and valuable form of local cultural expression that you've come to know and love, it's only natural to want to make some sense of it all, try and draw some clear lines of causation, maybe even assess blame and determine exactly where things seem to have gone wrong.

But there are two main problems with that impulse. The first is denial. As author Joan Didion made abundantly clear in 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' her recent memoir about the critical illness of her daughter and unexpected death of her husband, anyone's first instinct on first being confronted with the possibility of death is simply to deny it. And after it happens, to make believe it hasn't happened, even if you know better.
New Orleans without musical parades, Mardi Gras Indians, and jazz funerals? Impossible.

The second problem is the larger political climate in which we live. Americans simply cannot imagine any role for government--federal, state, or local--in the perpetuation of local arts and culture. Yes, we have the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, and yes, we have a strong network of state arts agencies. But these function mostly as afterthoughts, really, to the commercial marketplace, which we naturally assume will provide us with all the art and culture we need.

This is not the basic assumption in European countries or, for example, in Canada, where a friend recently told me, the Montreal Jazz Festival has become a monstrously successful and stimulating example of what a world-class cultural event can be, especially if it's primary source of support is a federal subsidy of $15 million. We just don't think that way.

And so, what do we miss? The great American playwright Arthur Miller, author of 'Death of a Salesman' among many others, shortly before his death was asked if he had any misgivings about his life. Only one, he said.

He wished he hadn't been forced to really on commercial theater, Broadway, to support his plays, because he would have written more of them. England, he pointed out, has state-supported theater; we don't.

So, there is a huge void in American public policy related to sustaining local culture. Which helps explain, but only in part, why neither the city of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana has ever been even the least bit involved in promoting or sustaining music in the state, until most recently when it became clear promoting local culture would support the tourism industry, but only if the culture itself became self-sustaining.

In the earliest years of jazz, actually, New Orleans' own newspaper of record, the Times-Picayune, ran what has famously come to be regarded as one of the most condescending and dismissive editorials rejecting jazz ever published.

Woody Allen continues to play clarinet, as he has for decades, every week in Manhattan with his New Orleans Jazz Band not because the city of New Orleans recognized the value of its local music heritage and helped sustain it, but because that heritage was re-ignited by the 1940s traditional New Orleans jazz revival, which led to a 1950s commercial Dixieland boom, the 1960s establishment of New Orleans' celebrated Preservation Hall, and the 1970 founding of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, with Woody Allen as one of the first celebrity visitors.

But the 1940s traditional New Orleans jazz revival wouldn't have happened were it not for a half-dozen avid record collectors on the East and West Coast who came looking for an old black man living and working out in the cane fields west of New Orleans--early jazz trumpeter Willie 'Bunk' Johnson--then fitted him with teeth, bought him a trumpet, and brought him to New York, where he royally held court nightly at the Stuyvesant Casino on Second Avenue for almost two years.

You Really Can't Blame the Jazz & Heritage Festival

Absent any real civic involvement, the most prominent single institution on the New Orleans cultural landscape that's been directly related to sustaining and promoting the city's unique musical heritage in the 20th century is its annual Jazz & Festival, an event whose rise to public awareness closely mirrors with the city's musical renaissance from the 1970s forward, with their paired success from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s practically synonymous.

From that perspective, it's hard to resist the implication clearly suggested at the beginning of this article by juxtaposing a neighborhood jazz funeral being squelched in a poor, black neighborhood even as the Jazz & Heritage Festival itself profits substantially, at the same time and just blocks away, from its association with that jazz funeral's cultural roots.

If the Jazz & Heritage Festival doesn't bear some responsibility for ensuring the survival of local street culture, then who does? But the truth is, it's not a fair question. While apparently accurate, the assignment to the Jazz & Heritage Festival of responsibility for the health and welfare of local New Orleans culture is an illusion created by conveniently forgetting the festival's ultimate mission: to attract tourists. Founded by a consortium of hotel managers in the late 1960s, the festival's seemingly close relationship to the city's cultural vitality is also a product of founding producer George Wein's creativity and vision.

By that time, Wein had already established himself as a standout jazz-event producer based on the great national success of his 1950s Newport Jazz Festivals, but he'd also been hired to help produce the 1960s Newport Folk Festivals. And it was from these that he came to understand the possibilities inherent in combining music, food, and crafts in an open-admission, daylight setting that emphasized cultural celebration.

Handed a clear mandate by tourism leaders and relying on his extensive knowledge of the variety of musical strains native to New Orleans and southern Louisiana, Wein created a template that eventually made him fabulously wealthy and influenced the mounting of large-scale music festivals all around the world.

But Wein's vision had never contained any element of social responsibility. So, it should have come as no surprise to music and local culture advocates, really, when the New Orleans Jazz & Festival began gravitating in the mid-1990s toward the values and assumptions of the mainstream entertainment industry--all the better to draw more people, and more people with higher incomes (not to mention helping to elevate the career possibilities for everyone involved behind the scenes).

Ten years later, in fact, the New Orleans Jazz & Festival is just one of a handful of events built around star-studded musical performances that chart the annual New Orleans tourism calendar, including both the 4th of July Essence Music Festival Presented by Coca-Cola (appealing to the new black upper-middle class) and the late-October Voodoo Music Experience (a raunchier, louder, and more youthful version of the Jazz & Heritage Festival), among others.

In fact, the real story of New Orleans' cultural survival throughout the 20th century is based on three essential elements, all working together: culture sustained by deeply rooted and long-embedded communities, a radical subculture of champions and advocates who emphasize the value of that overlooked culture and help bring it before a wider audience and finally, a commercial marketplace open to the possibility of further enhancing the value of that culture while, at the same time, profiting from it.

The problem is that we too often forget the linkage between these elements. In the same way that it would be far too easy to assign the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a degree of responsibility in the dilemma now facing local culture in post-Katrina New Orleans. By forgetting the original source of motivation, we far too often assume that by participating in the marketplace as consumers and rewarding the suppliers of our immediate cultural experiences with time, attention, and money that we are, at the same time, supporting the source of that cultural experience.

Consider, for example, the MasterCard Roots of Rock Sweepstakes, a putative sweepstakes 'contest' that ran July and August this past summer. Surely you've run into it, as the marketing has been nothing short of blanket saturation, but assuming you've managed to avoid it, or noticed it but haven't bothered to check it out, here's a quick run-down of its more-salient details.

If you register for the sweepstakes or even just use your MasterCard during July and August, 'You could be one of five winners of a priceless rock experience. Plus, earn double entries when you tap to purchase using your Master Card PayPass.' Whatever that is.

And what do you win? Nothing less than a trip for four--with round-trip airfare and four hotel nights--including a VIP pass 'to meet your choice of Jon Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney, or Eric Clapton, and see him perform where he got his start.' Not to mention a 'special tour of the places that inspired your Roots of Rock idol growing up, in Surrey, England, Sayreville, New Jersey, or Nashville, Tennessee. All in all, says MasterCard, 'an awesome prize package.'

Awesome? Maybe. And 'priceless'? Possibly. But, what about just plain tasteless? It doesn't take a rocket scientist--or a cultural historian, for that matter--to see this clearly as a huge corporate scam that has nothing really to do with 'the roots of rock.'

And that's assuming you can even swallow the basic notion that stadium-filling, corporate-sponsored acts like Kenny Chesney, Jon Bon Jovi, or even doddering, old Eric Clapton in his mainstream superstar years bear any kind of resemblance at all to a culture largely defined by teenage rebellion and social innovation. But we would never think of challenging something like that, would we?

An HBO Series Coming Soon: New Orleans' Endangered Music Heritage

Here's another good example. It was front-page news here this summer when HBO announced it would finance the pilot for a prospective series created by David Simon, the much-lauded writer/producer of the now-concluded HBO series 'The Wire,' a gritty police drama set in inner-city Baltimore.

Simon wants to call the new series Tr'm' (never mind having to endlessly explain the pronounciation) and his idea is to focus on the local New Orleans music community in order to explore a variety of social and political themes related to the rebuilding of the city. So, that should be great news, shouldn't it?

Well, it should be, but just think about it for just a second. 'The Wire' was an astonishingly well-written and well-made dramatic series that focused, in succeeding years, on international drug smuggling through the port of Baltimore, drug dealing on the streets of Baltimore, and the failing Baltimore public-school system, all with amazing nuance, authenticity, and compassion.

But who benefited from 'The Wire' in the end? Has drug smuggling in Baltimore been affected? Has drug dealing been decreased? Are school failures on the decline?

On the other hand, David Simon, who began his career as a Baltimore daily newspaper crime reporter, can now go on to attempt a high-profile cable series based on New Orleans' treasured music heritage. Without really knowing much about it.

And the series will be broadcast on HBO, practically the poster child for privatizing national culture and equating quality of experience with economic privilege.

Watching anything on HBO raises the essential question of how it came to be that we have now commonly accept being charged a premium on top of an already-inflated cable TV fee to see what everyone used to be able to see on any given night of the week at a neighborhood movie house for the cost of any ordinary hamburger: high-quality filmed narrative without commercial interruption.

'If we do it right,' Simon explained to reporters following the HBO announcement, 'the show will be about why New Orleans matters.'

But Simon could get it right as rain--every nuance, every detail, every casting decision, and every seasonal theme absolutely correct down to within a 100th-of-an-inch tolerance--and the roots of New Orleans local musical could just as easily keep on dying even as he's filming a sixth and seventh and eight blockbuster season.

The Last Practice of the Mardis Gras Indians?

But how do we even know the roots of New Orleans' musical heritage--having survived, in fact, for something like 250 years--are truly in danger of dying right now? Surely, it might seem alarmist, or even just presumptuous, to suggest the notion might deserve greater discussion and concern without some convincing evidence.

And how would we even know if these so-called 'cultural roots' had died? How do we know when a culture dies? And finally why, after all, should we even care? Aren't there far more important problems that need out attention?

The quick-and-easy answers to these valid and thorny questions? We don't know. We may not know. And you're right, we have no reason to be concerned. But we do know a few things.

We know that--from early jazz pioneers to rhythm-and-blues mainstays to late-century jazz revivalists, or, in other words, from Louis Armstrong to Fats Domino to Wynton Marsalis--no city in the world during the 20th century produced a more-influential popular music legacy than the city of New Orleans.

We also know the values of the local musical culture--close-knit families and a longstanding social environment, public celebration and and a preference for personal expression--have provided a foundation for this unparalleled resource.

And we know that both the heritage and its foundation are being undermined on several fronts, whether they be political, social, cultural, or commercial. We know, too, that the fortunes of this tradition have plummeted significantly twice before--once during the Great Depression and again during the Age of Disco--but have never been under attack before from so many sides.

And I can tell you this. As part of the Mardi Gras Indian ritual practice of 'masking' on Mardi Gras Day--a ritual that involves working tirelessly all year long, day and night, creating a single costume each and every year the likes of which have never been seen before--there is a month-long period of what are called 'practices.'

What these amount to are social nights in Indian neighborhoods where each 'tribe,' or social unit, holds what is essentially an open house in its home bar, while other tribes from other neighborhoods come to visit. These can be casual or they can be very formal.

One year when I first moved here, a friend from Copenhagen who leads a Danish band that plays New Orleans music (like nobody's business) decided he wanted to delve deep into the Indian practice circuit, and I went with him.

Basically what goes on at a 'practice' session is a kind of dress rehearsal for what happens in the street when two tribes meet.
Salutations are exchanged, and both tribes take part in the singing of ritual songs from a repertoire that is that are part chant, part rap, part rhythmic groove, and all filled with a coded language--jock-a-mo-fee-na-nay, jock-a-mo-fee-na-nay on a Mardi Gras Day! --whose meaning is both obscured by the sands of time and highly valued by practitioners today.

The structure of many of the songs is the same. A chanted chorus or verse becomes the backdrop against which an elder of the tribe spontaneously chants verses that praise the Indian traditions and often extol the virtues of his particular tribe.

This singing/chanting is accompanied by a core aggregation of percussionists who use the most basic instruments--maracas, tambourine, cowbell--to create a kind of hypnotic dance groove that fills the room, encouraging all present, whether veteran or newcomer, to join in on various call-and-response choruses, repeated refrains, or by adding to the groove with their own percussive instruments.

Then, a space is cleared in the center of the gathering and younger members challenge each other in a series of ritualized dance/martial arts exhibitions. After that, a second series of songs/chants fills the air and the visiting tribe leaves for its next appointment.

After a couple of weeks, we'd seen practices small and large, peaceful and almost violent, hectic and sublime. We also figured out who the up-and-coming tribe was that season because the tribe's 'big chief,' a young, stocky, vibrant fellow, took to announcing his presence at practices slickly dressed, arriving in a stretch limo.

One my favorite memories from that season of Mardi Gras Indian practices was watching one night in a medium-size bar with a moderate-size crowd as the Mardi Gras Indian 'chief of chiefs,' Alison 'Tootie' Montana, leaning under a low-hung light against a vibrantly green pool table, generously shared his knowledge and wisdom with a young, dreadlocked African-American composer, Hannibal Lokumb' in town on an extended artistic residency.

In the three years since Katrina irrevocably changed the face of the city, there have been second-lines, though fewer in number and sparsely attended, and there have been Mardi Gras Indian events, though fewer and sparsely attended. But there has not been a single Mardi Gras Indian practice.

Ain't Nothin' Like the Fake Thing, Baby

The truth is, though, if you came to the city today, you'd be hard-pressed to accept even a fleeting notion of the argument that local New Orleans musical culture post-Katrina is somehow at a tipping point.

If you came to the city today you'd see a vibrant, evocative place clearly designed to attract and welcome visitors. You might also see surrounding it an old, sprawling Southern city that's still lying largely in ruins, but you'd be returning to the smaller, denser, more-suburban core at its heart, and that core would be basically running full-tilt boogie.

And you'd see that there's still plenty of music around. You'd see and hear more music than you could ever imagine back home, in fact, no matter you've come from. You'd hear it piped into the airport terminal as soon as you arrive, and every time you leave your hotel to set foot on the streets of the French Quarter.

And you could read a column of nightclub listings in the daily newspaper that would seem inordinately out of place for any other city of a proportional size.

You might even see a street parade or catch a Mardi Gras Indian appearance. Second-lines, after all, are still being held regularly in backstreet neighborhoods, and Mardi Gras Indians still appear on their elected holidays, while the images of both are still everywhere in the marketing and celebration of the city.

You could easily put all this together with the assumption that the residents of New Orleans, both white and black, having survived adverse conditions for centuries may have become genetically predisposed toward perseverance and persistence, and that both they, and their music, will survive this, too.

You could. But you'd also need to take into account a pair of long-term perspectives that might influence your outlook significantly.

First is the generally accepted assumption--among residents and 'experts' alike--that a reasonable time frame for the post-Katrina rebuilding of New Orleans is not something like five or ten years, but more like ten or fifteen years, meaning it will take at least that long to finally restore the city to full capacity.

Second is the understanding that history has for some time been tending away from the actual restoration of life and space, of community and culture, and tending toward the rendition of facsimile versions of all these things in the name of restoration.

Once you notice it, you can see this almost everywhere you turn, from the idea of New Urbanist architecture to the idea of blogosphere 'communities,' from the tourist face of New York City to the 'community space' of private shopping malls, from the synthetic cultural splendors of Las Vegas--America's fastest-growing city--to the synthetic cultural splendors of Dubai--the world's fastest-growing city.

We have somehow, through a subtle mix of complacency and self-interest, allowed ourselves to either be bullied or conned into a situation where absolutely nothing sells like fake goods, and nothing attracts our attention quite like fake culture.

There is no real drawback to this state of affairs, save one. It's not hard to read the cultural and political history of the entire 20th century as a narrative informed by the dynamic of alienation, beginning in the U.S. with the populist and anarchist movements at the turn of the 20th century and concluding with the Islamic jihadist movement worldwide at the beginning of the 21st century.

In fact, Scottish historian and Harvard University professor Niall Ferguson made this a tenet of his 2006 'counterfactual' thesis, 'War of the World,' recently aired as a three-part PBS history series.

As national boundaries become more permeable, Ferguson suggests, the economic disparity between rich and poor in a globalizing economy will more clearly define population shapes in the 21st century. And where the borders of those shapes meet, alienation, expressed as religious or ethnic or economic resentment, is more likely to catalyze into world-threatening violence.

If that's the case, you'd think it might be in the long-term interest of all political, social, and economic forces to promote a sense of cultural well-being, especially among people who feel threatened. You might think, in other words, that supporting the understanding and well-being of local culture virtually anywhere could help reduce the long-term potential for world violence. But we don't think that way.

A Highly Gestural, Spirited and Joyful Facsimile

Which is precisely why, if the roots of New Orleans musical culture--intact since the first boat load of African slaves docked at the city's Mississippi River harbor almost 300 years ago--were to finally disappear from the backstreet neighborhoods of the city forever, you would never know.

First of all, it would happen so slowly and so imperceptibly, there would be no reason to call attention to it at any crisis point along the way.

And second, it would replaced by facsimiles of varying authenticity, hired natives, trained actors, terrible imitators, so the idea of its presence would still be there.

What would a New Orleans without its native culture look like? A lot like it looks today. Consider this: As the city's annual Jazz & Heritage Festival has morphed over the past decade-and-a-half into a big-box cultural extravaganza designed mainly to appeal to mainstream Americans, the number of stages devoted exclusively to native New Orleans culture--of the dozen or so scattered around the festival site--have been reduced to two.

One is directly opposite the Acura new-car showroom, where festival producers first thought to put a native American performance and craft area. It seemed like a good idea.

If you're going to start selling out the soul of a great American music festival, the least you can do to distract attention away from the point-of-sale and, in your own way, make amends with a gesture of respect toward the ultimate natives of the land.

Just one problem: native American music has nothing whatsoever to with any of the musical heritages or styles on display virtually everywhere around the festival site, and even a three-year-old could hear that.

So, a more-finely-calibrated strategy was deployed: how about a stage devoted to second-line brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians and the like? Besides, we're not really doing anything important with the space.

About a hundred yards away from this improvised, outdoor stage is a venue that's been part of the Jazz & Heritage Festival layout at least since I started attending 20 years ago, a large tent whose purview is mostly traditional New Orleans jazz.

When I first attended the Jazz & Heritage Festival, I think it was called simply the Economy Hall Jazz Tent, or something like that, in a gesture to the names of the old-time dance halls in New Orleans, which had names like Economy Hall. Today it's known as the Economy Hall Tent Presented by Peoples Health, in a gesture to yet another large corporate sponsor.

And when I first began attending the Jazz & Heritage Festival, both the music presented and the audience present in the Economy Hall tent represented a pretty wide range of styles and interpretations of traditional New Orleans jazz.

Over the years, though, it seems to me, both the music and the audience have grown whiter. It's a reflection of one of those weird anomalies of the New Orleans cultural heritage--the highly commercialized version of New Orleans known as Dixieland tends to attract an ultra-conservative audience.

Today, the Economy Hall Tent Presented by Peoples Health is generally packed to the gills and the bands playing are both black and white, but the audience is mostly white, and at its core is a resident group that's taken to decorating their own little umbrellas and jumping up at the least provocation to lead their interpretation of a second-line parade, highly gestural, spirited, joyful, but nothing whatsoever like the real thing.

That's what a restored New Orleans run by a white majority and focused intensely on tourism would look like: highly gestural, spirited, joyful. But nothing whatsoever like the real thing.

And how would it feel? Probably by that point, having America's most culturally rich city rebuilt as a facsimile of its former self, complete with parades and Indians and music everywhere, but real culture no longer in existence would simply be ironic, and not much more.

Unless, of course, you happened to care.

New Orleans, Louisiana
August 2008

marjackson's picture

Do they have banner design troop for this event as a group? How could they classify if they belong to that group?