main: February 2007 Archives
So that smiling guy I keep running into at my new morning coffee hang, Cafe Rose Nicaud (the name has historical resonance) is Chuck Perkins, a poet and the MC/host of local variety shows at Donna's and Bacchanal and elsewhere.
So yesterday morning, he lays this one on me, recited from memory:
"This is for my melody makers"
This is for my artist of virtuosity
Who kept the music in the mystery
For my artistic vanguard
Who came back when times were hard
Who sometimes came back to nothing
But still came back
Underrated and uninsured
Putting theirs horns where their mouth was
This is for my buck jumpin
Second lining my people back home
Forgive me readers, for I have sinned.
I lured you in with a promise of regular dispatches yet then turned away. Well, I was on my way back down to New Orleans to start a three-month (mostly) stay. I'd just heard Mos Def at Brooklyn Academy of Music, kicking off the "Brooklyn Next Festival" (which runs through 2/24), for which he led a well-honed big-band including not just a jazz-based rhythm section -- pianist Robert Glasper, bassist John Benitez, and drummer Chris Dave but also -- not coincidentally to my ongoing focus (the primacy and reach of New Orleans roots), a New Orleans-style brass band from Chicago called "Hypnotic". The fact that the bottom end of Mos's music was held down by electric bass and tuba is a point I may return to.
And I wanted to relate a bit about the panel discussion I led at BAM, also part of the "Brooklyn Next" affair, wherein I shared not just my affection for the Brooklynites Cecil Taylor and Betty Carter, but for the loose collective of jazz musicians who gathered in my borough in the late 1980s and early '90s -- Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Geri Allen, Graham Haynes, sometimes Dave Holland, among others -- and searched for a musical consciousness free of then-nascent neo-traditionalist fundamentalism. (I'll get to all that, promise.)
Ah, but I was on one of those Jetblue flights. And who'd have thought that the airline that gave me free TV, an armchair remote, and cheap headphones would ever let me down! That emailed apology/confession from Jetblue founder David Neeleman didn't do much for me (even its "Passenger Bill of Rights" fell short; I'll wait for a free round-trip, thank you.
Speaking of fundamentalists, maybe my headlines today owe too much to representatives of the Christian evangelical organization "No Greater Love" who stood in Jackson Square, amidst the French Quarter's developing decadence as Mardi Gras Day approached, holding huge scroll-like signs: "Forsake Your Sins And Find Jesus Now." One guy (and they were all men) clutched two housing beams intersected to signify crucifixion (man, what a cross to bear).
The drinking and debauchery went on unabated in the Quarter, but I was here to witness subtler and more meaningful intersections of faith and sin, order and chaos, and ties that bind in a city where Piety and Desire are consecutive streets.
blame it on bush.
I still don't -- two days after Mardi Gras, and despite the fact that I gave up drinking long ago -- have the time to spill it all out here with regard to my first Mardi Gras (strange, since I've been coming to NOLA for some 20 years now). I'm under the gun to head over to Dillard University, where California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, will lead a field hearing to address the post-Katrina affordable housing crisis in the Gulf Coast region: To write about musicians in New Orleans (hell, to consider anything here) is to think about housing (and crime and politics and funding and fairness...)
So I can't tell it all. I can tell you that much of Mardi Gras has to do with parades. If you think you know about parades, but you have not been to New Orleans (or, say, Brazil, or Cuba, or other key African Diasporan cities), well, you don't know about parades. (Lolis Eric Elie's recent and excellent column in the Times-Picayune
can help outsiders grasp some of the significance.
I can tell you that to walk from the Convention Center, where the Krewe of Orpheus (Harry Connick Jr. rode as King) was readying their costumes and floats, over to Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River, where The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club held its 15th annual Lundi Gras (day before Mardi Gras) festival, is to gain more than a little insight into the divisions of race and class that punctuate this city's story.
I've trudged less than gracefully, kicking and screaming in fact, into this blog, as I have into most of online experience -- hell, I still turn pages when I read newspapers. (For a more lucid and well-adjusted example of such a struggle to adapt, see Scott McLemee's inaugural address on his "Quick Study" blog.)
But Doug McLennan's invitation (not to mention his patience as I've dodged and delayed) was too inviting to pass up. And it's precisely what I need to get across what's on my mind, in my heart, and quickly filling up my hard drive -- on two fronts.
ListenGood is a sorry play on that old quote attributed to Duke Ellington, about there being just two kinds of music -- "the good kind" and "the other kind." Back when I edited a music magazine, I made sure that I covered all the "good" stuff I wished to, or at least that I assigned it to my favorite writers. (The bad stuff fell to less fortunate souls). As a freelance writer, I find that often I don't have the time or the publication space to cover some worthy music; to put a positive spin on it, there's so much good stuff that it will naturally spill over into this space. But ListenGood also refers to qualitative sense of our own experience of music: Beyond the "thumbs-up, download-this" sense, there's so much to consider embedded within the sounds we hear -- stories and codes, quotes and ideas, mumbled asides that, maybe, add up to meaningful commentary and unexpected connections. With any luck, I'll get into all that.
Normally, the above would involve an ongoing account of music (mostly jazz) heard in any number of New York City venues or drawn from the CDs in my Brooklyn office, and of formal and informal NYC interviews. But for the next three months, I'll file from New Orleans -- a home-office-away-from-home-office -- as I delve more deeply into my research as a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute...
...Which brings me to the next (and right now, primary) focus of this blog:
Listen, and listen good to the voices -- musical, social, and political (and, in the course of my musings, I'll explain why these categories cannot be parsed) -- from New Orleans. For all the ink spilled in the past 18 months about the post-Katrina reality (and can we really call it "post"-Katrina, when it's still lived every day?), surprisingly little has been said, is being said, about the cultural consequences of this ongoing crisis. I wrote the following two paragraphs nearly a year ago, for a piece in The Village Voice. Yet I could have written them yesterday -- or two three days ago, after my arrival back New Orleans:
Stick to the "Sliver by the River," the high-ground neighborhoods along the Mississippi's banks, and you might think New Orleans is healing. Take a taxi from Louis Armstrong Airport to the French Quarter and you'll find scant evidence of Katrina's wrath. Sluggishly approaching its former self, the Quarter again boasts coffee and beignets, music and mystery.
New Orleans is two cities now--one inching toward renewal, the other caught in what David Winkler-Schmidt of the local Gambit Weekly once called "the horrible unending of not knowing." Gambit's music section lists favorite clubs hosting favorite bands, many of whose members still travel from Houston or Baton Rouge for gigs, or who live in temporary quarters, perhaps with family, maybe even in a FEMA trailer. The great body of culture that long inspired and still shapes the sound of American music--in the form of jazz musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-liners, neighborhood brass bands, and up-from-the-projects MCs-- remains stuck in that unending.
In January, I presented a panel discussion called "Jazz, Politics, and American Identity" at the International Association of Jazz Educators convention. When clarinetist and educator Dr. Michael White had to cancel due to another engagement, I decided to leave the chair empty, for the "elephant in the room," -- or maybe for the brass-band musicians who were among thousands of New Orleans residents approaching City Hall in protest of violent crime and a lack of police protection at the very moment I began addressing the audience at a midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom.
New York's thriving jazz scene and the jazz-CD marketplace exist as entertainment industry and aesthetic construct. The only true jazz culture -- where the music evolves while maintaining its social function -- is in New Orleans. Ideas that we love to invest in as abstractions -- the commingling of joy and pain embodied by blues, the spirit of improvisation as applied life's challenges, the relationship between jazz-band organization and images of democracy -- are being lived out in real time through hard times.
It's no accident that when Marigny District residents met to plan what turned into a 5,000-strong January 11th march protesting violent crime and a lack of police protection, they gathered at the Sound Café, a coffeehouse that hosts weekly performances by brass-band musicians; participants took turns voicing their ideas by passing around a feather-laden Bayou Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club fan, which they used as their "talking stick."
I'll be posting a few times a week, sometimes more often, with accounts of things seen and heard as well as links to in-depth interviews. And among the links I'll give you will be an ongoing on to Cynthia Joyce's excellent CultureGulf blog on this site.
So I'll have one foot in the ongoing story of cultural crisis and opportunity in New Orleans, the other in the flow of jazz and good music in general, especially in New York: Since I think that adds up to one unbroken terrain, I shouldn't come apart too painfully in the process.
It was a touching display of hope stacked upon hope. A circle of family, friends, supporters, teachers, students (and a few of us journalists) gathered for a brief ceremony, a site dedication for the future Guardians Institute next to the home of Herreast Harrison, at the corner of North Johnson and, appropriately enough, Independence.
On a block that's still relatively desolate, Herreast, who lives in a trailer beside her partially rebuilt house, dug a shovel into her yard and envisioned a future "a safe haven for children, and a place where cultural traditions are supported and authentically transmitted." At her side was her daughter, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Counsel Queen of the Guardians of the Flame tribe, who has worked in a variety of contexts -- at the Albert Wicker School, where she teaches, and widely throughout the Mardi Gras community. (Alison's Fensterstock's piece for Gambit Weekly offers further background on Cherice.)
"Something deep within your soul calls you to do this, to participate in Mardi Gras Indian culture," Cherice told me. "It just calls you and you've got to do it for your mental and physical survival, and for the welfare of those around you." (She's captured an important slice of that tradition with her documentary, "Guardians of the Flame: A View from Within").
Herreast's son Donald Harrison, the jazz saxophonist, was in New York for a gig. But he'll be back in New Orleans in time to lead the Congo Nation tribe, of which he is Big Chief, on Mardi Gras day. But Kevin Cooley was there -- the five-year-old who leads the Young Guardians of the Flame tribe (perhaps the youngest Big Chief in Indian history).
Herreast Harrison explained that in furthering tradition, her institute was an extension of the legacy of her late husband Donald Harrison, Sr., who was during his life chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Educator and historian Al Kennedy, who has written a fascinating book about public schools and New Orleans musical traditions, offered a tribute drawn from his forthcoming biography of Donald Sr. (and posted here with the author's permission):
The ranks of Mardi Gras Indians are still depleted due to post-Katrina displacement. But if Sunday night's practices were any indication, they'll be out in force this year, and in better numbers than last year.
The Wild Magnolias whooped it up with fervor and plenty of embedded political messages at a new place called Handa Wanda's (The empty lot next door used to contain the H&R Bar, the tribe's revered headquarters, writer Roger Hahn informs) -- and when Big Chief Dollis arrived, the crowd parted reverentially.
More informal, and even more touching, was the scene led by Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Darryl Montana at the former Fox's bar, on Pauger and Marais Streets, where practices were once held by Darryl's father, Allison "Tootie" Montana.
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
Dave Douglas: Greenleaf Music
point of departure
Jazz Journalists Association
Steve Smith: nightafternight
Willard Jenkins: Open Sky Jazz
music/food/justice in NOLA
Howard Mandel's JazzBeyondJazz