(I'm sure I'll steal from myself below in a future print piece, but I wanted to say this today):
On New Orleans, jazz culture,
and a renewed America...
When trombonist Glen
David Andrews sang "I'll Fly Away" during a memorial procession to honor tuba
player Kerwin James in late 2007, on North Robertson Street in New Orleans's
Tremé neighborhood, he ended up in handcuffs along with his brother, snare
drummer Derrick Tabb. The charges, eventually dropped, included parading
without a permit and "disturbing the peace in tumultuous manner," and the
incident fit part of a larger pattern of intimidation and stepped-up regulation
of time-honored black street-culture traditions in that city since Katrina.
Andrews offered up
that same hymn near the end of Spike Lee's 2006 documentary "When the Levees
Broke," changing up the final verse to state, "New Orleans will never go away."
"A declaration," he called it, in a moment of existential doubt for an entire
Andrews showed up again, in "Shake the Devil Off," filmmaker Peter Entell's 2007 chronicle of the post-Katrina fight to keep open St. Augustine church in Tremé, the oldest black neighborhood in this country, one that's long been a hothouse for jazz culture. (St. Aug is "The only parish in the United States whose free people of color bought two outer rows of pews exclusively for slaves to use for worship," according to the bronze plaque near its door.) In Entell's film, as activists gathered, the camera closed in on Andrews. He raised his trombone to play--you guessed it--"I"ll Fly Away," serving there as an urgent call-to-arms.
Onstage at Tipitina's in New Orleans tonight, as Martin Luther King Day ends, on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, Andrews will likely perform the hymn yet again, this time in an empowered moment of profound hope -- for real change in the fortunes of his country, his city, and his beloved Tremé neighborhood, as well as his own career and personal life. "I'll Fly Away" is among the ten stirring tracks on Andrews's new CD, "Walking Through Heaven's Gate," recorded in concert at Zion Hill Baptist Church--where Andrews was baptized, just down the street from the scene of that 2007 arrest. It's a powerful gospel album filled with the repertoire Andrews "learned while sitting in the third pew back," he says, and it testifies that much of what we celebrate as jazz culture grew out of black churches, in places like Tremé.
When I first met him in March 2006, Andrews could scarcely look up as he described his months "in exile" in Houston and the FEMA trailer he was sharing with cousins. "I feel ground down," he said. The following January, he looked out confidently from the podium during a thousands-strong march to City Hall organized by the local nonprofit Silence is Violence, following the murders of brass-band musician Dinerral Shavers and artist Helen Hill. "We are young black men preaching culture," Andrews shouted, following which a chant erupted: "Music in the school!" And at last year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he bounded down from the stage, gazed up toward the sky and gleefully announced, "It's my time."
Andrews takes the Tipitina's stage tonight around the same time another son of New Orleans, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, joins former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the Kennedy Center for "A Celebration of America." According to that event's promotional materials, "An all-star cast will illustrate that American democracy and America's music jazz share the same tenets and embody the same potential for change, hope and renewal, which Dr. King himself called 'America's triumphant music.'"
Nowhere in this country is the sense of jazz as a living culture--informing and uplifting daily life, transcending troubles and resisting subjugation, seeding renewal--as in New Orleans, where it has been said that "culture comes from the bottom up." If this music is indeed triumphant, it finds itself embattled still in its birthplace, which is itself in many ways fighting for its life.
I'd been coming to New Orleans for 20 years as a jazz critic and arts reporter. But I didn't really grasp the city's jazz culture until I began living there for months at a stretch during the past three years--dancing in second-lines, walking in funeral processions, tracking Mardi Gras Indians hen they took to the streets, seeking out the gigs that weren't advertised, or simply following the sound of a drum or a horn. Just as important to my still-limited understanding have been church services, school-band rehearsals, community rallies and street-corner conversations.
In many such contexts, the remarkable singing voice and commanding trombone sound (both powerful, direct, resonant, and with just enough rasp) as well as the disarmingly honest talk of Glen David Andrews have been consistent presences, sending out whatever the situation calls for--beauty, truth, compassion, anger, joy, or all of the above. In that, Andrews is both special and just one of a long line of blood relatives, neighbors and musical ancestors.
Andrews has made no secret of his struggles, whether thrust upon him or created by his own poor judgment. Yet through his talent and swagger, his passion and pride, and even his missteps, Andrews mirrors the city at large. "I'm trying to change how people look at me," he said recently, and I know in that sentiment he is not alone in New Orleans.
One recent sunny Monday, the morning after his live recording and the day before he headed off to a California-based rehab center, Andrews sat on a picnic table, his long legs dangling. It was the very spot of his funeral-procession arrest, now a grassy lot dotted with tables and benches. A freshly painted sign read, "Tuba Fats Square," in honor of a musician Andrews considers at the top of his long list of mentors: This was his community's response to that October evening--when 20 police cruisers flooded an intersection in order to bust up a procession and made the corner look more like a murder scene than that of a communal ritual.
"We were singing, lifting our voices to God," Andrews said. "You gonna tell me that's wrong?" He wondered about the future of the well his music draws from--the same one Marsalis and O'Connor will tap at the Kennedy Center tonight. "From St. Bernard all the way to the bayou, there was a bar on every corner with live music and a great juke box. That's just about disappeared," he said. "Still, to wake up or just sit here in the Sixth Ward in New Orleans is still to be blessed."
Glen David Andrews's story filled many column inches in the New Orleans Times-Picayune after his wrongful arrest back in 2007. Those news pieces and editorials were necessary and important. He deserves at least as much attention right now, free and unencumbered by controversy, sharing his inherited blessings. It's his time.
And it's time as well to honor the jazz culture of New Orleans, which is quite literally a triumphant gift to this country--one that informed the content of the characters of both Dr. King and President-elect Obama--in the most fitting way: By placing the city's still-pressing needs squarely on the agenda of a new administration. So musicians like Andrews will be supported, not cuffed, when leading a procession. And so the young musicians who so eagerly fall in line behind him will have a place in our parades tomorrow.
Can I get an amen?