What We Owe New Orleans
by Gary Giddins, author of Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century and the forthcoming Intelligent Design
The waters that in the first days of September drowned New Orleans are the waters that established the incomparable city as a key port before the railroad replaced shipping as the primary vehicle of trade. They gave New Orleans a unique cultural character, blending elements of the continental United States with those of a Caribbean island. Cradled between the big dipper of the Mississippi and huge Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans was a locus for the slave trade and also known for cotton, sugar cane, and fishing. Yet to most of the world, New Orleans is chiefly associated with one export that it largely abandoned decades ago: a way of playing music called jazz.
You can still hear jazz, but aside from Preservation Hall, it had pretty much disappeared from the French Quarter, finding more hospitable bars and restaurants on the other side of Canal Street. There is an airport and a park named after Louis Armstrong, and an invaluable archive at Tulane, and Herman Leonard’s photographs are everywhere, but jazz always had an uneasy life there. They tore down Basin Street after the war and refused to preserve Armstrong’s home.
So, humanity aside, what do we jazz lovers specifically owe to New Orleans? Only everything.
It wasn’t the only place of genesis. The mobility of freed slaves after the Civil War guaranteed the spread of musical practices honed in the south. Ragtime prospered in St. Louis and the blues in Memphis. The journalist Lafcadio Hearn described syncopated black bands on the Cincinnati levees in 1876. Two decades later, W. C. Handy took his brass band on tour and recruited musicians in Philadelphia as well as in Southern cities. Handy insisted that some Negro songs “drifted down the river” from Ohio to Louisiana.
Still, the first true jazz ensembles emerged in New Orleans. From this bustling, highly musical, culturally manifold, multilingual port came the first important jazz band-leaders, composers, and soloists. They made their way to stations along the river and to nightclubs and recording studios, relaying their music across the nation and beyond its borders: Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, King Oliver, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Lonnie Johnson, Armstrong, and other illustrious names, not least the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the jokey white band that was the first to record and popularize jazz as the soundtrack for an era that took its name from the new music.
It had to be New Orleans. Jazz is city music, born of saloons, dance halls, street parades, picnics, advertising wagons, funerals, and parties. In an era when the South was almost entirely agricultural, New Orleans expanded as a lively metropolis with a distinctive architectural look, discrete neighborhoods, a level of sophistication associated with European capitols, and a taste for pleasure. Many citizens spoke French and Spanish, and infused the city with the culture of European Catholicism. While grand opera struggled to gain a foothold in New York and Boston, it thrived in New Orleans. Yet the same citizens who sponsored North American premieres of Rossini and Donizetti also celebrated Lent with the bacchanalian Mardi Gras.
Its attitudes toward race also differed with general practices in Protestant North America. Elsewhere in the United States, slaves were forced to accept most aspects of Western society, other than democracy and related constitutional rights. Slaves were required to learn English and become Christian, while overlooking fundamental ideas of Christianity that prohibit slavery in the first place. The goal was efficient interaction between slaves and masters. New Orleans, however, maintained a close connection to the busy and brutal slave trade in the Caribbean and South America, where the traffic in human beings was unrelenting, resulting in the retention of African languages, beliefs, music, and customs. These carried into New Orleans, where nearly half the population was black—enslaved or free.
By 1860, free blacks and Creoles of Color had acquired civic power; some even participated in the slave trade. That changed abruptly with the rancor of Reconstruction: the imposition of Jim Crow laws; the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that essentially legalized segregation; the outbreak of lynching that so bloodied the soil not a thousand Katrinas could wash it clean. Even so, a despised minority, shunted aside into pockets of unimaginable poverty, created a cultural landscape made emblematic in music so vital that white newspapers editorialized against it (“The Mascot” raged in protest as early as 1890) even as white citizen rushed to hear and play it and be reborn in it.
New Orleans changed my life, in 1963, when I visited as a boy and heard a band led by Emanuel Sayles with George Lewis. It wasn’t just the music. The hotel had segregated toilets. The shop windows offered pickininny dolls and slave-trade souvenirs. But the ballroom where this concert took place was integrated, welcoming, enlightened—an oasis of sanity and decency. Years later, when I visited for research I went to interview a member of the Zulu Crewe, which hosted a neighborhood barbecue that evening and insisted I eat, drink, and meet practically everyone in the neighborhood, assuring me I was family. These are some of the people who didn’t have means to evacuate, people vilified by newscasters who condemned looting, but failed to ask why hospitals failed to clear out patients and newborns. This is the city that the president associated with his boozing days and the speaker of the house didn’t think needed to be rebuilt.
We are at war with terrorists, Iraqis, world opinion, nature, and ourselves, and losing on every front. If you want to know what it means to miss New Orleans, play “Potato Head Blues.” And shed another tear.
(Adapted from a piece that originally appeared in Jazz Times.)