Back in New Orleans. The humidity is so thick just now that you could cut right through it -- not just with a sharp knife but with the kind of blunt object La. Gov. Bobby Jindal must have taken the state's budget in attempt to prove himself to doubting Republicans. Whether his Draconian cuts, especially to social services and the arts, will restore Jindal's standing as a candidate-in-waiting for the GOP in 2012, they've had immediate effects in New Orleans: I've been here less than two days and already I've met two mental health professionals who've lost their jobs as a result, in a city that desperately needs such services, and a filmmaker whose funding never made it through.
Louis Armstrong once famously called segregationist Ark. Gov. Orval Faubus an "uneducated plowboy." I wonder what he'd make of Creationist Jindal were he alive today?
Armstrong is very much alive in New Orleans this weekend during the annual Satchmo Fest
, especially in three days of seminars that delve into all things Armstrong, with speakers including Robert O'Meally and George Avakian. More on that to come...
My own small contribution to the consideration of Armstrong today is this piece in today's New Orleans Times Picayune
, based on a trip I took with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NY. When looking for the spirit of Armstrong, and within it the distilled essence of New Orleans life, Ruffins is a great start. One of the greatest pleasures of my work is to share in moments of deep reflection and fresh awareness with musicians: This visit was one such moment. And for those whove questioned it--No, we really did not realize that it was the anniversary of Armstrong's death
. And the trip was all the more intense for that obliviousness.
Armstrong spoke out about Gov. Faubus and Pres. Eisenhower ("The way the they are treating my people down South, the government can go to hell," he said to one reporter in 1957, after canceling a State Dept. tour to the Soviet Union in light of the riots in Little Rock). His sentiment seems echoed by trumpeter Terence Blanchard regarding the Bush administration and the experience of Katrina. "I know they say you're supposed to respect the office, but the office didn't respect us," he told me during a panel discussion at Lincoln Center last month, while explaining his snub of a Bush White House invitation for a Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz event. You can find that and other excerpts of the event on the Journal's wesbite
Blanchard's own new CD, Choices, stems in some ways from experiencing the ugly choices made by those in power during the Bush years, but also about the inspiring choices made by many of Blanchard's colleagues and neighbors in New Orleans since the flood. It is not just a terrific document of Blanchard's maturity as a player, composer and bandleader, but also a wonderful example of how modern jazz can seem, well, modern (as in relevant and vital) in 2009.
For the project, Blanchard and his band recorded rough tracks and sent them to Dr Cornel West (who, writer/producer David Kunian quipped to me, "is the black intellectual who didn't get arrested." Blanchard sat with West in the professor's Princeton office, and the two discussed a wide range of subjects -- from Beethoven to John Coltrane, Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama -- and kept coming back to themes of faith and of what kinds of choices we human beings have to make.
At the Ogden Theater in New Orleans last night, Blanchard and band premiered the music. Blanchard would occasionally step on a foot pedal, setting off sampled excerpts of West's commentary. He'd made the spoken words a part of the music. And it worked. Those weren't the only words: singer Bilal, who represents another jolt of freshness to jazz's sometimes malaise, performed two tunes of his own. The whole thing was being filmed for a forthcoming documentary by Rebecca Snedeker. The cameras and cranes and floodlights were all distracting and alienating at first, but only to a point: Blanchard's band got past all that in the way that real artistry always does.
I'll write much more about this music in weeks to come. But last night, underneath the gorgeous wooden cathedral ceiling of the Ogden's theater, with its beams that end in carved dragon's, Blanchard made clear choices and played with faith: The result was some sort of secular temple.