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February 16, 2007

Um, this thing on?

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.

Posted by blumenfeld at February 16, 2007 12:00 PM

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Test-test-test-one-two-one-two . . . .

Hey, what a lovely thing to look forward to, since I can't afford and am not inclined to save up for a WSJ sub . . . I like the idea of Larry Blumenfeld embedded in New Orleans, providing us with reports from the front that will be contested long after we manage to bring the kids home from Faluja and Basra and Tikrit and Baghdad . . . how can it be that this catastrophe is happening on American soil, and we remain in the dark about it? Let the Midnight Special shine its everlovin' light on all the beautiful and agonizing stuff you are seeing and hearing down there, Larry.

La lucha continua . . .

Posted by: Pete K at February 17, 2007 1:55 PM

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