Larry Blumenfeld: Homecoming on Muddy Ground

June 5th 2008 12:33 pm

Copyright © 2008 Larry Blumenfeld

By Larry Blumenfeld

Above all else it was a homecoming: The Neville Brothers performed at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. More good news: The event returned to its full pre-Katrina seven-day schedule. Still more: Though the heavy rains of the first weekend made a muddy mess of the Fair Grounds infield, they didn’t dampen spirits or attendance much. According to event officials, nearly 400,000 people attended the festival, held April 25-27 and May 1-4.

Given the emotional heft of their return, the Nevilles were the big story. Their presence built throughout the fest’s final weekend: first Art, in his debut solo set, inviting Aaron up to the stage at one point; then, Aaron, bringing many in a packed gospel tent to tears, his saxophonist brother Charles at his side; finally, all four — Art, Aaron, Cyril and Charles — together on the Acura stage to close the festival’s final day. Before that last performance, producer Quint Davis spoke of “families being torn apart, brothers separated from brothers all over New Orleans.” “The Neville family’s coming back together,” Art said from the stage. The crowd roared. The four then reprised the three decades of hits that made them such beloved stars in the first place.

It was an important symbol, no doubt. Though Charles has lived in Massachusetts for more than a decade, Aaron, Art and Cyril all lived in New Orleans before Katrina. These brothers in fact became separated from each other — and from the city that identified so powerfully with them. I remember being struck by Aaron’s son, Ivan Neville, on Sing Me Back Home, a CD by displaced all-star musicians recorded in Austin, Texas, six weeks after the storm: Covering John Fogerty’s Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, Ivan snarled, “I ain’t no fortunate son!” — and meant it. (If a Neville wasn’t entitled by birth, I recall thinking, who in New Orleans was?)

The effects of the floods that followed the levee failures are deep and lasting enough to strain even the Nevilles’ relationship with their hometown. Though Art returned to his Valence Street home as soon as possible after Katrina, Aaron remained in Tennessee, just outside Nashville, until his recent purchase of a home in Covington, La., near New Orleans. Cyril, the most outspoken of the four, is repairing his New Orleans home, and hopes to return soon. He’s been in Austin since Katrina.

In the days after Katrina, Cyril pressed many a sore nerve. He wore a homemade T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans” during his appearance on the televised “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy” benefit concert. His comments some months later to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter were widely repeated in national media: “A lot of things about life in New Orleans were a myth,” he said, largely in reference to the music industry. “Would I go back to live? There’s nothing there.”

Cyril is coming back to live, he says now. And when one considers the time frame and circumstances, his utterances seem perhaps excusable or even necessary. Still, the bitterness over all that, combined with frustration over the Nevilles having stayed away, led to resentment in some quarters of the city: The Never Brothers, some cynics (though I know none personally) called them. It may have been undeserved or overstated, but it was enough to prompt both columnist Chris Rose and music critic Keith Spera to rise to the brothers’ defense in the pages of the New Orleans Times-Picayune during the days preceding Jazz Fest.

“The decision by any individual — doctor, lawyer, homemaker, hotel maid, Neville brother — on when to return to post-Katrina New Orleans,” wrote Spera, “is based on what is perceived as the best option for their family’s mental, physical and financial well-being.”

But what about those who don’t really get to make a decision? All this Jazz Fest-prompted talk of “home” and “reunions” echoed in varying ways, depending upon where you were in New Orleans, and what was your situation. For many, three years after the floods, Cyril’s 2006 comment didn’t sound outlandish: There really was nothing there.

It seemed a cruel indignity, some mash-up of Dickens and Orwell, when, five days before Christmas last year, the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a HUD-ordered plan to tear down some 4,500 units of public housing. I was in New York, watching CNN as residents assembled outside near barricades and police lines. “If you know New Orleans, you’ll know how dilapidated these housing developments are,” said anchorwoman Kyra Phillips. “They’ve been crime-ridden, very popular for drug-running. … According to the mayor, this is an effort to clean up the city, have better housing for folks.”

Meanwhile, like some bizarre B-roll footage, we saw a live shot of protesters, mostly New Orleans residents who did not share that sentiment, being turned away with pepper spray; one woman fell to the ground after being Tasered. But we heard only Phillips. The residents were voiceless, as they’d been in the debate about demolition and rebuilding of public housing in a city hard-pressed for affordable homes.

By the time of Jazz Fest, and even as the cloud of impropriety that would cause HUD Secretary Alfonso Jackson to resign was gathering, bulldozers were unleashed on the city’s “Big Four” projects — B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, St. Bernard and, finally, despite an outcry from not just housing activists but also architects and cultural leaders, Lafitte. With them went those 4,500 public housing units, many of which are unlikely to reappear through the “mixed-income” developments on tap.

With those buildings — nearly all of which were structurally sound after the floods — now almost completely gone, there’s a notable deflation of energy among the ranks of activists who protested loudly last year. “It’s difficult not to be discouraged,” said lawyer and housing activist Tracey Washington. “There just isn’t the groundswell of support for this issue that there was before the demolition began. But it’s important to understand that this is about even more than rights and basic human needs. With the tearing down of Lafitte, we didn’t just tear down viable affordable housing for our working poor and working class, we removed a huge part of the culture of the city of New Orleans.”

She’s right to conflate housing and culture, as was Marshall Truehill Jr., pastor of the First United Baptist Church and former chairman of the city’s planning commission, when I interviewed him. He mentioned how much the housing projects meant to Mardi Gras Indian culture and vice versa. “When you destroy neighborhoods, you tear apart a culture too,” he said. “Once you tear down these buildings, you can’t put them back.”

“Under the Bridge” used to refer to the shadowy space beneath the Claiborne Avenue overpass for I-10, where Mardi Gras Indians convene on appointed days and where brass band music echoes mightily when a “second-line parade” finds its way there. That phrase now holds a different meaning, as it did splashed across the cover of the local weekly, Gambit, earlier this year, headlining a piece about the growing encampment of some 200 homeless underneath the freeway.

Half the working poor, elderly and disabled are still estranged from New Orleans, according to Bill Quigley, who directs the Loyola University Poverty Law Center.

“The demolition of public housing has of course greatly exacerbated the problem we’re dealing with,” said Angela Patterson, who focuses on homelessness as director of the nonprofit UNITY Welcome Home of Greater New Orleans. She estimates the homeless population in the city at 12,000; according to a UNITY survey done in collaboration with Common Ground, more than 95 percent of these people lived in New Orleans prior to the floods.

As for the city’s overall population, July 2005 census reports estimated a population of some 450,000 — a little more than the total of Jazz Fest attendees. Greater New Orleans Data Center estimates, based on an analysis of homes receiving postal service, yields a new population figure of 325,000. Yet it’s near impossible to determine how many of this number are new residents, and there are no reliable figures for former residents of New Orleans who still wish to return home.

One thing that is clear: The changing population of the city will have political implications. An April 24th Times-Picayune piece by Michelle Krupa cited a recent study by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, based on voter turnout in the 2003 and 2007 gubernatorial elections. The results, Krupa wrote, “confirm what election-watchers have suspected since Hurricane Katrina: The number of voters in the New Orleans area has fallen sharply, with African-Americans and registered Democrats losing the most ground.” According to Christine Day, chairwoman of the political science department of the University of New Orleans, “It has really important implications for the redrawing of districts — congressional districts and all the way down.”

These facts and figures may have been lost on or irrelevant to many of those who charged from stage to stage, softshell crab po’ boy in hand, at the Fair Grounds, the horse-racing track that transforms into a music stadium once each year. Yet in many ways, politics were in the air during The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell (as it’s officially titled) — literally, in fact, at one point. While the Neville Brothers played the Acura stage, a plane circled above the Fair Grounds towing a banner: “Shell, Hear the Music. Fix the Coast You Broke.” Not all the commentary was so overt, and none as visible, but it was there if you kept your eyes and ears open. Mind you, it’s easy in New Orleans these days to read meaning and purpose into every lyric or song choice — was Sheryl Crow commenting on the housing crisis by covering “Gimme Shelter,” or was she just doing a Stones tune? Also, it’s impossible to take in all the music and all the messages emanating from the event’s 10 stages. Still, a good deal of what I did catch was timely, topical and worth remembering.

Stevie Wonder flat-out endorsed Barack Obama’s campaign at the start of his show: He decried the racism that could threaten the senator’s run for the White House, then segued into “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” biting down hard on the line, “Hate’s goin’ ’round.” And how’s this for a slogan Obama’s campaign manager didn’t think of? When Mardi Gras Indians Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias reached the climax of their Jazz & Heritage stage set, an election-year twist on an Indian chant, best known via a pop song, could be heard a football field away: “Iko, Iko, Obama!”

Perhaps no song speaks to the Katrina experience as well as Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927.” Written more than 30 years ago, the song has, as Geoff Himes wrote in a recent and insightful New York Times piece, become a modern-day folk song, its chorus — “Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away” — bearing new relevance. Yet it was Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” that elicited the most knowing chill, especially with its final verse:

“The end of an empire is messy at best/ And this empire is ending/ Like all the rest/ Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea/ We’re adrift in the land of the brave/ And the home of the free/ Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”

If trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s statements at the jazz tent were political, they were also wordless, as he performed selections from his Grammy-winning CD, A Tale of God’s Will, with his band and members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The music, drawn from Blanchard’s score to Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, called up indelible images of Katrina’s aftermath and their associated emotions. Violins voiced the storm’s fury, woodwinds the foreboding calm of its wake, his horn the anguished cries and later rage of those left stranded. Blanchard’s requiem contains tightly composed passages but also moments during which he pushes his trumpet beyond its comfortable range. Not screeches, exactly-nothing close to Abbey Lincoln’s screams on Max Roach’s 1960 We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, but angrier and more daring than anything in his previous work. And, like Roach’s music almost two generations ago, meant to make a point.

Among the Mardi Gras Indians at the festival, I noticed Eddie “Big Easy” Vanison, “gang flag” of the Hardhead Hunters, passing by with an elaborate suit, including one embroidered patch that could have been a news story. “Chocolate City,” it read along the top. Underneath was a detailed image: a sign reading”Club Treme,” in memory of one among many long-gone neighborhood venues; a bleeding body with numbered shell casings alongside; a police cruiser and yellow police tape; Mardi Gras Indians and neighborhood kids on the sides, watching it all. In context, amid the other patches on Vanison’s suit — second-lines and the Superdome, among other things — it was just one element of a panorama of New Orleans life. “But it was a piece that needed to be shown,” he told me later, “and that we live with.”

The neighborhood known as Treme is under siege these days from not just criminals, but from the very police charged with protecting it — at least in terms of the cultural traditions celebrated at Jazz Fest. At trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews’ performance, not long after he drifted in and out of the lyrics to Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” he dedicated the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” to Kermit James. He wasn’t just honoring a dear departed friend and tuba player: He was referencing the evening of October 1, when police cars converged on a Treme corner, busted up a funeral procession for James, and slapped cuffs on Andrews’ wrists. Months later, the charges against Andrews and his brother, drummer Derrick Tabb — parading without a permit and “disturbing the peace by tumultuous manner” — were dropped. But the ante had been upped up in the fight over the city’s culture, which has intensified amid the long struggle to rebuild. With his tribute hymn at Jazz Fest, Andrews was completing that cut-short ritual-free, onstage, employed and empowered.

Funeral processions are an essential element of New Orleans culture, and the impromptu variety in particular — honoring the passing of someone of distinction, especially a musician — is a time-honored tradition in neighborhoods like Treme, which some consider the oldest black neighborhood in America. For black New Orleans residents who have returned to the city, these and other street-culture traditions — second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indian assemblies — offer perhaps the only semblance of normalcy, continuity and community organization left. It’s good fun, even educational, for these traditions to be on display at Jazz Fest-Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands play on stages, mock second-lines weave through the Fair Grounds at appointed hours — but it’s important to remember that their real venue is the streets, where they’re functional aspects of daily life.

Just as the festival was swinging into action, another funeral procession was cut short in Treme. Sirens blared. Children, musicians and mourners were commanded through bullhorns to disperse. Jerome Smith, who runs the Treme Cultural Center, called this latest episode an “attack on culture” when interviewed by Katy Reckdahl of the Times-Picayune. “He found the timing ironic,” she wrote. “At about the same time that police had scattered an authentic funeral march, near Esplanade and Claiborne avenues, Jazz and Heritage Festival-goers were lined up behind a band at the Fair Grounds, ready to follow a second-line recreated for tourists.”

Such irony is no new twist: Last year, three days before members of the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club danced their way through the Fair Grounds — second-lining with the Mahogany Brass Band — they were represented in federal court. A lawsuit on behalf of a consortium of social aid and pleasure clubs, aided by the ACLU, protested the city’s hiking of police security fees — triple or more from pre-Katrina rates — for second-line parades held September through May. The suit invoked the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, claiming that parade permit schemes “effectively tax” such expression. “Should the law not be enjoined,” the complaint stated, “there is very little doubt that plaintiff’s cultural tradition will cease to exist.” The city settled without a trial and the fees were lowered (but not to their original level). Though the issue remains a source of consternation to second-liners, at least the parades have rolled.

At this year’s Jazz Fest, Mac Rebennack, best known as Dr. John, offered up a few songs from City That Care Forgot, his artful yet angry rant of an album set for release June 3. He drew more than a few knowing nods with his lyrics to “My People Need a Second Line,” which referenced both the October Treme arrests in particular and the embattled parade culture in general.

“You know it ain’t right to charge people for a second line,” he sang. “It’s something spiritual, ought to be kept out of politics. Sending 20 squad cars to stop a second line/ sending musicians to jail instead of stopping crime.”

Rebennack’s new album takes on a wide range of issues — from disappearing wetlands to oil-industry greed, the Iraq war to the botched response to Katrina (and connects the dots between these problems). But Rebennack’s deepest ire is saved for recent challenges to the culture he grew up with. When I met with him at his management company’s Harlem office, he recalled reading about the funeral-parade arrests in Treme. “I called up the woman who wrote the article, and she gave me the skinny,” he said. “And it was even worse than I thought. There were kids watching, and the guys they hauled off were their teachers. Can you imagine that?”

Near the end of saxophonist Donald Harrison’s jazz-tent performance, after his masterful displays of bebop and funk, the band vamped as Harrison disappeared from the stage. He returned in full regalia, as Big Chief of Congo Nation, which he named for Congo Square, the spot where, two centuries ago, enslaved Africans would drum and dance on Sundays: Their bamboula rhythm, essential to any Mardi Gras Indian gathering, still courses beneath most of the homegrown music at Jazz Fest.

But for the past several years — even before Katrina — Congo Square has been off limits. Thick chains and a padlock greet visitors at the gates of the surrounding Armstrong Park, just off North Rampart Street. A few days before Jazz Fest, I’d seen those gates open. A few dozen people wearing identical T-shirts were hard at work painting fences and sprucing things up around Congo Square. My heart nearly leapt. Turns out it was a volunteer group sponsored by the National Tourism Foundation. Their shirts read “Tourism Cares.” Yet the city that derives much of its tourist appeal from Congo Square’s legacy has quite uncaringly cordoned off the place: We’re left with a freshly painted fence that, except for an occasional special event, stays locked.

President Bush couldn’t stay for Jazz Fest, but just prior he hit New Orleans for a few days. The trip had a focus: a press-worthy summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to shore up free-trade spirit in general, and to defend NAFTA from critics like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

On Earth Day, Bush and his new friends took to Lafayette Square, to plant an oak tree. When I got to Lafayette Square the next evening, I found a small granite monument left by our president: “Planted a Summard Oak Tree on April 22, 2008, in honor of Earth Day and the Cresent City’s hosting of the North American Leaders’ Summit” — just like that, with the word Crescent misspelled. By the next day when I returned, camera in hand, a new, corrected granite block had been installed. The gaffe received surprisingly little attention around town. But a local satirical newspaper, The New Orleans Levee, ran a front-page piece, with a photo of an in-between moment I’d missed: Someone had spray-painted a proofreader’s caret and the letter “c” on the monument. If only the president’s more damning blunders in New Orleans could be so swiftly and easily fixed, and not set in stone.

One politician who showed up at Jazz Fest with a purpose was Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. He gathered notable local musicians, painters, even a celebrity chef, along with reporters, in a trailer between stages. As the music of the nearby Fais-Do-Do stage thumped mightily, Landrieu, a pleasantly animated bulldog of a man in a T-shirt and khakis, began a conversation about local culture. Though the city of New Orleans does more to inhibit than to nurture its arts through uneven enforcement of arcane and vague zoning and permit statutes and police-led intimidation, the state, behind Landrieu’s lead, has fostered a more positive climate — mandating music and art in schools, for instance, and establishing tax incentives for the film and music industry. Landrieu is organizing the next edition of his World Cultural Economic Forum, in October, and it’s a right-thinking affair. “I don’t know that we did not take for granted the cultural riches we have here,” Landrieu said at last year’s event, “until after the international community gasped when they thought about what might be lost. A focus on how culture holds important keys to many aspects of recovery, be they economic, civic or spiritual, is essential for productive conversations about recovery.”

On that count, the Jazz & Heritage Festival might be considered a mighty conversation-starter. Festival producer Quint Davis once told me he thought of the event as “this big soul-generating battery.” Surely the $300 million in estimated revenue the seven-day event generates in the city can’t hurt. And apart from the national pop acts on Jazz Fest’s bill — from Al Green to Tim McGraw to Billy Joel — there is a dazzling range of homegrown artistry, the breadth and depth of which is stunning. The musicians and Mardi Gras Indians and second-liners at Jazz Fest who were born and raised in New Orleans tell the city’s truth beyond the Fair Grounds fences, for those who care to listen thoughtfully. And it’s even possible that something necessary, perhaps instructive, was conveyed during that first weekend-some basic feeling that locals understand — when we all had to slog through the mud just to get where we were going.

Larry Blumenfeld is working on a book about cultural recovery in New Orleans based on his research as a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice, among other publications. His essay “Band on the Run in New Orleans” is re-printed in Best Music Writing 2008 (Da Capo). He is editor-at-large of Jazziz magazine. This piece appeared originally on Truthdig.com.

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