New Orleans: Chasing the Blues Away

Mardi Gras 2007 (Photo by Nathan Rupert)
Mardi Gras 2007 (Photo by Nathan Rupert)


Even though many vital signs remain weak, a feeling of quasi-normality is starting to return to New Orleans. Meter maids armed with Wi-Fi contraptions are writing almost as many parking tickets as they wrote before the storm. The Department of Public Works is finally restoring traffic signals at major intersections and fixing potholes on cratered streets that had begun to resemble the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Mounds of curbside debris in some badly flood-damaged neighborhoods suggest that former residents are gutting their ruined houses to rebuild.

Then there’s the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the spring event that ran on two consecutive weekends in April and May. Now in its 38th year, Jazzfest has grown into the largest outdoor musical event in the world and probably the only one with food tents that have received rave reviews from The New York Times. Since Hurricane Katrina landed late in August 2005, Jazzfest has been a harbinger of the future and a metaphor for what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong in New Orleans. The city’s surpris­ingly co­mpetitive National Football League team set an optimistic tone last fall and winter. “You couldn’t have asked for a better season out of the Saints,” Quint Davis, the Jazzfest’s producer and director, told The Times-Picayune on the eve of the festival. “Now it’s our turn to go for the Super Bowl of jazz fests.”

Boosters of this sort have proliferated after American civic disasters at least as far back as the Chicago fire of 1871, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin is not an exception. He’s repeatedly promised a bigger and better New Orleans. And of course President George W. Bush, speaking to a national television audience from a darkened Jackson Square 17 days after Katrina, made a similar pledge: “We will not just rebuild; we will build higher and better.” The difference between Quint Davis and elected officials is that the former has delivered on his boast. The festival this year was bigger and more entertaining than many previous ones.

Last year’s festival was a minor miracle just for happening, since eight months earlier 80 percent of the city had lain submerged. Flood waters had inun­­­dated the New Orleans Fair Grounds—a 10-minute drive from the French Quarter—where the festival has been held since 1972. A scaled-back affair, the 2006 event was pitched mainly to a local audience as a tonic for battered souls. Its festiveness felt forced; like a traditional jazz funeral that can’t quite cut loose, the mood was that of a dirge punctuated here and there by outbursts of joy. So many people had lost jobs and opportunities, homes and loved ones. Even Bruce Springsteen’s exuberant closing set on the first weekend’s final day failed to dispel all lingering Katrina blues. The fate of New Orleans seemed to hang by a thread of federal indifference.

This year was different. There were more stages, the marketing was more aggressive, and more big-name artists performed, among them Rod Stewart, Norah Jones, Brad Paisley, and Ludacris. The crowds were bigger, too, starting with a packed opening day, and the mood more ebullient. A year earlier, performers entreated former residents and visitors to return to New Orleans; this year, mammoth loudspeakers blared “We are back!” The Jazzfest nation turned out in force, parading in all its often half-clad whimsy under gunmetal skies streaked with blue. T- shirts caught a new mood. My favorite: I’VE USED UP ALL MY SICK DAYS SO I’M CALLING IN DEAD.

FEMA—a four-letter word in the Katrina zone—should have taken lessons from Jazzfest organizers, and so should state and local officials. They’ve all made a hash of the reconstruction. Nagin’s latest rebuilding plan rests on wishful funding, and he still has trouble keeping his mouth free of shoe leather. Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco, whose polling numbers make the Republican president’s look healthy, recently announced that she wouldn’t stand for reelection this fall. For months on end her signature program for putting federal dollars in the hands of displaced homeowners, Road Home, was stuck near zero. Now that the grants are starting to flow, however, the program seems headed for an estimated $3 billion shortfall, threatening to leave thousands of applicants in the lurch.

Jazzfest’s success has come at the price of commercialization. It’s now the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell, and—like every big city’s professional sports stadium and arena—the large stages have been branded: the Acura Stage, the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage, the AT&T/ WWOZ Jazz Tent, the AIG Gospel Tent. Ticket prices have shot up as well. A day pass now fetches $45 at the gate or $35 if purchased in advance (plus surcharges). A decade ago they were only $12; then prices spiked after the rain-soaked 2004 festival lost money and organizers teamed up with a Los Angeles– based concert promoter. Like Mardi Gras, Jazzfest is a big piece of the strategy to increase tourism in New Orleans, and it pulls in tens of thousands of out-of-towners every year, generating an estimated $300 million. But in post-Katrina New Orleans, tourism is rendering the Jazzfest party less accessible to residents. The acts are still drawn overwhelmingly from Louisiana—though a big share of the gate goes to headliners—but the crowds increasingly come from elsewhere. One longtime performer said he couldn’t remember seeing so few Orleanians (fewer and fewer of whom are black in a city that was two-thirds African American before Katrina). I observed the lines leading to por­table toilets and the crowds squeezed in front of the Congo Square Stage; 5 to 10 percent African-American attendance was the most generous estimate I could come up with. Of course, one traditional demographic persisted: the cleanup crews were almost all black.

Jazzfest’s organizers are sensitive to the way ticket prices have put the event beyond the reach of many residents, and they’ve increased the number of free tickets handed out to community-based organizations. Although the producers promise to roll back the price of some advance purchases next year, their business model doesn’t leave a lot of latitude. To generate sufficient revenue to book local talent, producers need to attract headliners, which requires raising ticket prices. By national standards, the prices aren’t excessive. But by the impoverished norm in New Orleans, which has declined further since the hurricane, the cost of admissions to Jazzfest is a stretch. Don Marshall, the executive director of the nonprofit foundation that produces Jazzfest, told a Times-Picayune writer that “[people in] this particular audience have never been ticket buyers. They can barely afford to exist in our city.” If encouraging tourism is the strategy for bringing back New Orleans, Jazzfest’s experience suggests it may be less than an ideal plan for bringing back longtime residents.

Since Katrina, there has been a lot of grousing here about the condition of our levees. When will the federal government finally provide Category 5 protection, as opposed to the inadequate dikes built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? After all, Katrina was as much a man-made disaster as a natural one. But I worry more about the state of the local economy than about the condition of the flood walls and pumps. Cities that rebound well from catastrophes are usually powered by a resilient economy; ours has languished for decades. The Port of New Orleans, which before the Civil War transformed a backwater of empire into a colossus of commerce, was long ago eclipsed by Houston. And now even Mobile, Alabama, is drawing away shipping companies that were long established in New Orleans. Big engineering firms have moved their headquarters to Baton Rouge. The city’s health-care system is on life support. Untold numbers of physicians, many of them well-regarded specialists, have left the region, and nurses, medical technicians, and mental-health workers (more in demand since Katrina) are all in short supply. Obscenely long waits for urgent care are still commonplace in the functioning emergency rooms across the city and suburbs. Charity Hospital—Big Charity—where the LSU and Tulane medical schools trained generations of doctors while serving the needs of the city’s large indigent population, was shuttered after the storm, probably permanently. In the meantime, officials in Baton Rouge and Washington are wrangling over whether they should rebuild Big Charity, start a new hospital from scratch, perhaps in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (and perhaps outside New Orleans), or reinvent Louisiana’s health-care system altogether. While politicos and ideologues squabble, pre-Katrina plans for incubating a biotech economy in the downtown medical complex anchored by Charity are gathering dust. People are beginning to worry that the LSU Medical School might eventually pull up stakes.

So what New Orleans—and its labor force of hotel maids, waiters, bellhops, and doormen—is left with is tourism. The high-poverty and low-literacy rates endemic here mirror—and more importantly, perpetuate—this dismal reality. The New Orleans poor have always lived by the hustle, eking out inadequate wages and suffering chronic underemployment with off-the-books make­shifts in the underground economy. Lately the hustle has become more desperate. Long before Katrina laid the city low, a social cyclone had ravaged huge swaths of the city’s storied neighborhoods. Many young black males had already dropped out before reaching high school—all too frequently to become “soljas” in the neighborhood gangs that substitute for families. Coming of age in New Orleans may summon visions of debutante balls, but for a staggering number of the city’s adolescents, the capstone of youth is a date with the state’s prison industry, which is often little more than a patronage program for parish sheriffs. The history and heritage of “convict lease” die hard in the Pelican State. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, which is to say the world. All this has been bad news for those who hoped to lay a new foundation under the ailing economy of New Orleans. And it hasn’t been good news for New Orleans culture either.

Contrary to myth, jazz wasn’t midwifed in Story­ville, the bordello district where legendary pianists Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson held court. Instead, it came squalling into the world from the Big Easy’s untouristed neighborhoods, where the foot-stomp­ing rhythms of sanctified churches mingled with the bounce of countless spasm bands thrumming washboards on nearby corners. Parades seemed to happen everywhere and all the time. Whether participating in a jazz funeral or promoting a new department store, wind ensembles, mostly brass, fed off the energy of undulating parade followers known as second liners. “It’s a funny thing,” an old-time cornet player remembered. “You played in an orchestra, people didn’t pay no attention to you, but as soon as you hit the street, everybody had their eye on you.” If you wanted to hold the crowd’s attention, you had to swing the music so that the street dancers might swing with it. As Thomas Brothers’s recent book, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, demonstrates, jazz percolated up from this vernacular soundscape of rhythm and kinesis and virtuoso improvisation. Although the interplay between second liners and musicians was still taking place on the eve of the storm, the New Orleans street scene had gotten a lot rougher under the stress of poverty. Increasingly, the music rising from the neighborhoods and the projects was gangsta rap or hip-hop, which was no less nihilistic for being inflected with the idiom of New Orleans. Brass-band musicians had shed their crisply pressed uniforms for bling. Even traditional jazz funerals had gotten rowdier. Through it all, the tradition persisted, but even before Katrina, the fabled roots music of New Orleans was in danger of becoming programmed and academic.

Now, with so many neighborhoods washed away in Katrina’s wake, the unthinkable—the utter loss of the city’s cultural vibrancy—suddenly seems possible. The storm and its consequences may have irreparably severed the organic connection between community and culture. If so, this deracination poses a challenge not only for cultural survival but for any economic recovery dependent on the continual replenishment of the vernacular music of New Orleans. The producers of Jazzfest have long been sensitive to the importance of nourishing the city’s cultural roots. George Wein, the promoter and producer who conceived the Newport jazz and folk festivals before launching the New Orleans counterpart, wrote, in Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, about a stormy meeting with New Orleans black com­mu­nity acti­vists in the 1970s.

“We’re going to force you to make us part of the festival,” writer and poet Kalamu ya Salaam told Wein. “You have been ripping off black culture. The community is not benefiting nearly enough by what’s happening.” Wein replied: “You can’t force us to do what we want to do in the first place.” Over the years Jazzfest has become increas­ingly inclusive. Since 1979 its non­profit arm has awarded in excess of $1 million in community grants to musicians and artists and school music programs. Still, there are financial limits to charity. The musical heritage of New Orleans evolved within functioning neighborhood communities. If those are gone, how can the culture continue to flourish?

It has become a national pastime to blame state and local officials for the sluggishness of the New Orleans recovery. And it’s true that Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco deserve much of the criticism that has been hurled their way. They make easy targets, but they’ve had a great deal of help in making a mess of recovery. Local politics has long been more about affixing blame for the city’s poverty and decay than about fixing potholes—much less the dysfunctional public schools or the unraveled social and public-health safety nets. But in this instance, the censure is misplaced. It is the federal government that deserves to be called to account. The principle of local control works just fine, all else being equal. But in the disaster zone, other things have not been equal. Katrina was no ordinary disaster. It was epochal, displacing more people than the Dust Bowl, inflicting financial losses greater than those of any previous American catastrophe. When is the last time a major disaster brought an entire United States city to its knees? Only the federal government has the resources to cope with a catastrophe of such scope and magnitude. Only Washington can coordinate relief and recovery activity across multiple levels of government and between public and private sectors, all the while taking care to ensure equitability when difficult planning decisions must be made. The nation has probably gone too far down the road of states’ rights federalism for some analogue of a New Deal agency like the Tennessee Valley Authority to arise from Katrina’s rubble. But the need for such a regional trans­jurisdictional entity has never been more apparent.

Some facsimile of New Orleans will live on. That so many residents are struggling not just to survive but to preserve the values that make survival worthwhile guarantees it—weather permitting. Our culture of enjoyment helps explain why many outsiders have made the city’s recovery a high priority. During the first weekend of Jazzfest, Jesse Jackson staged a rally in the Lower Ninth Ward that was attended by the local black political leadership. “I see the Saints are back, the basketball team is back, the white-top tablecloths are back, and Mardi Gras is back. But 250,000 people are not,” he told an estimated crowd of 400. I wondered why the march leading to the rally got under way at 8:00 a.m., an atypical hour for activities in New Orleans on a Saturday. I figured out the answer later when Jackson was spotted among the audience in the AIG Gospel Tent.

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Lawrence N. Powell is a professor of history at Tulane University and is writing a history of New Orleans.


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