Glen David Andrews and the public square

GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH

Citizenship in the holy city of New Orleans is a tough proposition even on days without politicians acting as termites to our fragile state of race relations. You ask: Why call this outback of democracy a “holy city?” I answer: The City Where Jazz Began is a cultural mecca. That’s why the story of jazz should be taught in every school, to ground youngsters in appreciating this great asset. Jazz with its improvisational voices, finding consensus, is a metaphor of democracy. One university requires a course in jazz history: Columbia in New York, the Ivy League. Not the University of New Orleans or Southern University of New Orleans, not Dillard, Loyola, Tulane or Xavier universities. If every New Orleans public school had a solid music education program so that every year the bands would perform at Gallier Hall before CEOs, Women of the Storm and like groups to applaud the kids, crime would go down and test scores would go up.

I hear the city council members yawning.

I wonder if anyone capable of getting elected can produce an agenda to reduce poverty and bridge the racial chasm. You can’t
do that without making The City Where Jazz Began the unifying proposition of a society. That is a huge order to fill, but night after night as brass bands play, youngsters go down in the bullets of a cartel economy. Apart from the periodic cri de couer by Jarvis DeBerry in The Times-Picayune, the rest of us chalk it up as crime coverage. Not my neighborhood; not kids I know.

Irvin Mayfield, one of my favorite trumpeters, is making noises about running for mayor. I admire his artistry, wit and charisma on stage. But the real work of governing is messy, bruising, and requires the experience of people who do it for a living. Do not sell me charisma. We have suffered through a version of the celebrity politician in Sugar Ray who at least saw the wisdom in a six-figure grant to Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra before Katrina. Post-Katrina, Nagin tanked because he lacked integrity and couldn’t learn from criticism. Make jazz, Mayfield, it’s what you do best. Politics is a meat grinder.

The best single political speech I’ve heard in years was by a trombonist who now has two new CDs. Glen David Andrews, not yet 30, is a strapping 6-foot-something and I’d seen him a few times at Sound Cafe in Bywater and also when he spoke at the Silence Is Violence rally in January 2007, on the steps of City Hall. The agony felt by 5,000 people from the string of recent murders, including Hot 8 snare drummer Dinerral Shavers and filmmaker Helen Hill, crested in his brief but dazzling speech. He lashed out at drug-dealers (“Shame on you!”), brutalizing cops (“I got on a black suit with a horn, do I look like I’m trying to sell somebody rocks?”) and then pointed the finger right at Nagin, who was staring at his feet as Andrews said, “Get on your job!”

It takes a courage we don’t see in politics for a musician to criticize an elected official in public. Most musicians avoid political controversy for fear it will cut into gigs; politicians hire for events. His speech that day was a minor masterpiece of passionate oratory.

There is a ton of passion in his new CDs, Dumaine Street Blues and Walking Through Heaven’s Gate: Zion Hill Baptist Church in Treme. The pitch and roll of Andrews’ trombone and his throaty, roller coaster-style of singing has its raw stretches – this isn’t music to lull you to sleep but the sheer bravura of his vocal performance on “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” and “Am I Blue” pulls from a reality grip that wraps around life and softens the struggle through street marches and church song. This is music that will make you move when you’re standing at the stove orchestrating onions in sauté. When I saw Andrews at French Quarter Festival he was in all white, swirling under the hot sun, jumping off the stage and prancing through the crowd as he sang. He could use a vocal coach to smooth out the rough patches for crooning, but watch this guy. He is real, he’s finding his voice and he has an energy that rolls with populism of the heart.

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