To love New Orleans is to love its culture.
To love New Orleans culture—to experience it, explore it, study it, dive in and swim in it, as I have done for more than decade; or, more importantly, to live it, as so many of the musicians, culture-bearers and born-and-bred natives I’ve written about do—is to wonder about its place in its city.
Often, it’s to shake your head, sigh, and sometimes cry out in disgust or anger.
To demand understanding and respect.
To pine for reasonable solutions and compassionate support.
To take action.
If you’ve been reading me, you know that I’ve been questioning, urging and challenging the powers that be in New Orleans for quite some time about the curious and damaging tensions between this storied city and the culture that is at the heart of its story—I’ve been demanding that they rethink and reform the city’s cultural policy (or its lack thereof).
In this 2010 piece for Truthdig, not long after Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor, I asked: Continue reading “Will New Orleans' Master Plan Include Culture?”
I’m off for Maine tomorrow morning, where, for the past 15 years, I’ve curated the Deer Isle Jazz Festival on a gorgeous spot off the Down East coast (for tickets, go here).
From the start, this has been a labor of love for me, and an act that resonates with the themes and purpose of my writing. (That backstory is a long story; you can find it here.)
The Stonington Opera House, where the concerts are held, reminds me a little of Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, in that it is an acoustically charmed space. Like the Vanguard, it has a history. Through more than a century, it has served, at various points, as dance hall, vaudeville theater, and high school basketball arena. And, not unlike the Vanguard, there’s a sense of unadulterated mission. The nonprofit organization that hosts the event, Opera House Arts, sells T-shirts and bumper stickers with this slogan: “Incite Art. Create Community.”
This year, as I travel, I’ll bring along a manuscript in process for a book that began as simply a document of “the fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means”—a storyline and mission that has been the dominant thread of my work for the past decade.
Yet the book has grown into something broader.
I’m now aiming to set that decade-long story of a struggle for and reawakening of New Orleans jazz culture alongside what I position as a rebirth of this country’s broader jazz culture, which is has long been based in New York City. In that way, I intertwine two stories of resilience in the face of challenges and of rebirth—one in New Orleans, in the wake of literal devastation, and one in New York, in spite of pronouncements of jazz as dead or stuck in a holding pattern.
It occurred to me that my dual headliners for this year’s Deer Isle Jazz Festival—pianist Geri Allen and clarinetist Evan Christopher— —personify those ideas. Continue reading “Mining Music and Meaning in Maine: The Deer Isle Jazz Festival”
At any given moment, there are sounds of New Orleans in New York City’s air—lately, a little more than usual.
Last week, pianist Jon Batiste, who will lead the band for Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” come September, had melodica in hand as he led something like a second-line parade out of Union Square Park (see my account and an interview here.) He’ll hold court during what he calls a “social music residency” at Manhattan’s NoMad Hotel June 23-26.
On Saturday, June 20, the Rebirth Brass Band, who pretty much authored present-day brass-band style, brought their parade-honed sound to the mainstage of a festival called “Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World” in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Around that same time Saturday, the New Breed Brass Band, full of bright young upstarts, performed on Governor’s Island, within the Nalofunk Crawfish and Music Festival. On Friday, June 26, the Soul Rebels, who’ve slid brass-band tradition comfortably into Afro Latin and hip-hop territory during the past two decades, make their debut at the Blue Note jazz club with a late set featuring rappers Rakim and Slick Rick.
For those who didn’t let Saturday’s persistent spray of light rain dampen their enthusiasm, the “Wonderful World” festival brought Armstrong’s spirit and legacy to life in several ways not far from the legendary trumpeter’s former home, which is now a terrific landmark, the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Ricky Riccardi, that museum’s archivist and the author of an essential book on Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years,” was over at the nearby Queens Museum, sharing insights and pleasures from his research.
The day’s highlight, the essential heartbeat of the event, was a set from drummer Shannon Powell’s Traditional All-Star Jazz Band. Powell, who headlines too infrequently in New York City, is rightly revered in his hometown, where he’s known as “The King of Tremé” for his prominence in a neighborhood that has nurtured traditional jazz culture and which he still calls home. Continue reading “Drummer Shannon Powell's Brilliance Shines in Louis Armstrong's Light”
The sky was blue, the sun bright and the temperature comfortably cool on a late-April Friday for the start of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The prior day, the atmosphere within New Orleans city council chamber was overheated, the mood dark for the business at hand: a proposed revision to the city’s sound ordinance, the product of some five years of discussion and research, several recent months of impassioned activism and a last-minute flurry of behind-the scenes emails. If such a policy debate seemed far removed from jazzfest’s visceral pleasures, it likely had greater bearing on the practice of New Orleans jazz and cultural heritage.
At the Fair Grounds, the racetrack that becomes an outdoor music venue each Spring, the pleasant forecast held through jazzfest’s seven days of programming—good news for the performers and audiences at the event’s dozen stages and its many vendors of food and crafts.
Back at City Hall, the outlook for policy reforms remained cloudy at best once the city council deadlocked, 3-3, thus balking at a proposed ordinance revision.
The revisions would have dictated new methods of measurement and acceptable decibel levels for sound along a particularly loud section of the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street (based on an exhaustive study by acoustician David Woolworth, whose Oxford, Miss.-based firm was hired by the city council).
Perhaps more to the point for musicians and their supporters, the revised ordinance would have accomplished two citywide goals: decriminalizing violations to the sound ordinance (subjecting musicians and others to fines but not to potential arrest); and rescinding Section 66-205, which states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.”
Never mind that many tourists come to New Orleans with the specific expectation of happening upon musical instruments being played on street after 8pm. And never mind that City Attorney Sharonda Williams argued on that Thursday before the city council that the curfew—first enacted in 1956—was unconstitutional. Williams explained that the present law was inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent establishing music as protected speech in the first place, and that any restrictions on such need be “content neutral and narrowly tailored.” She said, “The concern here is that this is about musical instruments. It’s not even about music in general. It is not about recording music. It is not about sound. It’s about a particular class of people.”
In her final meeting as council member before stepping down, following the recent election, Jackie Clarkson sought to get around that thorny issue by proposing an extension of the curfew restrictions, to read: “It shall be unlawful to operate or play any radio, television, phonograph, musical instrument, loudspeaker or sound emanating device….” Clarkson, who is white, seemed genuinely surprised when another council member, James Gray, who is black, commented that “there are many black men on the corner who won’t understand that city council passed a rule that tells a police officer that if anyone is on the corner with any sound emitting device they will be cited.”
This year wasn’t the first time the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival formed ironic contrast to the truth beyond the Fair Grounds, and pointed to New Orleans jazz and heritage in terms of protected forms of speech. In 2007, three days before members of the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club danced their way through Fair Grounds—in the festival’s mock second-line parade with a brass bands—its members were represented in federal court, fighting to protect that century-old tradition as it played out in real streets. A consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure clubs filed a lawsuit against the city, and defeated jacked-up permit fees for weekly second-line parades on First Amendment grounds. (The Nine Times club members were out in force during jazzfest’s first weekend.)
At the city council meeting the day before jazzfest’s start, attorney Ashlye Keaton gave some longview context to all of this, citing early 19th-century mayoral designation of Congo Square as a place for African drumming, and more recent history: the moment in June 2010 when quality-of-life officer Ronald Jones Jr. served notice on the TBC Brass Band (which stands for To Be Continued, as in a cultural tradition). The band had set up shop, just as they’d been doing most Tuesdays through Sundays since 2002, on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, in front of the Foot Locker store. At issue were two ordinances, including the above-mentioned Section 66-205. As NOPD spokesman Bob Young described it to me in 2010, “This is not enforcement per se. No one was cited. They were presented with a letter advising the musicians that they were in violation of the law.” Still, serving notice of these ordinances and requiring signed acknowledgment seemed tantamount to enforcement. At least the message was clear enough: Your next note is illegal.
At this year’s event, the TBC Brass Band played one of jazzfest’s sought-after stages, not coincidentally named for Congo Square. After the band’s well-received set, TBC trombonist Joe Maize, explained that the band no longer played on that Bourbon Street corner. “We were going to graduate from playing on that spot anyway,” he told me. “But we always think about the younger generation. If they can’t play on the street the way we did, they’re not going to have the chance to learn, like we did, how to reach an audience and how to control an audience. If we wouldn’t have played on that spot for a decade, we wouldn’t have been able to play here today.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who opened his second term with an impassioned inaugural speech on May 6 at a recently renovated Saenger Theater, was at the jazzfest press tent four days earlier, for an announcement that Shell will continue as the event’s presenting sponsor through 2019, when the festival celebrates its 50th anniversary. When I asked him about the city council’s failure to revise the sound ordinance, Landrieu said he was encouraged about the discussions to date, and that he hoped a reconstituted council (as of May) would find proper legislation. As for the curfew? “It has to go,” he said, “because it focuses on a narrow set of people, and not on a level of noise.”
More recently, Scott Hutcheson, Advisor to the Mayor for Cultural Economy, sent me the following comment via email regarding the curfew: “Upon advice of the City Attorney, the enforcement for the sound ordinance will concentrate on the issues of sound levels at certain times which are clearly outlined in Table 1 of the ordinance and which addresses these levels as they concern public rights of way. We will work on addressing the curfew specifically with the new Council and continue to stand by the City Attorney’s advice on the constitutionality issues raised by the curfew itself.”
It is easy to dismiss the legitimate concerns of residents and business owners regarding noise and nuisance, and fundamental right to privacy and peace. One also runs the risk of caricature when demonizing those, such as members of two groups, Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates and French Quarter Citizens, which have been especially active around these issues, as opponents of culture. And yet that’s how the battle lines have generally been drawn—well-heeled residents groups with easy access to power against musicians and supporters who feel embattled and too often shut out of the process. It is unreasonable to expect residents to accept any level of sound at any time in the name of culture. It is equally unreasonable to, for instance, expect a brass band member to know that a police officer has been instructed to ignore an ordinance outlawing his street performance, or to feel sanguine in that knowledge if he did. And, more to the point, it is hard to understand how a city that markets itself as “music city” would leave an unconstitutional ordinance on the books that specifically targets musicians, leaving revived enforcement as an option should political winds or neighborhood profiles change. As a matter of principle, the curfew is indefensible. As a practical matter, it’s just bad policy. As a symbol, it’s even worse. By removing it, and by creating clear and enforceable limits to sound based on time, place and scientific measurement, the city council can pursue legitimate policy rather than fuel ongoing conflict.
Mayor Landrieu appears to understand that. At jazzfest, he told me, “There is a way to organize culture without killing it.” However one feels about attempts to organize culture in principle, that’s the job of coherent policymaking.
The process itself is revealing. There was an odd but telling moment during the city council committee public comment by Arline Bronzaft, who as advised four different New York City administrations on noise issues and was present at the request of Bronzaft seized upon the move away from the word “noise” and toward “sound” in describing the issue and even naming the new ordinance: “Mr. Woolworth deemed ‘sound’ to be a more respectable word than ‘noise’ because sounds can be both pleasant and unpleasant whereas noise is definitely deemed to be unpleasant to the listener.” David Freedman, general manager of listener-supported WWOZ-FM (by any estimation the flagship station for New Orleans culture) offered a rebuttal of sorts with his public comment: “To treat New Orleans music performance as just another unwanted, uncontrollable and unpredictable noise—is to totally not get the centrality of this special joyful noise to the identity of our culture and economy.”
Freedman questioned the appropriateness of Bronzaft’s opinion: “Now, after five years of discussion among those of us most passionate about this issue, and five weeks of intense activity among those of us most affected by excessive sound, comes in our midst people from out of town who presume to tell us what is good for us in New Orleans.”
I agree with one aspect of Freedman’s attitude—the identity and economy of New Orleans are, as he put it, “dependent on the tourist experience driven by their expectations of engaging in our local music culture in the clubs and on the streets” in ways that defy any meaningful correlation to New York City. For those who live in New Orleans, those who travel there regularly in real life or just in their minds and hearts and those who treasure its culture from afar, this story demands attention. At a moment when an as-yet-undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one, the present issue speaks volumes regarding what is exceptional about New Orleans, and how the city might best support and nurture (as opposed to simply promote) that.
Ask a trombonist like Joe Maize or another musician, or anyone in the committed community that keeps culture at the core of everyday New Orleans life—second-line paraders, Mardi Gras Indians, club owners, lawyers and the hundreds mobilized through the nonprofit Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO)—and they’ll tell you that current calls for change regard two things more so than any specific decibel levels: Policies that nurture and protect a still-vital indigenous and seats for culture-bearers at the policymaking table. The former highlights what has always been exceptional about New Orleans. The latter is what any American city, including New York, needs if it values culture on a par with commerce.
In that way, this story also highlights one way in which New Orleans is not particularly exceptional. In New York, and in nearly every city with a distinctive cultural history (which is to say most cities), the process of cultural policy inevitably confronts a question: What happens when those who spark redevelopment in a city build upon the cachet of culture but don’t want that culture next door?
Bronzaft’s testimony notwithstanding, it isn’t hard to connect what’s going on in New Orleans with, say, New York City, in many respects. I was struck by what Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, had to say at a recent panel discussion titled “Jazz and New York: A Fragile Economy,” hosted by the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. When asked by critic Gary Giddins about the vitality of Manhattan’s so-called “jazz loft scene” during the 1970s and ’80s, Campbell said, “It’s a real paradox. The poverty of the city during that time, in an ironic way, worked to the advantage of artists. Now, as neighborhoods have grown more attractive, the very artists who pioneered have to find somewhere else to live and work. We need to completely rethink what kind of investment we want to make in culture before it’s too late.”
Not long before I left New Orleans, I sat on the front porch of clarinetist Evan Christopher, who arrived in New Orleans 20 years ago in search of what he calls “a specific clarinet language.” Christopher now part of the city’s distinctive cultural landscape, though in contexts far removed from the streets (in between jazzfest weekends, among the best live-music offerings was a performance by Christopher’s Django à la Créole, at a venue he developed for himself, within a MidCity’s wine bar). Still, his perspective speaks well to this moment.
“For me, the battle is not about our right to do something,” he told me. “The battle is to keep neighborhoods vibrant. The battle is about framing our culture in a way where it’s connected to a sense of how people live here. And how visitors engage the notion of living here.”
The next day, having reveled in both jazzfest’s offerings and the wealth of great gigs in between the Fair Grounds events, I stood on North Robertson Street, just off St. Philip, in Tremé, for another now-annual celebration, Tuba Fats Tuesday. It’s named for Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, who died in 2004 and who was a mentor to many of the musicians who now define New Orleans brass-band tradition. In the lot next to the Candlelight Lounge, where the Treme Brass Band still holds court weekly, near the spot where a musical procession for another deceased tuba player was notably shut down by police in 2007, stirring up much controversy, the TBC Brass Band played, and then gave way to a yet younger band. Two boys, no more than 8 or 9, danced with two men who looked to be in their seventies or eighties. Tremé, long a hothouse for New Orleans indigenous culture, is fast changing, gentrifying during the past several years more rapidly then any such transformation I’ve seen in New York. I couldn’t tell if what was going on that Tuesday was a last glimmer of something soon gone or a fresh spark.
The answer lies as much in the actions and attitudes, the ordinances and intentions of city council as much as in the notes issued from trumpets and trombones, and the beats to which the faithful dance. Images: flag, Douglas Mason; Trombone Shorty, Zack Smith, both courtesy of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival