SPECIAL COMMENTARY: Prince of the City

If Louis Armstrong personified the jazzman as a cultural ambassador, Wynton Marsalis defined a new role, the emergency politician, a role he has performed with surpassing skill since devastations of the flood. Soon after Katrina, when Mayor Nagin met in Dallas with power brokers of the broken city, Marsalis was there via speaker phone, giving an impassioned defense of the musical culture, reminding those in the room that the cultural commerce relied heavily on music, and musicians.
No matter how one defines “cultural tourism,” that term has another side, a hidden dimension: the working poor. The maids, porters, bellhops, cashiers, dishwashers, bouncers, bartenders, wait staff and sundry others who toil at the hourly jobs, hoping for tips, are cogs that make the machinery work.The working class was wiped away by the flood; the city did little to draw them back.
On September 17, with most of New Orleans shorn of electricity, Marsalis as director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program in New York spearheaded the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Concert telethon on PBS, with an eBay auction and concert CD sales tie-in.
In the weeks that followed he gave interviews and testified before Congress, entreating people to see the cultural wealth and importance of the city where jazz began.
He also joined the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, as co-chair of the committee on culture. In January, the lengthy report Marsalis and his colleagues released carried a gold mine of material on cultural tourism. The report documents 70 Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and 47 Mardi Gras Indian gangs. We have no data on how many of the people are displaced, or how many of these groups will re-form. The most famous group, Zulu, held a jazz funeral for ten departed members in early February as it prepared for the annual Mardi Gras parade.
Other groups, like the Young Men’s Olympian Social and Benevolent Club grew out of the early 20th century groups associated with the Olympia band. Others, like Black Men of Labor, Lady Buck Jumpers and the Tremé Sidewalk Steppers are comparative late-comers, extending a tradition of costume-making and street-dance that hires the brass bands who carry the rhythms and melodies into tourist venues. Take away the street culture, what kind of music do you have?
Bringing the talent pool back
Marsalis’ report did not attack the “smaller footprint” concept in the Urban Land Institute’s plan for a smaller city, one that would write off the Ninth Ward, among other areas theoretically consigned to swamp. But the report argued for more than a policy to bring back musicians and artists: “We need to begin rebuilding our cultural economy by investing in our creative people, and our core cultural organizations and associations – aiding those who are still here, bringing back those who were displaced by the storms, and attracting new people with fresh talent and energy. The City also needs to invest in the development of new cultural products and connect both our traditional and our newest cultural offerings to local, national and international markets.”
A city of 2000 musicians was down to 250, as of January. How many more have returned since then is an open question, but as the Jazz and Heritage Festival cast lines in January to find musicians for bookings, most were easily accessible through cell phones or email, according to festival planners. If Mardi Gras was to kick-start the economy, Jazz Fest will be even more important. As of early February, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was still on the road, the hall itself dark.
“Our first objective is to bring the talent pool back,” Marsalis told the Chicago Tribune in mid-January, when the report was released. “We’re not going to let our culture slip away.”

City museum, not jazz museum
Marsalis also called for the building of a National Jazz Museum, which would include archives and performance space. There are ample programs for archival holdings already – Amistad Research Center and the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane; the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana State Museum’s jazz collection.
A jazz museum per se could even detract from those collections, the conferences and concerts they periodically organize. What the city needs, acutely so in the wake of Katrina, is a Museum of the City of New Orleans, an institution to memorialize the history of this crossroads of community. Carnavalet, the city museum of Paris, uses paintings of the urban vistas from different historical periods to convey a linear sense of time passing. Baron Hausmann destroyed whole swaths of Paris in the 19th century to create the wide boulevards that gave the urban grid a different tone and breadth. The flooding that followed Katrina has wrecked whole areas of New Orleans; how the city is reconfigured is the story of our lives. The deaths of so many people and widespread wreckage should be memorialized. A musem to the city – which would rightly incorporate the musical heritage as a major exhibition area with a performance space and policy – makes more sense than a museum more narrowly focused on jazz.
Whatever share of federal funds trickle down to the cultural infrastructure will turn on public opinion and pressure from elected officials. That won’t be easy. President Bush stiff-armed the city and region, reneging on his televised pledge at Jackson Square to restore the area ravaged by Katrina. In Baton Rouge, the legislature stiff-armed Governor Blanco on levee board reform, which telegraphed Congress about the sleazy backroom dealmaking for these fabulous latitudes. Mayor Nagin stiff-armed Bush in saying that God punished us with Katrina because of the Iraq war. With such dismal leadership all around, the rebuilding slowly creaks into gear without near enough money to do the job.

Generational aspirations
Wynton Marsalis’ public appearances are a study in contrast with the politicians’ failures.
Marsalis spoke to a full house at Tulane on the night of Martin Luther King Day, a few hours after Mayor Nagin’s disastrous “chocolate city” speech. The trumpeter’s rhetoric was full-toned, flowing, no mute, with the crowd hanging on every spoken note.
“You know, we love to patronize young people with slogans like ‘the young will lead the way’ – when actually, the young very seldom lead anything in our country today,” he remarked. “It’s been quite some time since a younger generation pushed an older one to a higher standard.
“My daddy thought – no, he expected – that my brothers and I and our generation would make the world a better place. He was correct in his belief because he had lived in an America of continual social progress. Depression followed by prosperity, segregation by integration, and so on.
“And though I haven’t quite pinpointed it, somewhere between my daddy’s youth and mine, generational aspirations for a richer democracy changed to aspirations for a richer me – more wealth and more leisure time for a lower quality of work. Oh, and forget about our political process. Voting became too much of a bore – let alone keeping an eye on how our tax dollars were being squandered or how our interests were being poorly served by our elected officials.
“When did we begin to lose faith in our ability to effect change? Perhaps the demoralizing murders of JFK, RFK, and MLK scared the civic-minded young people of the 1960s out of their idealism and into indifference. Perhaps it was the 1980s when the “opportunity” inherent in the American Dream was distorted from the land of ‘we’ to the land of ‘to hell with anybody else but me.’ Maybe the preoccupation with technological progress has overshadowed our concern with human progress. In any case, the result of this social inactivity is that generations are now named simply for the last letters of the alphabet. And these alphabet-named people are distinguished by the ability to manipulate new technology, buy new things and be obsessed with the trivial lives of celebrities.”
Most of those packed into McAlister Auditorium that night were students. I doubt if any of them had heard a speech by a major national figure so candid and compelling. I don’t think any of the adults present had heard a speech using self-criticism as a springboard to social commentary.
“I always laugh when people my age complain about their college-age and teenage kids by talking about how much better we were,” he continued. “I laugh because I have absolutely no idea what my generation did to enrich our democracy. What movement have we been identified with that forced our elders to keep their promises … that challenged their failures or built upon their successes? ”
What he said next linked the mentality of social Darwinism that controls Washington with the political inertia that beset New Orleans. “As we have seen our money squandered and stolen, our civic rights trampled, and the politics of polarity become the order of the day, we have held no one accountable. From us you inherit an abiding helplessness.”
He went on: “What, other than injustice, could be the reason that the displaced citizens of New Orleans cannot be accommodated by the richest nation in the world? You, along with the entire world, saw the bureaucratic fumbling and lack of concern inflicted on those very same citizens at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Who is being held accountable now?”

Bringing the bacon home
In early February, with the White House trying to shield documents on its Katrina response from Congressional investigators, the funds raised by the PBS Higher Ground concert that Marsalis led — $2.8 million in grants — were paid to a range of groups and individuals across the flood-ravaged southern parishes.
NOCCA received a $100,000 grant, as did the Zulu Social Aide and Pleasure Club (which took major damage at the Broad Street headquarters); the CAC, Acadiana Arts Council, New Orleans Arts Council, Ogden Museum and many other groups.
Nearly 200 musicians received $15,000 each.
Marsalis will present a new composition, “Place Congo,” written with African drummer Yacub Addy, at several concerns with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New Orleans this month.
On the political front, Wynton gave more than sound bites to the place where he was born and raised. He gave time and heart; he raised millions and put in places where it was needed. A prince of the city, he delivered. •

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