Fade-Out: Jazz Fest and the African-American Future of New Orleans

| Wed May 17, 2006 10:10 PM EDT

Following Tuesday night's contentious debate between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and white challenger Mitch Landrieu, yesterday's Washington Post had a disturbing story about the changing face of New Orleans: whiter, richer and with far fewer blacks. African-Americans' neighborhoods are still devastated and too often they can't afford to return. It's not only a personal tragedy for those who lost their loved ones and for those who now can't return home, but a cultural and economic tragedy for our nation as well.

Just over a week ago, I returned from Jazz Fest, and all the infectious music in the clubs and at the festival couldn't hide the ongoing ruination of New Orleans. Yes, the reviews are in for the New Orleans Jazz Fest that finished on Sunday May 7th, with the media arriving at a consensus story-line: "New Orleans Jazz Fest emerges triumphant," as USA Today reported. But even as the musical outpouring from stars ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon to Irma Thomas and other local treasures provided a sense of joy and hope to enormous crowds, the memory of the lost lives and devastation of Katrina was never far from the surface. The glorious music or the crowds of young revelers packing Bourbon Street with their beers and hurricanes in hand couldn't mask the underlying desolation of a city with large swaths still in ruins, whether it was the crushed roofs planted atop cars in the Lower Ninth Ward or the block after block of abandoned and ruined homes, eerily quiet with a few white FEMA trailers scattered among them, even in the more affluent, recovering Lakeview area.

Outside of a few tourist sites, parts of the city were like a ghost town, having lost more than 60 percent of its population, mostly African-Americans – from 455,000 to about 150,000 people. Even in the once-bustling Jackson Square section of the French Quarter, where brass bands, solo musicians and street-vendors once plied their trade (and where George Bush promised to "do what it takes" to restore New Orleans), the place was nearly empty. Hotels and restaurants, the backbone of the city's essential tourism industry, were severely understaffed, scrambling to find workers because potential employees – and those who want to return -- can't find a place to live.

"Make Levees, Not War" was a slogan featured on T-shirts and buttons at Jazz Fest, but it was a viewpoint that hadn't had any impact on government policy or the city's fortunes. Less than half of the city's 3,000 restaurants have reopened. Convention business has plummeted, and the lost revenue won't be recouped by the new Gray Line tour, "America's Worst Catastrophe," that takes busloads of tourists through lakeside areas devastated by Katrina – although they're barred by city law from touring the wrecked black slums of the Ninth Ward. And even if the Army Corps of Engineers manages to repair the levees to a pre-Katrina level in time for the hurricane season that starts in June, there's no assurance that it will be enough to protect the city from future flooding.

"Don't let nobody fool you," a cab driver warned me. "After Jazz Fest, everything will be dead."

But for now, the still-struggling city could put on its best musical showcase, the French Quarter tourist mecca remained largely unscathed by the flooding, and there were oases of life and music scattered throughout the city that could make you believe, at least for a few hours, that New Orleans was back. Here are some snapshots from New Orleans you may have missed:

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On the Thursday night before the final Jazz Fest weekend, the spirit of traditional New Orleans was being kept alive in a club called Vaughn's Lounge in the Bywater neighborhood adjoining the Mississippi River. Most of the Creole cottages and Victorian doubles that give this artsy-flavored neighborhood its charm had remained surprisingly intact, but on the drive up to the nightspot my friends and I could see the clear signs of destruction -- and a city that still couldn't manage some basic services. There were red Xs on some abandoned or ruined homes, marking that they'd been searched after the flood for survivors and damage, while trash and debris piled up near several street-corners. But once inside the ramshackle club's side-door entrance, the crowd of locals and music-hungry visitors were jammed alongside the long bar overlooking the small dance floor area, underneath the silvery fake garlands and twinkling Christmas lights, and they heard stomping jazz and R&B that could almost make you forget about Katrina.

Here was the heart of the music that made New Orleans a cultural landmark. The Treme Brass Band, propelled by the drumming of the legendary 85-year-old "Uncle" Lionel Baptiste, wearing shades, suspenders and a bowler hat, powered through an exhilarating gumbo of swinging jazz standards and classic New Orleans second-line songs. "I'm going to New Orleans," the barrel-chested coronet player and front-man sang, "and we're going to jump and shout!" Then he launched into a soaring instrumental break that drove the crowd wild, backed by a tuba, two saxes and trumpet. The determination of these musicians to play against all odds, however, hasn't been matched by the dithering of government officials in rebuilding New Orleans.
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The signs of decay became clearer as an air-conditioned Festival Express bus whisked tourists from the downtown area to the Jazz Fest grounds at a race-track. Over 100,000 cars were abandoned during the flooding, and hundreds and hundreds of them were towed underneath the freeway overpass, a seemingly endless stretch of rotting cars, smeared with dirt from the floodwaters, a melancholy reminder on our way to a music celebration of all the lives that had been shattered by Katrina.

But once on the festival grounds, you could see musicians – 4,000 in all performed over the two weekends – who were creating joyous music that was almost an act of defiance against the forces, both natural and man-made, that brought them and their city down. A band of traditional jazz musicians snaked among the crowd in a second-line dance, wearing white uniforms and hoisting blue parasols aloft. At the Southern Comfort blues stage, a heavy-set New Orleans refugee and blues belter, Marva Wright, now living in suburban Maryland, told the crowd after singing "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On": "Our band, we're scattered all over the place, but we're here right now. If I sound a bit flat it's because I'm full of emotion, but I'm not going to cry." She brought her family onstage, including her brother-in-law who had returned to rescue her from her house that nearly floated away. She added, "I'm going to do this next song for my friends who are still alive – and the friends who didn't make it." Then she launched into a bluesy, impassioned version of the Gloria Gaynor classic, "I will survive," and changed the lyrics near the end: "We will survive, New Orleans, we will survive!"
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But will New Orleans ever really be New Orleans again if its black community has been decimated? To Jan Ramsey, the extroverted co-publisher and founder of New Orleans's music bible, Offbeat Magazine, the future of New Orleans music in its hometown may be in doubt. Her entire staff fled town, but she was able to rebuild her magazine with pledges of lifetime support from longtime subscribers and backers. But from her booth on the pathway to the gospel and jazz tents, she looked around at the party-hearty, overwhelmingly white crowd and mused, "Jazz Fest is sort of a fig-leaf. You don't see black people here." Nearby, the African-American members of Smitty Dee's Brass Band played on the Jazz and Heritage Stage, and Ramsey observed, "Where is that going to come from? They don't teach that in the schools. They learn to play from the Mardi Gras Indians and the brass bands: it's a musical community. But they don't have a place to go back to." To that end, Tipitina's Foundation seeks to find housing and help for New Orleans musicians, and Habitat for Humanity's Musicians Village aims to build over 200 homes in the Upper Ninth Ward. That will help some of today's displaced musicians, but what about future generations? The natural resource that is the music of New Orleans is not an endlessly renewable one without the people who made it possible.

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The city's musical heritage continued to show its drawing power for a new generation of musical fans, especially young jam-band devotees who flocked to hear the New Orleans groove in those nightclubs that still remained. At the Howlin' Wolf, a brilliant white hipster purveyor of funk, Papa Mali, brought on stage with him iconic New Orleans musicians, including a world-weary Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles "tribe." Earlier in the day, word spread how he lashed out during his Jazz Fest set at the government failures and the suffering that had devastated his city, and so tonight, Boudreaux was going to try to offer a more upbeat tone. But there was still an undercurrent of anger and sadness even as he chanted some of his standard second-line songs over an insistent beat: "I need no trouble when I go downtown!"

Afterwards, he talked to me about how he lost everything in Katrina and went to Texas, but now was living with a daughter in New Orleans and working to fix up his old place. Perhaps thinking of future tourism, he adopted a more boosterish tone than before: "It's coming back," he said of his city. Even the black kids, he hoped, would return to New Orleans this summer -- and stay -- when school was over in other states.

The economic might of New Orleans music, its centrality to any recovery, was demonstrated forcefully at a sold-out concert featuring the reunited Meters, with guitarist Leo Nocentilli and keyboardist Art Neville, at a vast 20,000-square foot warehouse space adjoining the Contemporary Arts Center. At $35 a head, with the Robert Randolph Band as opening act, the Meters packed the space with a few thousand partying young people squeezed together and pumping their fists along to the syncopated, layered sounds of this 40-year-old group. They never had a Top 10 pop hit, but they laid the foundation for much of funk and hip-hop with songs like "Cissy Strut." When they sang about "Fire on the Bayou," it was meant as a tribute to street-corner good times, but now sounded more like a clarion call to overcome disaster.
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On the final day of the festival, there was a thunderstorm shortly before Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, came on stage, but it stopped just in time for her to open with one of her poignant regional hits, "It's Raining." Many of us saw it as an omen that miracles were possible, even in a downtrodden New Orleans. Irma lost her nightclub in the flooding, and sang with passion a song from her latest album: "My house is a lonely house…Now the rain falls around it, and loneliness surrounds it, and I'm in the middle of it all." She looked down, barely holding in her grief, and afterwards told the crowd, "I sang this song to let you know that we're all hurting, but we have hope."

That blend of emotion was never more evident then when she came out later to join Paul Simon and Alan Toussaint in Simon's encore number, "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Her powerful vocals brought new life to such lyrics as "When you're down and out…I will comfort you." She gave a special gospel-rooted urgency to her singing of the lines, "Your time has come to shine/ All your dreams are on their way/See how they shine!" But, outside the celebration on the Jazz Fest grounds, it seemed just as likely that the people of New Orleans, still essentially abandoned despite assorted government promises, could face a fate that Simon sang about earlier in his haunting "American Tune": "I don't know a dream that's not been shattered or driven to its knees."

One much-expected sign of renewal was soon crushed: Fats Domino was too ill to close out the festival, although he came on stage to greet the crowd and apologized for not playing.
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Yet if there was a reason for hope, it was going to be found in places like Bullet's, a cramped neighborhood sports bar serving the remaining black community in the Gentilly neighborhood near the fairgrounds. During the first week after Katrina hit, the Bullet family kept the bar open, cooking food from a freezer with a grill and giving it away to survivors while sheltering elderly neighbors in an upstairs apartment. On the night Jazz Fest ended, the bar was thick with emotion and memories as the mostly middle-aged black residents packed inside for a homecoming and celebratory jam session featuring some returning musicians now living on the West Coast, saxmen Kirk Ford and Reggie Houston, joined by Irma Thomas's lead trumpet player. This was the real New Orleans, the jazz soaring and blending for the mostly hometown crowd, and after one particularly hot solo, Ford leaned forward, resplendent in a white suit and fedora, and crowed into the microphone, "New Orleans, we're back!"

By the time the tall, bald-headed showman Houston led the band marching down the aisle with his soprano sax to the boisterous melody of "Darktown Strutters' Ball," the club, now rocking with something beyond happiness, had been transformed into a magical haven where, for now, no storm could touch them.

Ever since Katrina, this bar had become, more than ever, their new home, and the cornerstone of the community they hoped to rebuild, especially if the rest of the country does its part to help. As the bar's owner, Rollin "Little Bullet" Garcia Jr., a short, self-effacing man, once told a local reporter, "Everybody is a shoulder to lean on, and once we get enough shoulders together, we form a wall. And no floodwater can breach that wall." Let's hope that he's right, and, despite the long odds, that the spirit found that night in Bullet's can somehow be used to help fuel New Orleans return to greatness.

UPDATE: My friend, author and filmmaker Tom D'Antoni, was my guide to the clubs and hidden treasures of New Orleans, and he has his own powerful essay at Huffington Post on what he saw and felt during our trip to New Orleans, accompanied by me, his wife Karen and his close friend, sculptor Michael Leckie. It's a must-read.

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