TCS Daily

New Orleans in the Past Tense

By Todd Seavey - September 12, 2005 12:00 AM

New Orleans, cradle of several American music styles, cuisines, and fictional vampires, wasn't quite like the rest of the country. It often seemed as if it was part of something older, more a hybrid of France and the Caribbean than part of the same nation that produced the city where I live, New York.

That's why eight years ago, at the peak of the dotcom boom, I decided to visit it and talk to some of its musicians and historians. It seemed like a place where tradition still mattered, in a world then giddy with cyberoptimism, when even the conservative Speaker of the House talked in an upbeat fashion about information revolutions and the Third Wave and futureshocks.


By contrast, when I caught up to David Johnson, managing editor of Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine, during my 1997 visit to the Big Easy, he had just finished dancing in a conga-like "second line" with a group of voodoo drummers. And New Orleans' sense of rootedness in the past didn't lead back only to Africa. "In Cajun country here, there's an absolute, direct descendant of medieval, pagan celebrations: Cajun Mardi Gras," said Johnson. Cajun Mardi Gras includes the ritualistic but genuinely frightening kidnapping of all the Cajun children by a few of the Cajun women, who return them to their homes when evening approaches. The rest of the women barge into restaurants and other establishments to dance on tables and disrupt the proceedings.


"After the women created a big ruckus in the restaurant," recounted Johnson, "they gathered in a circle and three men came out with the big, burlap whips. The women then try to run across the dance floor and drag these men with them, but in the meantime the men are beating the hell out of them. In fact, I was standing too close at one point, and one of them snipped my arm. It hurt. I mean, this is not child's play...they're practicing customs that date back to, what, the 1100s?"


The next morning, the men would don medieval costumes and get on horseback. "They start rampaging through the countryside," explained Johnson. As non-Cajun townfolk passed by, "they would literally jump on top of their cars to prevent them from getting to where they wanted to go...disrupting the normal, workaday world." They then go from farm to farm with a band traveling behind them on a wagon. At each farm, the owner throws a chicken in the air and the men scramble to catch it. At the end of the day, they create a huge, communal gumbo out of the chickens.


Cajun Mardi Gras sounds like the medieval-French "festival of fools," at which the whole world turned topsy-turvy for a few days, with the commoners becoming the government and vice versa (in much the same spirit as punker Jello Biafra's vow, when he ran for mayor of San Francisco, to turn all public-sector tasks over to the private sector and vice-versa). Johnson said New Orleans' stability was partly a product of poverty and isolation, partly of pride. New Orleans, in other words, was a place where some very old practices seemed likely to endure into the twenty-first century. What will survive after the pieces are picked up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina remains to be seen.


What makes Katrina truly tragic, though, is that New Orleans was by no means a stagnant place. It may have been poorer and lower-tech and more old-fashioned than New York, which contributed to its devastation, but like New York it mixed and matched its component subcultures to create an air of possibility, making it a fount of creativity that income and population figures alone did not fully capture.


Preservation Hall and a Dynamic Past


The website for Preservation Hall, New Orleans' best-known jazz performance space, says as I write this in early September 2005, "Due to the recent hurricane, Preservation Hall will be closed indefinitely." When I visited in '97, Trumpet-player and singer Wendell Brunious, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, described to me how music passed down from generation to generation within families in New Orleans, in a fashion quite different from the American Idol-style instant pop superstars to which we've grown accustomed. "I grew up around music," said Brunious. My dad was a great musician. My grandfather, his dad, was a great piano player...It was part of me before anything. I just believe in it so much." For non-jazz fans, "jazz" mainly suggests the moody, meandering style of innovators like Miles Davis, but more old-fashioned and high-spirited jazz, complete with banjos and ragtime-like pianos, was abundant in New Orleans, stuff more closely resembling Dixieland and Louis Armstrong, and those were the traditions upon which the bebop innovators of more recent decades built.


Brunious made a point of giving miniature history lectures between songs to the crowds packed into the small, dilapidated-looking space at Preservation Hall. He told me audience members, especially musicians who know the history, sometimes told him he talks too much, but he felt he had a duty. "I know what I'm about to say. You think I feel like saying the same doggone thing over and over? But what do you do? A kindergarten teacher can only sing the ABCs so many times, but until the kids learn, what do you do? It's the only way."


New Orleans culture is a complex mix of influences. Brunious's own family tree includes Creole, Mexican, Chilean, and Filipino branches, and he saw a similar hybridization in his music. "The music that we play, it has some Latin music in it, some French music in it, but expressed through us and through our lifestyles. That's what makes this New Orleans music unique. It's from a culture that's nowhere else. A lot of people from New Orleans have moved to California and places like that, but when they go away, they don't play like they played when they were in New Orleans, and that's no joke."


Even in New Orleans, though, traditions can change quickly. Brunious expressed alarm at the rise of rap, while other jazz musicians I talked to heaped scorn on the "soft jazz" of performers like Kenny G -- and some still resent the rise of the heretical, chaotic-sounding beboppers. Brunious noted with some embarrassment that his son had formed an amateur rock band and that they were considering calling themselves Marx's Army. "I didn't want to seem like the old man, but why do it like that? I said, you guys know anything about Karl Marx? You know anything about anything? I mean, you're fourteen. Where have you been, you been across the river twice? You been on a field trip to Baton Rouge overnight and all of a sudden you're Marx's Army?"


Marching On


Simultaneously more traditionalistic and more innovative than virtually any other American city, New Orleans, if it could not be rebuilt, would not be easily replaced. It is not a generic, interchangeable sort of city. Even when some of the modern trends Brunious criticized found their way into New Orleans, they ended up filtered through its complex layers of history. Hiphop, for instance, fused with traditional brass marching bands to produce a cacophonous but funky new sound.


Donna Sims had made her bar Donna's Place, a haven for the new brass bands when I visited. "Brass bands are kind of the logo for the city of New Orleans...interwoven into the fabric of everything. They're in the social and pleasure clubs, second lines, play for the Mardi Gras, jazz funerals..." She decided to start a club showcasing the brass bands when she realized that few of them were performing in the old clubs on Bourbon Street. "Brass bands have always, traditionally, reflected the music of the day," said Sims, "even when the brass bands were more formal. They reflected the Italian opera of the day [in the nineteenth century], then they went to ragtime and were so fast, and then Jelly Roll Morton came in." The night I was in Donna's Place, the new-style brass band playing was called the Soul Rebels, and their drummer didn't seem to feel much angst about how to balance tradition and innovation. "It just depends on where the tuba goes," she told me. The dancing crowd was mostly college-age and far from formal. Sims said other establishments had begun following her lead and booking brass bands. "They all jumped on the brass bandwagon," added Donna's husband Charlie.


But trumpet player Gregg Stafford was also at Sims' place that night, and though he was polite about it, he was skeptical about the new brass bands. Two days later, I heard him play during brunch in a quiet hotel lounge, a much more peaceful setting than the brass band performance. Though Stafford was only in his forties, he'd been playing since he was ten and leaned more toward traditional jazz. At Donna's Place, he and others in the New Orleans jazz community were preparing for the funeral the next day of Big Mama, a.k.a. Betty Rankin, a seventy-nine year-old jazz DJ and guiding light. New Orleans funerals are probably richer in tradition -- and less grim -- than those of any other city, often featuring jazz and marching second lines. Funerals there tend to be more openly acknowledged as social occasions built around the mourners' memories, rather than around the tragic, embarrassing necessity of burying a body.


A local newspaper clipping on the wall at Donna's described the debate over how to handle the funeral of jazz great Danny Barker three years earlier. Barker had requested that he not have a jazz funeral, regarding them as disrespectful, but Gregg Stafford and others managed to put together appropriately solemn musical accompaniment for the occasion. Some of the same crowd would turn out for Big Mama's send-off. "I have a feeling of self-fulfillment in trying to preserve my heritage," said Stafford. "That's what makes New Orleans music so phenomenal and so special -- this is really the only place you can come and get it."


The Pilgrims and Wandering Minstrels


If New Orleans is not resurrected, it will be a loss not just for its inhabitants but for the world. The fact that New Orleans was a complex hybrid made it possible for a wide range of people to immerse themselves in its traditions.


Take Roger Grigsby, a fiftyish restaurateur and accordion player in Santa Cruz, CA, who was explicitly philosophical about his reasons for loving New Orleans from afar, telling me Cajun music possesses an integrity that much of modern life lacks. "I grew up around country music, not accordion music...but there must have been a Cajun in the woodpile." Grigsby calls himself "paleoconservative" and shares that movement's aversion to mass media and to immigration -- but that doesn't stop him from loving the hybrid Cajun culture, and that didn't stop him from marrying an immigrant Chinese woman, operating a Chinese restaurant, and importing Chinese furniture. He told me he's not opposed to other cultures, just to the assumption that they should be blended together into a homogenized, bland "mainstream." In fact, it was the accordion playing of a Japanese band he heard in Thailand that convinced him he had to take up the instrument.


When I visited New Orleans, octogenarian trumpeter and vocalist Lionel Ferbos was leading the band one night at the Palm Court jazz cafe, and the audience included many who had been drawn great distances by the city's music. One German jazz musician living in New Orleans told me that jazz doesn't sound quite real back in Europe, that it's often technically accurate but either cold or hokey-sounding, so he had to come to New Orleans to hear it in its natural context. Briton Margaret Harding told me she had built a whole tour company called Diplomatic Travel around New Orleans jazz, bringing fans over from the old country. Kelley Edmiston, daughter of the couple who founded Preservation Hall and my informal guide to New Orleans, was also present at the Palm Court that night, and she noted that the city also had a growing number of young Japanese music students, some of whom were so dedicated to the jazz music they heard on records back home that they can faithfully reproduce it note for note -- including the occasional wrong note from the original performance.


Maybe the world beyond the New Orleans floodwaters won't replicate New Orleans culture in a perfectly organic, natural way, but the world will keep adapting New Orleans culture to its own needs, and the city will live on -- in our traditions and our improvisations -- regardless of what becomes of its buildings. Like philosophy, religion, or a catchy tune, New Orleans is to some degree portable, and we'd all do well at this time to pause and treasure the little bits of it we each carry with us.


Todd Seavey is a Phillips Foundation Fellow and edits He is writing a book called Conservatism for Punks.


To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.


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