August 2007 Archives
I arrived in New Orleans Thursday, and I've barely rested since. I'm ambivalent about the whole "Katrina Anniversary" thing: one the one hand, it seems shallow and crude and beside the point; on the other, markers are makers and, when it comes to journalism, pegs are pegs. And so many smart and hard-working people in New Orleans are making use of this moment to highlight what's right, what's wrong, and what's needed. The president is here already, I think. He's supposed to speak somewhere or another tomorrow: It will be hard to get anything across over the hollow ring of his promises at Jackson Square in 2005.
I worry that the piece I just filed for Salon.com is too downcast -- there is so much good and positive going on every day here. But it's true and accurate and I mean what I say about culture leading the way. The rains come and go here lately -- light, refreshing and utterly unthreatening. Then it breaks, and the sun burns piercing hot. And I keep forgetting to leave extra time to talk to people I bump into in the street. It's like that here...
Apologies to Fats Domino for stealing his line -- especially since I'm flying, anyway, on JetBlue. But these rains threaten to slow air traffic to a crawl anyway. I'm heading back to New Orleans for another long stay--probably through October, to pick up where I left off on stories that continue to unfold, mostly about The Fight for Music in New Orleans and What That Means.
I'll arrive in time for the build-up to the second anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina, the levee breaches, and the floods -- all of which I anticipate with both dread (those network hacks looking for shots of desperate souls and still-wrecked houses, those politicians fronting fraud) and inspiration (the chance to break through the Iraq-presidential race-Paris Hilton headlock grip on media, and to mark a day of recognition for a city still in need).
I'll try to make sense of what I can in a piece for Salon.com on Tuesday.
I'll miss Erica, who's staying here in Brooklyn, most of all. I'd say that I'd miss the end of summer in New York but summer seems gone now. I'll miss out on attending Max Roach's funeral Friday at Riverside Church, which promises to be not just a worthy tribute to a seminal hero but also a gathering of musical masters.
But I've also missed NOLA: the cool folks at the Sound Cafe and Rose Nicaud in the morning; the musicians on Frenchmen Street and uptown and all over at night; the smart, committed nonprofit workers and ordinary people inspired past ordinary acts in between, no longer fighting a wave of water or even its immediate wake but instead a rising tide of unnatural obstacles, obdurate bureaucrats, and complacent inattention; the hellos in the street from perfect strangers who mean it.
Anyway, time to pack. I'll write soon.
Max Roach died yesterday at 83, silently in his sleep. But from his teens until his death he was gloriously unsilent as a drummer, composer, bandleader, organizer, activist and fearless creative soul. Roach was one of those few who helped define what bebop sounds like but who transcended that and every other category.
It was hardly coincidence that Roach was at the drums for seminal or especially revealing recordings such as the late-1940s work by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners," and Duke Ellington's "Money Jungle." As the drummer for Sonny Rollins's 1958 "Freedom Suite" and as conceptualist-composer-drummer for "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," Roach displayed a conscience and relevance one wishes jazz could muster in these troubled times. And Roach's acts of empowerment in collaboration with Charles Mingus -- founding Debut Records, launching an alternative jazz festival in 1960 to protest the Newport jazz Festival's policies -- stand as inspirational markers for similar acts of independence by artists today, from John Zorn to Maria Schneider.
Wherever they go these days, musicians from New Orleans spread not just their time-honored sense of spiritual joy and rhythmic magic but also a newfound message of purpose and conscience. I reflected on all that anew, and on the deep connections between New Orleans and so many other American cities when I was asked to write a program note for an August 24th free concert at Chicago's lovely Millennium Park featuring the New Orleans Social Club and some very special guests. The City of Chicago is to be commended for taking the time and care to invite nonprofit musician-aid organizations, such as Sweet Home New Orleans, to participate in their event thus lending important context to the story behind the band. My program note recalls the formation of the Social Club and includes some post-Katrina reflections from Irma Thomas and Ivan Neville, so I thought I'd post it:
Terence Blanchard's story, as told through his horn:
For the past twenty years, Terence Blanchard's music has supported Spike Lee's stories. Now, inspired by Lee, Blanchard tells his own tale, furthering both his own artistry and the healing process throughout New Orleans. Blanchard's new CD, "A Tale of God's Will"(Blue Note, out 8/14) adapts the music he composed for Lee's HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke" into a suite for jazz ensemble and chamber orchestra -- a purely instrumental statement about New Orleans in the wake of the floods that, to my ears, is the first sophisticated expression of its kind.
Unlike iconic trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, who left New Orleans for fame and for good, Blanchard returned to his hometown at the apex of his career a decade ago. Blanchard followed Marsalis into the trumpet chair of drummer Art Blakey's band, and in making the move to New York at a time when record companies were snapping up "young lions" (especially those from "jazz's birthplace"). Though Blanchard lacks Marsalis's media profile, his music has reached well beyond jazz's core audience, perhaps more so even than Marsalis's: Blanchard's is the musical signature for some three dozen feature films, including all of Lee's work since the late 1980s. (He played the trumpet part behind Denzel Washington's character in "Mo Better Blues," and did an onscreen cameo in "Malcolm X.")
With his working jazz quintet, Blanchard's trumpet distills the curled phrases and bent tones of his New Orleans predecessors without a hint of throwback or caricature. And his responses to the tragedy of Katrina -- through his music, as an educator and administrator, and in conversation -- are strongly voiced, finely nuanced, and free of the strange mixture of positive spin and utter resignation one gets from many New Orleans musicians.
Terence Blanchard's story, in his own words: the following excerpts are drawn from a piece the trumpeter wrote, to appear in the October issue of Jazziz magazine.
(On his new CD:)
The making of my musical requiem, "A Tale of God's Will," brought on its own flood -- of memories in Katrina's wake. Immediately after the hurricane, I think we were all numb. We were trying to make sense of it all. I remember that when we realized we couldn't go home, we felt as if we were trapped in a bad dream. Here we were, Robin and me, at the DoubleTree in Atlanta with our two girls and some family friends, trying to figure what was the next move. Meanwhile, I'm still trying to find my mom. Our friend Leslie said she was going to Colorado to stay with her brother. My nice Neana was going back to D.C. We had a place in L.A., so we figured we should go there. We quickly bought tickets and, leaving our car and truck in Atlanta, flew to L.A. This entire time I'm thinking, What the hell is happening in my home? Where is the help? How come the city is still flooded? Where is my mom? And how the hell did those levees break? I remember feeling helpless and hopeless.
We all rely on our government to give us the basics to take care of our families. We expect our government to protect us from harm. After kissing our asses for votes, we expect them to keep their most essential promises. Not so.
(On the present and future in New Orleans:)