Marking Time, and Making Time For Smart Cultural Policy, in New Orleans

Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein

My son Sam turned six today. We’ll make a big deal out of it in our family, reflecting on remarkable growth that began in trauma (four weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit) and dreaming about his future.
Next Friday will mark nine years since the floods in New Orleans caused by the levee breaches that followed Hurricane Katrina. I suspect some locals will celebrate or conduct solemn ceremonies, while others entirely ignore the date. I doubt much national media will pay attention. I know there will be a big wave of coverage (mine included) next year, when that particular trauma turns ten: We tend to reflect most around round numbers.
I’ve been ambivalent toward these anniversaries based on my experience. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as an anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Point being: Pay close attention to—don’t ignore—the lives represented by each house destroyed and rebuilt or not, every neighborhood that comes back or doesn’t. (For what it’s worth, here are my accounts of August 29 in New Orleans, from 2007 and 2010.)
The conversations—often battles—of nine years ago concerning what would get rebuilt and wouldn’t and who would return and wouldn’t has in large part now given way to debates—and, again, battles—over the shape and character of a “new” New Orleans.
Those of us who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission—targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space—know that the future of New Orleans, and the city’s character, has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of alarmed residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, and who expected to return and to rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land-grabs.
On August 26, three days before the anniversary of the 2005 disaster, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will begin a series of public hearings regarding a Draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.
According to the Planning Commission’s website:

New Orleans’ zoning ordinance no longer meets the needs of the city today and is an obstacle to creating the city of the future. The 1970s zoning ordinance—unsuitable for a 21st-century city—has been amended so many times and overlaid with so many changes that it is extremely difficult to understand and riddled with inconsistencies.

Public hearings on the CZO are scheduled for August 26, as well as September 2 and 9. Written comments must be received by 5pm, Monday, September 1, 2014. (For details, look here.)
What does all this have to do with culture?
A great deal. Continue reading “Marking Time, and Making Time For Smart Cultural Policy, in New Orleans”

When Culture Runs Into Trouble in NY and NOLA

I suspected—wrongly—that I was the only one drawing connections between the ordinances and enforcment measures that inhibit culture in New Orleans with those of New York and other cities.
I was wrong.
There’s an interesting piece by Alexis Stephens on the Next City website titled “Policing Sound: Lessons From the Crackdowns on Performers in New Orleans and New York City.”
In it, Hannah Kreiger-Benson of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO) points out that sometimes a dispute about noise is not always jsut a dispute about noise:

“The ways these issues are presented is residents versus musicians or businesses versus neighbors rather than talking about space that is shared and sounds that are audible and sounds that travel in different ways,” Kreiger-Benson continues. “Sometimes it’s really something entirely different. Sometimes it’s people who really don’t like each other or some issue dating back years. Sound can become a low-hanging fruit to get people in trouble for.”

And Stephens alerted my attention to some tensions surrounding the current wave of acrobatic dancers on New York City subways:

In New York, acrobatic subway dancers have become the target of a well-publicized campaign against subterranean disorder. Arrests of subway performers have quadrupled this year. With social control tactics like “broken windows policing” and stop-and-frisk being hotly contested this summer, the crackdowns on subway dancers feels especially poignant — unwieldy limbs confined and pushed even farther underground.
“It’s sad because dancers are starving artists just like anyone else trying to make money off their talent,” says Chrybaby Cozie, founder of Lite Feet Nation, a youth outreach initiative that organizes young dancers into what he calls an “army of harmony.” Lite Feet is a style of dancing that was cultivated in New York hip-hop circles in the mid-2000s after the popularity of the “Chicken Noodle Soup,” “Toe Wop,” and the (original) “Harlem Shake.” Many Lite Feet dancers perform in the New York City subway system to earn an income for doing what they love. Cozie comments, “We aren’t all able to study or perform at Peridance or Broadway Dance Center. There are over 1,000 of us who have nowhere to go and there needs to be a safe haven for us.”
BuskNY, an advocacy group for subway performers, held a press conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall on August 12th to protest for their rights to perform under the Rules of Conduct under the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Zenon Laguerre, a subway performer for more than 20 years, was quoted at the rally as saying, “We dance because we love doing it — it pays the bills and keeps us out of trouble. We dance. We sing. We’re not criminals.”
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

The Ballad of Glen David Andrews

Here’s yet more from me on a musician who stole my heart and captured my attention in New Orleans — trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews: A cover story for the August digital edition of Jazziz magazine.

I’ll give you a taste of the beginning:
Midway into his set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May, trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews left the outdoor Congo Square stage. “Surrender,” a ballad of his that sounds like a spiritual and forms the emotional high point of his recent CD, “Redemption,” (Louisiana Red Hot Records) began with his disembodied voice accompanied by his onstage band
Soon Andrews could be seen wading into the crowd below, singing softly at first and then with raspy intensity about faith and hope, his white suit jacket flapping at his sides in the breeze like tiny wings. As he implored a higher power to “take my troubles away, take me away,” he stepped up on a small platform. He hovered above the gently swaying bodies and waving arms, and pointed up toward a blue sky. During past jazzfest performances, he and others — from Bruce Springsteen to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (another homegrown hero, and Glen David’s cousin) — have taken to crowd-surfing at climactic moments, letting fans literally carry their weight. Here, Andrews seemed to do the reverse. He wanted to support his listeners, lift them up….
And of the end: Continue reading “The Ballad of Glen David Andrews”

Sonnygate's Spawn

Why pick on Sonny Rollins by name? Let's just make fun of jazz, which is even older than him.

Hey, that Sonny Rollins piece (well, it wasn’t really a Sonny Rollins piece, but you know…) by Django Gold (who said in a comment on a blogpost that that’s his real name) in The New Yorker (on its website, anyway, by way of Gold, who mostly works for The Onion) got a lot of attention, didn’t it?
It made a lot of jazz fans upset, and they chimed in. And it made a lot of people who don’t like jazz, or don’t know jazz but think they probably wouldn’t like it, or are a little scared by jazz, or sort of like some jazz but like to pile anyway on when there’s a chance to put something or someone down and feel good about themselves while doing it—yeah, all those people chimed in too, right?
And all those blogposts and Facebook likes and tweets and online comments, that’s got to mean it was all important. Like the writer was onto something, had something to say, touched a nerve.
Hey, the jazz world should be happy for all the attention, given the paltry sales of jazz recordings. That community is so high and mighty, really, someone needs to set things straight, call them out, no?
Problem with Django Gold was that he picked on one guy. The wrong guy—Rollins, who, well, isn’t known as Colossus for nothing, has a lot of friends (many with regular columns in print and online), and isn’t dead yet (so he can speak up, and did).
Problem with Gold was that he picked on just one guy, instead of just jazz by name.
The above was told to me by Justin Moyer, who wrote a gripping column in the Washington Post’s online Opinions section, with the title “All That Jazz Isn’t All That Great.” (Gripping, as in the slight sweat and tremors you feel when, say, the fish wasn’t fully cooked).
Ok, Moyer really didn’t tell me anything. Never spoke to the guy. But since when does that matter, in the post-Django-Gold discourse about culture? Continue reading “Sonnygate's Spawn”

Sonnygate Redux: The New Yorker, and Rollins' Own Words

I’ll admit to some ambivalence about turning our attention to this matter, especially since it’s no longer breaking news. Yet here goes:
By now you may be aware of a “Daily Shouts” column at The New Yorker magazine’s website, posted last Thursday under the title “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” and bylined to Django Gold, who is a senior writer at the news-satire outlet, The Onion.
In 11 brief paragraphs, the celebrated 83-year-old tenor saxophonist made confessions such as these:

I really don’t know why I keep doing this. Inertia, I guess. Once you get stuck in a rut, it’s difficult to pull yourself out, even if you hate every minute of it. Maybe I’m just a coward.
I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life.

Only these weren’t Rollins’ words. They were Gold’s.
New Yorker readers might not have known this, since the website made no mention of the fact that Gold made the stuff up in a now-apparent effort to by funny. I happened to be in Maine, with little access to the internet or even cell service when I caught wind of all this. At the time, I’d read only the first three paragraphs on my phone, which ended like this:

Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it.

I’d considered the idea that this really was Rollins, and that once I had a chance to read on, the text would pay off. After all, Rollins has a playful sense of humor; his statements sometimes do begin with a dodge, followed by a weave, only to make his point stronger (same is true of some of his wondrous extended tenor-saxophone solos).
But once I read the whole column, nothing like that happened. No dodge, no weave, no payoff. Just more of the same: flat, foolish, and obviously not Rollins.
I knew so, but many who were drawn to the New Yorker site by this promotional Twitter feed from the magazine might not have been so clear.
A wave of online confusion followed. Facebook posts, tweets, and online posts wondered: Was this Rollins speaking? Was he misquoted and taken wildly out of context? Who is Django Gold, and did he ever actually meet Rollins? If it was a gag, was Rollins in on it? What did Rollins think? Continue reading “Sonnygate Redux: The New Yorker, and Rollins' Own Words”