“It’s not just a party, it’s our life”: Jazz musicians led the way back to the city after Katrina — but what is this “new” New Orleans?
The spot where St. Ann Street dead-ends into North Rampart in New Orleans, the dividing line between the French Quarter and the Tremé neighborhood, was quiet on a Friday night in November 2005. Once alight with bulbs that spelled out “Armstrong,” the large steel archway that frames the intersection was dark, its white paint overtaken by rust. Beneath it, a thick, carelessly wound chain bound two iron gates, from which dangled a steel padlock. The whole assembly looked as if it was meant to secure some oversized bicycle rather than the entrance to a 32-acre city park modeled after Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and named for trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong Park was closed, had been since the flood that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina. You could see Elizabeth Catlett’s bronze statue of Louis, trumpet in left hand, handkerchief in right, but only from a distance through bars. Armstrong in prison, it looked like.
Or maybe this likeness of the trumpeter, who left New Orleans early in his career for fame and for good, was on the outside. Maybe all of us in New Orleans in late 2005, the locals who made their way back and those like me, who had shown up from afar, were locked away from something essential — a culture that has long defined this city and its inhabitants, and long helped its visitors find their true selves.
Aug. 29 will mark a decade since the 2005 disaster that we’ve come to know by the name Katrina — for the hurricane, a natural disaster — but that is more accurately understood as unnameable and unnatural, a failure of engineering and due diligence followed by a long wake of indifference or worse.
The media coverage surrounding this 10th anniversary will likely constitute its own deluge, dominated by maudlin memories of catastrophe and self-righteous hype about recovery. The conflation of past misery and present cheerleading came clear in New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s June appearance on MSBNC’s “Morning Joe,” to promote the city’s campaign, “Katrina 10: Resilient New Orleans”:
On-screen, stock 2005 footage showed fetid floodwaters and rescues in progress. Cut to Landrieu, in an interview, saying, “We’re doing great. We’re doing much better … It’s a redemption, an incredible comeback story.”
Within all the hoopla to come, expect trumpets and trombones and tubas and second-line parades in progress. The storied jazz culture of New Orleans will again provide prominent B-roll for TV.
That culture belongs in the foreground.
That’s the story I’ve been tracking. Now, a decade in, I want to know if those who most need and want New Orleans jazz culture now find themselves, amid all the rebuilding, estranged from it or feeling as if it may yet slip away.
In October 2005, I wrote an essay for Salon in which I wondered whether musicians and other culture bearers of New Orleans would return to their devastated city at all. I worried over the prospect of a Disney-fied Crescent City, or whether the whole place would be turned into a museum piece. I asked if the culture born in New Orleans — which Ken Burns’ PBS series “Jazz” famously cast as a signal of American values and virtues on the order of the Constitution — “still carried currency when it comes to the issues Katrina raised: identity, race, poverty and basic decency.”
In the long wake of the flood, the ranks of jazz musicians, the brass-band-led Sunday second-line paraders and the feathered-and-beaded Mardi Gras Indians — the key players of indigenous New Orleans culture — did not simply return. They came back sooner and in greater numbers than the rest of the population. They led the way, and have maintained a vital sense of continuity. Louisiana State University sociologist Frederick Weil, who surveyed 6,000 New Orleans residents, told me, “By the standards of civic-engagement literature, the members of the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs who sponsor weekly parades are ‘model citizens,’ scoring highest of any group. They are community leaders, supporting each other in times of need and providing concrete services.”
David Simon’s HBO series “Treme,” a fictional depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans, captured this truth. In its premiere episode, before a word of dialogue was uttered, a saxophonist licked and then adjusted his reed. Slide oil was applied to a trombone. Two black kids danced to a faint parade rhythm. An unseen trumpet sounded an upward figure, followed by a tuba’s downward groove. The scene re-created the first second-line parade following Katrina — a memorial for a local chef, Austin Leslie.
Simon told me then, in 2010, “Apart from culture, on some empirical level, it does not matter if all New Orleans washes into the Gulf, and if everyone from New Orleans ended up living in Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta. Culture is what brought this city back … New Orleans is coming back, and it’s sort of done it one second-line at a time.”
“Initially, New Orleans jazz was a reflection of a way of life,” clarinetist and professor Michael White told me back in 2006 at his office at Xavier University, while peering over a jagged pile that included the red notebook in which, during the weeks following Katrina, he jotted down the names and whereabouts of friends and colleagues. “It spoke of the way people walk, talk, eat, sleep, dance, drive, think, make jokes and dress. But I don’t think America ever truly understood New Orleans culture, because the mind-set is so different here. So that whole tradition was hidden from most of America.”
When I first got to New Orleans after the flood I was stunned first by just how much had been destroyed, and then later by just how little I knew. I’d been writing about jazz for 20 years. Yet I was profoundly ignorant about what it means to have a living music, one that flows from and embeds everyday life — a functional jazz culture of the sort that once existed in cities throughout the United States but now is exclusive to New Orleans. Before I spent months at a time in the city, before I spent countless hours with the people who make and support New Orleans jazz culture, I knew about but had not yet meaningfully felt the link to something fundamentally African, transplanted via the enslaved who passed through much of this hemisphere, who drummed and danced in Congo Square, a stone’s throw from where that Armstrong statue now stands. And I had no clue what a tenuous proposition this culture represents: What it was, is and maybe always will be up against.
“There’s a feeling among many of us,” White told me in 2006, “that some of our older cultural institutions, like parades and jazz funerals, are in the way of progress and don’t fit in the new vision of New Orleans, that they should only be used in a limited way to boost the image of New Orleans, as opposed to being real, viable aspects of our lives.”
Was New Orleans jazz culture welcomed back? Not exactly.
If there’s a culture war going on in the city, that’s hardly news. According to historian Freddi Williams Evans’ book “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” Congo Square was codified by an 1817 city ordinance that restricted drumming and African dances to a single spot. Skip to 1996, when a photograph of a protest march that ran in the Times-Picayune newspaper showed a teenage snare drummer wearing a sign: “I Was Arrested for Playing Music.”
The past decade lends a new chapter to such conflicts. In the years since the 2005 flood, tensions surrounding culture have flared. In 2007, a consortium of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs defeated jacked-up city permit fees for their weekly brass-band-led second-line parades in federal court, on First Amendment grounds. (“Should the law not be enjoined,” the complaint, filed on behalf of a consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, stated, “there is very little doubt that plaintiff’s cultural tradition will cease to exist.”)
Later that year, police busted up a memorial procession for a beloved tuba player in dramatic fashion, reigniting a long-standing fight over who owns the streets.
This narrative unfolded despite the city’s pervasive use of these traditions to rekindle a tourism business that, in 2014, hosted 9.5 million visitors who spent $6.8 billion (a record for visitor spending).
“We rose out of water and debris to lead the way back to the life that we love,” said Bennie Pete, sousaphonist and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, a local favorite, at a public forum on such matters in 2008. “It’s not just a party, it’s our life. We can sugarcoat it all kinds of ways, but the city looks at us as uncivilized. And that’s why they try to confine us.”
During the past few years, as a yet undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one, brass bands have been shut down on their customary street corners. Music clubs have increasingly been hit with lawsuits and visited by the police responding to phoned-in complaints. A revival of rarely enforced ordinances regarding noise and zoning has met a fresh groundswell of activism. All this has happened in the context of swift gentrification of neighborhoods such as Tremé, long a hothouse for indigenous culture.
The calls and responses of a storied musical tradition have often of late been drowned out by back-and-forth arguments over these matters. At issue recently have been noise ordinances, the implications of a new citywide Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (especially as to where and when live music is allowed), and one particularly contentious item, Section 66-205, which states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.” (Never mind that tourists arrive with the precise expectation of hearing music played on the streets at night. Or that a city attorney had already declared that curfew unconstitutional.)
The battles during the past decade over what would get rebuilt and what wouldn’t, who could return and who couldn’t, have in large part now given way to debates over the shape and character of the “new” city. Those who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission — targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space — know that the city’s future and character has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, who had expected to return and rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land grabs.
The wave of gentrification that has intensified in New Orleans during the past few years — especially as carried by what one writer referred to as “yurps” (young urban rebuilding professionals) — has been stunningly swift and dramatic. New Orleans has long held bohemian attraction: Now that allure is coupled with start-up cash.
In any city, gentrification raises questions: What happens when those who build upon cultural cachet don’t want that culture next door? The levees that failed represented an isolated confluence of chance, faulty design and neglect, and yet pointed to dangers lapping at all our shores; this story of an embattled culture is unexceptional in the sense that it suggests similar conflicts in other cities and common threats to our collective cultural identity. Yet in New Orleans, such concerns are underscored by a legitimately exceptional truth — a functional jazz culture that is, for many, elemental to daily life and social cohesion, and that the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau website correctly claims “bubbles up from the streets.”
During a press conference at last year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, Mayor Landrieu told me, “There is a way to organize culture without killing it.” Those words are either comforting or alarming, depending upon whom you ask. As David Freedman, the general manager of listener-supported WWOZ-FM (self-proclaimed “Guardians of the Groove”), told me, “An unintended consequence may be the death of spontaneous culture in New Orleans. Some may think this is good for tourism and development, but it is not good for the distinct musical traditions at the core of our identity.” As Alex Rawls, a veteran local music critic, said, “The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. The danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing.”
“In New Orleans, the music community has arguably been in a cultural crisis for two or three generations,” explained clarinetist Evan Christopher, who moved to New Orleans more than 20 years ago. “We have staved off cultural annihilation by embracing fictions in harmony with the tourism machine and smiled upon by the ‘New Right’ and their fetish for nostalgia. Post-Katrina, our community’s leadership was nowhere to be seen and before half of our city had returned, 80 percent of us came back with hat in hand. The utterance of ‘jazz,’ which should have represented a true strategy of transformation or an answer to revitalization, quickly became an empty slogan hung from street lamps.”
Beyond cultural policy is the stark reality facing the largely black communities that have long nurtured and still support the city’s indigenous culture. According to The Data Center, an independent research group based in New Orleans, there are 99,650 fewer black residents living in New Orleans now than in 2000. (The population is now 59 percent black, down from 66.7 percent in 2000.)
The Urban League of Greater New Orleans released data points from a forthcoming “State of Black New Orleans” report revealing that the number of black children younger than 18 living in poverty in the city grew by 6.5 percent from 2005 to 2013. (In 2013, more than 54,000 black children younger than 18 — 50.5 percent — were considered to be poor.) The Urban League’s statistics show widening inequity as well— an 18 percent increase in the gap between the median income of black households and white households in the city. Overall, more than 35 percent of black families in New Orleans now live below the poverty line.
“I think no one will disagree that there has been tremendous progress in New Orleans in many ways,” said Erika McConduit-Diggs, Greater New Orleans Urban League president. “You can tell that from bricks and mortar. But it’s more complex when you peel back layers and look at how African-American communities are faring. What was troubling for many residents before the storm is actually now worsened. We have relocated concentrated poverty.”
Lolis Eric Elie, a former New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist and co-producer of the documentary “Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” said, “My concern after the flood was that one catastrophic event might mean that this tradition that has endured would die out in one fell swoop. Now, my concern is that economic conditions make it increasingly hard for people to do these things because they require time, effort and money.”
The headline to a recent article in the New Orleans Advocate declared, “Katrina Scattered New Orleans’ Entrenched Social Networks Far and Wide.” Even those black residents who have returned to New Orleans now increasingly live in nearby suburban parishes, reporter Katy Reckdahl explained. “All of these departures have slashed at the city’s network of extended families,” she wrote, “the generations of children who stayed in the same neighborhoods, blocks or even houses one decade after the next.”
For Tamara Jackson, president of the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force, a consortium of the organizations that sponsor second-line parades, “Our culture is the one thing that keeps us bonded and united. The second lines bring us together, in our old neighborhoods, for four hours at a time.” But she wondered aloud: “Is the ‘new’ New Orleans for native New Orleanians, or is it for tourists?”
Jordan Hirsch, who was the founding director of the nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans, a grass-roots organization that supported indigenous culture in Katrina’s wake, told me, “In some ways, this geographic dispersal has compelled people to double down on these indigenous traditions. If you can’t walk out your door and participate the way you used to, well, you’ll work even harder to make it happen. Still, I don’t think we know yet how this will really work. The issues are sustainability and transmission of tradition, which used to come more naturally.” Complicating that picture is a near-total conversion of the New Orleans schools to a charter system, which buses students all over the city and may or may not continue a long tradition of school-band instruction.
New Orleans jazz culture was born in opposition to challenges, a subversion of racism and classicism. In the Tremé neighborhood in 2007, a few nights after the police had shut down that memorial, the two musicians who had been arrested led another procession. Glen David Andrews put down his trombone and sang “I’ll Fly Away,” as drummer Derrick Tabb snapped out beats on his snare. A tight circle surrounded the musicians, as a middle-aged black woman turned to the man next to her. “They say they want to stop this?” she asked softly. “They will never stop this.”
Yet there’s a creeping and newfound sense of alienation. “We dragged this city back,” said the Hot 8’s Bennie Pete, “and now we’re being shown the door.”
Not that new doors haven’t opened. “One of the things that changed for the good in New Orleans,” said Lolis Elie, “is an increased conversation about the culture.” In some ways, the issues surrounding New Orleans culture are more clearly defined right now, more out in the open; musicians and other cultural leaders may be a step closer to the bargaining table when it comes to city policies. That’s thanks in large part to the emergence of some grass-roots organizations. The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), which began with lunchtime meetings in 2012 at a club owned by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, seeks to “empower the New Orleans music and cultural community through collective self-representation advocating in the interests of cultural preservation, perpetuation and positive economic impact,” according to its website. It has served as a crucial source of information and advocacy. A board member of the newly formed nonprofit Crescent City Cultural Continuity Conservancy (C5) told me, “So much is changing so fast in New Orleans the cultural community is increasingly aware of the need to be visible advocates for aspects of the city’s identity that may well be drowned in the sea change that defines New Orleans, circa 2015.”
I’ll be honest. I’m ambivalent at best about this whole anniversary thing. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as a TV anchorwoman stood, microphone in hand, in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms.
I’ll never forget a moment during second-anniversary events, in 2007. At a “World Cultural Economic Forum” hosted by Mitch Landrieu (then Louisiana’s lieutenant governor), Denis G. Antoine, ambassador to the U.S. from Grenada, said, “If we’re taking about rebuilding New Orleans, we have to ask: Which New Orleans are we talking about? We have to talk about social values and an ancestral past. There is an anthropological aspect to the nurturing of a new New Orleans and this will help direct what is appropriate and what is not.” (Well said, I thought.) He went on: “New Orleans is a perception. When we talk about safety: How safe do you feel? It’s not just about crime, it’s about how safe do you feel to be you?”
When I returned to New Orleans to the mark the fifth anniversary, the word “resilience” popped up nearly everywhere—in city-sponsored press conferences, and on signs tacked to lampposts that read: “Stop calling me RESILIENT. Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re so resilient,’ that means you can do something else to me.” A stone’s throw from a just-restored Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts was that statue of Louis Armstrong, bound by ropes and secured by sandbags amid torn-up concrete and weeds, its base rusted and damaged—the unfortunate consequence of a renovation project initiated by then-Mayor C. Ray Nagin that had gone sour. Both statue and plaza have since been repaired, but in 2010 it seemed an apt image: In a city that has known devastation and government incompetence, can a celebrated homegrown culture once again find firm footing?
I suppose I’m still wondering.
Larry Blumenfeld writes regularly about jazz and culture for the Wall Street Journal, and at blogs.artinfo.com/blunotes. His Salon piece, “Band on the Run in New Orleans” was included in “Best Music Writing, 2008.” He will moderate a discussion, “Ten Years After: The State of New Orleans Music and Culture,” on Aug. 24 at Basin St. Station, in New Orleans. (The panel will be live-streamed by WWOZ-FM.)