It shouldn’t take many years for some enterprising historian to produce the book on New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina that chronicles the failure of politics behind the limping recovery. Whole swaths of certain areas crawl with dense floribunda, like some tropical Pompeii, the empty houses bearing witness to the politics of city and state that proved unable to fuel a genuine recovery. Thirty percent of the city population is gone.
Music plays a major role in the degree to which the city has managed to rebound. Imagine, if you can, Carnival parades without marching bands or the absence of the Jazz and Heritage Festival. The fact that many musicians are performing regularly augurs hope for this politically betrayed urban space. The club circuit, to be sure, is smaller and many artists have been displaced, the pianist and singer Henry Butler chief among them. Surface signs, such as the success of Jazz Fest in the last two years, suggest resilience in the tourist economy. That is another way of saying that if you need a brass band to play at a big convention, you can find one.
Such realities aren’t a true indicator of the state of the musical economy. Most of the two dozen or so recording studios that operated here before Katrina were wiped out; hundreds of musicians among the estimated 2,500 who lived here are still struggling to return. Economically, the city needs to get all of them to return who are willing to.
Tourism cannot market New Orleans as a unique destination without music. If you want restaurants, the truth is you can find great dining experiences in many cities. Architecture? Santa Fe, San Francisco, colonial Williamsburg, even San Antonio have their charms. True, the mix of art galleries, restaurants and old world architecture is a solid draw, but erase live music from the cultural mix and listen to the restaurant cash registers groan.
Very few politicians have any grasp of “cultural economy” as other than an issue that you’re not supposed to be against – like clean water. Most elected officials have no idea what it means to build a cultural economy. The most striking exception is Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, who has done more to organize cultural institutions with economic strategies than any elected official in the state’s history. That approach builds on the raw materials of talent as a given.
With respect to music, there’s a black hole in the cultural economics: bands in public schools. Most schools in the combined Recovery, charter and Orleans Parish system don’t field marching bands, and music education programs are thin.
Contrast this reality of 2008 with the world that Louis Armstrong discovered in 1913 when, at age 12, he was arrested for shooting off a gun on New Year’s Eve. A judge remanded him to the Colored Waif’s Home out in Gentilly – what we used to call a reform school. There, he got his first horn, took music lessons and marched in a brass band.
“The band often got a chance to play at a private picnic or join one of the frequent parades,” he wrote in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954). “We were so glad to get a chance to walk in the street that we did not care how long we paraded or how far.” Through his long career, Armstrong credited the home as a turning point in his life. There is nothing like that institution in New Orleans today; the renamed Milne Boys Home closed well before Katrina.
With the shredding of the social safety net, the public schools became the dumping pit for youths from splintered families who lacked basic social skills, could not read well and had few healthy hobbies. There they found a world to reward them in the drug culture. For years now TV news has registered the back end of this reality: a nightly show on urban homicide.
If the system instituted a music program in the schools, and outfitted every school with a marching band, we would see a decline in violence, fewer homicides, more youngsters graduating, with better skills, plus an expansion of the talent pool moving into NOCCA and out in the world of professional music.
What would it cost the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor such a music program? The schools are the incubators of tomorrow’s citizens and criminals. It is a lot cheaper to redirect youngsters at the front end than pay for prison or New Orleans Police Department homicide probes at the band end. A music program with instruments and good teaching in the schools would be a huge step toward a genuine recovery.