Headline of the day: “Corps Ruled 100% Liable for MR-GO Wetland Fix”
As reported by Mark Schleifstein, in the Times-Picayune:
The Army Corps of Engineers must pay the full $3 billion cost of restoring wetlands destroyed by the agency’s improper construction and maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a federal judge in New Orleans ruled Thursday (Aug. 27).
In a major victory for Louisiana, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk ruled the corps improperly tried to stick the state with 35 percent of the restoration cost. When the state declined to pay, the corps refused to begin the restoration program, all in violation of Congressional intent, Africk ruled.
“Ten years after Hurricane Katrina vital ecosystem restoration remains incomplete,” Africk wrote. “Rather than abide by the clear intent of Congress and begin immediate implementation of a plan to restore that which the corps helped destroy, defendants arbitrarily and capriciously misconstrued their clear mandate to restore an ecosystem ravaged by the MR-GO.”
Also today, the Times-Picayune ran a special section of front-page stories from 2005, with this introduction that explained, “Never before seen by many who fled.” Included were banner headlines like these: “”Underwater”; “First Water, Now Fire”; “Clear Out or Else”; “Help Us, Please” “7th Day Of Hell.”
Back at the Sheraton Hotel, I caught a “Katrina 10” panel discussion titled “The Prophetic City: What can New Orleans teach the nation?” It gathered key administrators and leaders from leading philanthropic foundations, such as Ford, Surdna and Rockefeller. There were real insights here, about what does and does not work when it comes to funding real disaster recovery and actual relief from systemic dysfunction, none clearer than what Xav Briggs of the Ford Foundation said when asked where to focus aid to the city’s poorer communities: “You need to do everything, because everything is in need. You can’t pick and choose.”
At one point, Walter Isaacson, who served as moderator and who has done plenty of brilliant and reasonable work, said this: “Gentrification is a higher-class problem than we’ve had in this city in a long time.”
Not sure how well that comment would go over in the Sixth Ward right now, or in Bywater.
Later in the day, I met with trumpeter Christian Scott at Preservation Hall, where he was preparing to play two midnight shows to premiere the music featured on his forthcoming CD “Stretch Music.”
When I entered, I spoke with Ben Jaffe, the wild-haired bassist and sousaphonist, who, ever since he graduated in 1993 from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, has run the hall that was pioneered by his parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe more than a half-century ago.
Jaffe recalled for me how, just a few weeks after the 2005 flood, he’d received a pile of photographs from photographer Lee Friedlander. He gathered the Preservation Hall band in the lobby of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art and, while the musicians played, the images were auctioned off. “We raised $100,000 right there,” Jaffe said. “But it was hardly enough.”
Last night, I’d read Jaffe’s essay reflecting on the flood and its aftermath, on the Preservation Hall site. He began with his memories of drummer John Robichaux, who was born in 1916 and who perished in the flooded Lower Ninth Ward in 2005. He was nephew to hailed from arranger and bandleader John Robichaux, who was among the earliest of New Orleans jazz figures.
As Jaffe wrote:
I stayed in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina.
I closed the Hall early on that Saturday night and began helping others prepare for the storm. Filling up fuel cans, boarding up windows, stocking up on food. I spent a good part of Sunday morning, August 28, 2005, getting Narvin Kimball, who played banjo with my father for thirty plus years and his wife Lillian out of town. Mrs. Kimball was hell bent on riding out the storm in their home on Calhoun Street. So much so that my good friends John, Lindsay and myself forcibly picked Mrs. Kimball up and sent them by car and driver to Baton Rouge. We grabbed his banjo from under the bed and a few photos off the wall. The next day their home was nine feet under water….
Yes, I stayed. I saw a city unravel from the top down and the bottom up. I witnessed violence and anger and frustration and confusion. I don’t talk about it much because it is so painful. It is a scar on my soul that will never completely heal.
As a child, I went to the Lower 9th Ward to visit musicians with my dad. On Sundays, we would visit Sister Gertrude Morgan, the visionary artist and preacher. Sister Gertrude Morgan painted scripture on whatever she could find: doors, old books, scraps of paper, window shades, guitars… Her entire lawn was four leaf clovers! I know this because I would pick them. I have them flattened in my books. There is to this day, still, a small patch of clovers where her house once stood…. Fats Domino lived in the Lower 9th Ward. And so did most of the Lastie Family. As a troubled teen, Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) became an adopted son of the Lastie Family and to this day credits them with saving his life and giving him the gift of music.
The Lower 9 was also home to John Robichaux and his wife. I imagine the idea of evacuating, if it was even an option, was a hard one to make for Mr. Robichaux. He was nearing his 90s. So Mr. Robichaux and his wife stayed behind. I can’t imagine what they suffered. The thought makes me sick. One of our city’s great treasures gone. Like that. Brutally taken from us. It’s incredibly painful. I feel a tremendous amount of guilt. It’s why I’ve committed my life to this great city that has given the world and me so many blessings. I hope my work continues to honor the memory of all of those who didn’t make it through the storm. For them, I wake up every morning. For them I tune up my bass. For them I bring joy and happiness into the world the way Mr Robichaux brought joy and happiness into mine.
When I sat down with Christian Scott (who now goes by the full name Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah), we talked about his new group, for which the exceptional young drummer Joe Dyson plays an “Africanized” trap set, including djembe and dun dun drums. His sounded like a project in fresh bloom. We also discussed his recent back to New Orleans recently, after a long period in Harlem and a short stint in Los Angeles.
“I loved Harlem but New Orleans makes the most sense for what I’m trying to do right now,” Scott said, “which in some ways is a very New Orleanian idea. Here, musicians communicate in a way that makes sense to me—the very guttural and clear and, I guess, in some ways, violent way people play here, which is based on their personal experience. This is ground zero for me. And in some ways, in terms of the mixture of influences and the social purpose of the music, what’s going on here is a recapitulation of everything that happened 100 yrs ago. I can hear it.”
These words from Scott, who is 32, prompted me to reflect on what his uncle, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison had told me about his 1999 return to New Orleans, after more than a decade in New York City. “I love it here, and when you love something you do whatever it takes to nurture that love. But it’s something more. New Orleans is the missing link for a lot of modern music, the last—the only—place where jazz is actually a culture. I need that to thrive.”
As did Harrison, Scott grew up in the Upper Ninth Ward, where both got early and deep exposure to the traditions of Mardi Gras Indian culture, or, as Harrison calls it (in stern rejection of that term) Afro New Orleans Culture. Harrison is Big Chief of Congo Nation. His father, Donald Harrison, Sr., was during his lifetime Big Chief of four different tribes.
Scott is quick to credit as mentors his uncle, who is, for my money, one of the most signifiant musicans of his generation, as well as dear departed New Orleans elders and trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr. and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and saxophinst Kidd Jodan, who is still going strong at 80.
But Scott said the lessons that guide him in his life and his music most deeply were soaked up while a young boy from Donald Harrison Sr. “Donald Sr. would ask me, ‘Are you listening, or are you simply waiting to speak?’”
Later on yesterday, I ran into drummer Shannon Powell, sitting on the stoop of his Sixth Ward house, the one he grew up in, just across the street from Armstrong Park, a few feet from the mural someone painted of him a decade or so ago. Powell, who headlines far too infrequently in New York, is rightly revered in his hometown as “The King of Tremé.” He’s the keeper of essential rhythms and perhaps a secret or two, a musician whose mastery is as subtle as his smile is easy.
I’ll never forget the sets he led at New Orleans now–defunct Donna’s Bar and Grill, in late 2005, when the city was still gripped by the aftermath of the flood; these were transformative gigs, in part for the deep beauty and gentle camaraderie Powell’s drumming, singing and presence generated despite the surroundings.
Now, Powell said that he was sitting out the hoopla attending to the week. He’d heard enough about “resilience.” Owing largely to a steep rise in rents (a third or more since the flood) and to inflated prices for Treme houses, Powell is one of very few musicians left in a neighborhood that a decade or so ago fairly teemed with them.
“It’s like an artificial flower,” Powell said of the “new” New Orleans. “It’s not real. You can’t smell anything natural anymore.”
I ran into Powell on my way to St Augustine Church, where a concert was going on. The historic church was founded in 1841 by slaves and free people of color. Outside stands an anchor chain welded into the shape of a cross and draped with rusty shackles: the memorial to the unknown slave. Inside were members of the Treme Brass Band, with the Hot 8’s Bennie Pete sitting in on sousaphone, stirring up loud and sweet grooves. When the band got to the hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” nearly everyone—the well-dressed locals, the tourists in T-shirts and shorts, the nuns in habits—got up to clap or sing along.
So did I, though my mind drifted off to a scene from “Shake the Devil Off,” filmmaker Peter Entell’s chronicle of a particularly cruel twist in modern Tremé history: Six months after Katrina, the Archdiocese of New Orleans decided to close the neighborhood’s St. Augustine church and to remove its pastor, Father Jerome LeDoux. After a 19-day rectory sit-in, the parish was restored, provisionally. (The church remains open, but LeDoux, a particularly charismatic and Afro-centric pastor is now in Texas.) Near the film’s climax, after footage of Jerome Harris and Jesse Jackson speaking to a crowd, the camera zooms in on trombonist Glen David Andrews, horn in hand, singing “I”ll Fly Away,” as call-to-arms.
That night, I ended up at Café Istanbul, a club opened four years ago by spoken-word poet Chuck Perkins, within the Healing Center complex on a now quickly developing stretch of St. Claude Avenue. I fugured I’d pick up a thing or two at the Center’s food coop and stop in to wish Chuck a happy 50th birthday.
Then I heard the unmistakable sound of Donald Harrison’s alto sax. But Harrison was supposed to be in Japan. Man, that sound system makes a recording sound good, I thought. When I heard the yet more unmistakable sound of Dr. John’s voice, I realized This was no recording.
It was a CD release party for “Sousafunk Ave,” from Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove band. The band is tight, funky and deeply musical on its own, fortified by the power and dexterity with which Joseph anchors the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s sound. At Café Istanbul, as on the new CD, Joseph’s band was joined by guests. Dr. John sang a spirited version of his classic “Such a Night,” with Harrison adding sly asides and a bebop-inflected solo. Harrison, meanwhile, fresh of a flight from Japan, gathered the band’s horn section for call-and-response riffs to Joseph’s tunes. Here was just the sort of gig you couldn’t have predicted and don’t want to miss that New Orleans, more than most cities, still offers. And Café Istabul has been host to its fair share of these.
Yet Café Istanbul is the latest New Orleans venue to be threatened by complaints. As happened with increasing frequency regarding key venues during the past few years, local residents and neighborhood associations have challenged the club. The City Attorney has filed a petition before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board claiming that Café Istanbul should be declared a public nuisance. Perkins told me that a hearing is scheduled for later in September.
Yet this night, as Priness Darrinisha, a foul-mouthed and deeply funny drag queen comic hosted a raucous revue to celebrate his birthday, Perkins wasn’t thinking about such things. He was showing, at 50, “how I do resilience,” he said.