From New Orleans to New York: On The Care and Feeding of Jazz Culture

On a muggy Thursday evening in Manhattan last week, six musicians formed a loose brass band, with sousaphone, snare drum and such, and stood before a banner that read “Justice for Jazz Artists—Fairness. Dignity. Respect.”
Trumpeter Kevin Blancq, who grew up in New Orleans and has lived in New York City for 30 years, led the musicians through “Li’l Liza Jane,” a brass-band and traditional-jazz standard. This was a rally organized in cooperation with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians to promote ongoing efforts to get Manhattan’s key jazz clubs to contribute to a pension fund and to secure other rights, such as recording protections.
As they left Madison Sqaure Park, the musicians formed a miniature mock second-line parade, turning north on Park Avenue South and played “Bourbon Street Parade,” another standard of New Orleans repertoire. When they arrived at the Jazz Standard club, leaflets were handed out to the strains of “Mozartin’” composed by a Crescent City clarinetist and educator of great renown, Alvin Batiste.
Few would argue against the idea of pensions and other benefits for jazz musicians who play New York’s clubs. However, this particular initiative is complicated, folded as it is into an effort to expand the union’s scope of representation.
As James C. McKinley Jr. reported in a 2011 New York Times piece, after similar rallies were held in front of the Blue Note jazz club:
The disagreement between the union and club owners dates back to 2005, when union leaders joined the nightclubs to lobby the State Legislature for a reduction in the sales tax on tickets because the extra revenue would be used to pay for pension and health benefits…. The tax break was passed in 2006, but the union never hammered out a formal pact with the club owners.
As McKinley’s piece described, clubs have resisted the proposal for a variety of reasons.
That initiative is specific to New York City. Yet as I work on a book about “The fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means for America,” the rally’s choice of repertoire pointed, for me, to more than coincidence.
I recall a dreary Sunday in August 2007, not quite two years past the floods that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina. A “Musicians Solidarity Second Line” included members of the Tremé Brass Band and some two-dozen other musicians, instruments in hands, walking without making music. Not a note played nor a step danced. A slow, steady rain lends dramatic drips to homemade signs that read: “Living Wages = Living Music,” “Imagine a Silent NOLA,” “Keep Our Story Alive.”

The message was simple: in the wake of devastation, New Orleans musicians needed better support, lest the music that lends this city its identity one day fall silent. When the procession reached the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, Musicians Union president “Deacon” John Moore, the guitarist on several seminal R&B hits, addressed the small crowd. “It ain’t easy in the Big Easy,” he said. “Our musicians are suffering. We hate to come out here like this but we have no alternative.”
A few months earlier, back in New York City, Lower East Side jazz musicians had gathered in front of City Hall to rally against a different sort of developing storm—relentless development that they felt “priced them out of the very neighborhood we helped put on the map.” Musicians held signs with slogans including “NYC in Cultural Crisis.” “Enough is enough,” guitarist Marc Ribot told me at the time. “It’s time for New York to support what I do, what we do. Why is what is possible in Vienna not possible here?”
The idea that homegrown jazz cultures are taken for granted, that they often find better funding and appreciation abroad, is a common theme among musicians in New Orleans and New York. So is one main point underscored by all the above rallies: The need for cultural policy that promotes and in some cases protects jazz culture.
In that respect, New Orleans is not exceptional: The challenges facing jazz culture can be found in other American cities, and the need for sensitive and smart support is common.
Yet the jazz culture of New Orleans is also and nevertheless exceptional—to experience it on any level is to realize that. New Orleans jazz culture is functional in daily lives of the city’s residents in ways not readily found elsewhere anymore; grown up from and often played out on streets and in public places in ways that give rise to both spontaneous joys and civic tensions (some people don’t want a parade); nurtured and celebrated in neighborhood clubs (though the neighborhoods these clubs once anchored have mostly disappeared or are at least rapidly changing).
In that respect, the challenges to New Orleans jazz culture are often unique and carry greater stakes, especially now as the city decides in the midst of redefining its identity what it holds dear enough to preserve and protect.
I wrote recently here about tensions surrounding new and unusual enforcement of noise ordinances in New Orleans that have forced brass bands off the corners they routinely play and about efforts (thus far, unsuccessful) to reform these laws. For the past two years, there has also been a crackdown on clubs that host live music, many of which are technically illegal (or operating without a proper permit). Even those that do are for the most part working within “non-conforming use” agreements and “mayoralty permits” that make the hosting of live music something between an outlaw act and a tricky business reliant on the kindness of strangers (in this case, neighbors).
The most recent dustup has been over Buffa’s Bar & Restaurant, in the Marigny neighborhood, just outside the French Quarter. As Richard A. Webster reported in the Times Picayune:

Instead of fighting enforcement, [club owner Chuck] Rogers went along with the law and applied for a live music permit.
The city initially denied his request in July 2012, but approved it months later after Rogers produced 53 letters from supportive customers. Some said they had watched live music at Buffa’s for decades.

When I spoke with Rogers, he told me that he and his sons, who have run the club since 2o10, “had a game plan from day one about what we wanted to do, and that included live music. We intended place for locals to enjoy and a place for tourists to experience.”
Now Rogers is being sued by his neighbor, Sidney Torres IV. The lawsuit claims that the live music at Buffa’s has damaged Torres’ property value and caused significant pain and suffering. It also claims that the city wrongfully issued the bar a live music permit. It calls for an injunction to stop the performances. (The public hearing is scheduled for July 31.)
This lawsuit prompted an Op-Ed. piece in the Times Picayune by Ethan Ellestad, who is coordinator of the nonprofit advocacy group Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO). Ellestad offered some interesting background about the club:

Buffa’s served as a community hub during the extended power outage following Hurricane Isaac; neighbors stopped in to charge their phones, get the latest news and take in some AC. Staff offered to cook food from their patrons’ rapidly warming freezers, free of charge. And, when it was most sorely needed, they offered entertainment to those still without power, including a spontaneous performance by New Orleans legend Al “Carnival Time” Johnson.

And he pointed to how this lawsuit reflects a broader need for better policy:

Buffa’s faces an immediate threat with this lawsuit, but the underlying issue is one of zoning. New Orleans’ current comprehensive zoning ordinance is incredibly hostile to live entertainment…. Most neighborhood music venues, including Buffa’s, Tipitina’s and the Candlelight Lounge, are “non-conforming” uses, making them exceptionally vulnerable to legal challenge.

It’s worth reading Torres’ response in the Times-Picayune, not so much for his dispute of the facts of the matter, but for the tone he and others who find themselves on the other side of such lawsuits frequently strike (“I love our city’s tradition of live music. It is a treasured part of our culture…”). In his own way, Torres too cries out for clearer and better zoning laws.
I’ve just returned from New Orleans. During that trip, I spent much of an afternoon in the office of Mary Howell, an attorney who has more than 30 years of experience in the legal trenches that have so often surrounded New Orleans jazz culture. “It’s a draconian ordinance,” she said of the zoning that restricts live entertainment, “and a blanket over the city. It’s vague and overbroad enough to be ridiculous.” She worked her way through decades of cases for me, which formed a loose topography of the ways in which musicians get intimidated in New Orleans and their performances get shut down: cited for “disturbing the peace,” “unlawful assembly,” or for violating strict decibel-level standards and a curfew on music-making that technically, would outlaw many of the nighttime musical performances captured in a typical tourism ad for the city.
The very idea is mind-boggling to those who live outside New Orleans: a city whose image is largely derived from its live musical entertainment essentially outlawing public performance through noise, quality-of-life, and zoning ordinances.
I’ve conflated a number of issues in the paragraphs above. If that’s confusing, it’s also intentional. What New Orleans needs is a thought-through umbrella of policy toward its culture that is reflected in the many ways it plays out: zoning, noise ordinances, enforcement strategies, as well as ways to protect and promote the jazz culture it sells to tourists and claims as its identity.
I’m told that the issues surrounding noise ordinances are still in discussion, and that a repeal of the music-specific curfew remains on the table. A new city council was seated in May, and perhaps there is fresh vision and a renewed will to follow through on those matters.
As for zoning, there will be change, though it’s unclear whether that will bring good, bad or indifferent news regarding culture. After three years, multiple drafts and dozens of neighborhood meetings, the city of New Orleans released last week the final draft of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO), which governs land use throughout the City and outlines permitted land uses, individual zoning district regulations, citywide standards, and processes for land use reviews. (The July 2014 Final Draft of the CZO and Maps are available for review on the City Planning Commission’s website, and are available at select New Orleans Public. Public hearings on the CZO are set for Tuesday, August 26 and Tuesday, September 9. Comments may be submitted at the public hearings, emailed to, and sent by mail to the address listed at the website.)
Mayor Mitch Landrieu was quoted in the Times Picayune as saying that the final draft of the CZO shows that the city has made “great strides” since Hurricane Katrina. “The CZO builds on this momentum by incorporating the vision, priorities, and goals that New Orleanians have been working toward since the storm,” Landrieu said. “The CZO is a crucial step to implementing the City’s Master Plan and creates a blueprint for development moving forward.”
Will jazz culture be a clearly drawn structural element of that design, as reflecting by throughtful amendments? A footnote? A grey area to be worked out later?
Several years ago, Howell told me: “I used to get worried that this specific law or that policy would crush the music. But I’ve found some relief in finally and deeply understanding that these laws are problems—they are obstacles, irritants—and they are problematic—unjust, unequally enforced. The thing is that the music and the culture survives despite it, and finds its way around, over, and under these laws.”
She’s right, and yet this deep and abiding truth perhaps invites a dangerous notion: that a culture developed in opposition to subjugating force requires or is somehow served by or at least lives well in spite of the occasional, capricious and overriding slap-down. But a culture born of struggle needn’t be condemned to struggle, a music that won’t die doesn’t have to endure blow upon non-lethal blow. If New Orleans wishes to restore itself or even create a “new” New Orleans, the city would do well to think about this idea, to invite musicians and others involved in culture to the planning table, and to craft better policies.
It’s no accident that a rally focused on jazz culture in New York featured a New Orleans songbook played in second-line style. That music is timeless. Where and how well it lives on and seeds new expression in its birthplace, and in places like New York, depends on a new and timely legislative repertoire.
Photos: Larry Blumenfeld

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