June 19, 2013
Jazz Fest ‘08: Homecoming on Muddy Ground
Posted on May 27, 2008
Above all else it was a homecoming: The Neville Brothers performed at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. More good news: The event returned to its full pre-Katrina seven-day schedule. Still more: Though the heavy rains of the first weekend made a muddy mess of the Fair Grounds infield, they didn’t dampen spirits or attendance much. According to event officials, nearly 400,000 people attended the festival, held April 25-27 and May 1-4.
Given the emotional heft of their return, the Nevilles were the big story. Their presence built throughout the fest’s final weekend: first Art, in his debut solo set, inviting Aaron up to the stage at one point; then, Aaron, bringing many in a packed gospel tent to tears, his saxophonist brother Charles at his side; finally, all four—Art, Aaron, Cyril and Charles—together on the Acura stage to close the festival’s final day. Before that last performance, producer Quint Davis spoke of “families being torn apart, brothers separated from brothers all over New Orleans.” “The Neville family’s coming back together,” Art said from the stage. The crowd roared. The four then reprised the three decades of hits that made them such beloved stars in the first place.
It was an important symbol, no doubt. Though Charles has lived in Massachusetts for more than a decade, Aaron, Art and Cyril all lived in New Orleans before Katrina. These brothers in fact became separated from each other—and from the city that identified so powerfully with them. I remember being struck by Aaron’s son, Ivan Neville, on “Sing Me Back Home,” a CD by displaced all-star musicians recorded in Austin, Texas, six weeks after the storm: Covering John Fogerty’s Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, Ivan snarled, “I ain’t no fortunate son!”—and meant it. (If a Neville wasn’t entitled by birth, I recall thinking, who in New Orleans was?)
The effects of the floods that followed the levee failures are deep and lasting enough to strain even the Nevilles’ relationship with their hometown. Though Art returned to his Valence Street home as soon as possible after Katrina, Aaron remained in Tennessee, just outside Nashville, until his recent purchase of a home in Covington, La., near New Orleans. Cyril, the most outspoken of the four, is repairing his New Orleans home, and hopes to return soon. He’s been in Austin since Katrina.
In the days after Katrina, Cyril pressed many a sore nerve. He wore a homemade T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans” during his appearance on the televised “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy” benefit concert. His comments some months later to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter were widely repeated in national media: “A lot of things about life in New Orleans were a myth,” he said, largely in reference to the music industry. “Would I go back to live? There’s nothing there.”
Cyril is coming back to live, he says now. And when one considers the time frame and circumstances, his utterances seem perhaps excusable or even necessary. Still, the bitterness over all that, combined with frustration over the Nevilles having stayed away, led to resentment in some quarters of the city: The Never Brothers, some cynics (though I know none personally) called them. It may have been undeserved or overstated, but it was enough to prompt both columnist Chris Rose and music critic Keith Spera to rise to the brothers’ defense in the pages of the New Orleans Times-Picayune during the days preceding Jazz Fest.
“The decision by any individual—doctor, lawyer, homemaker, hotel maid, Neville brother—on when to return to post-Katrina New Orleans,” wrote Spera, “is based on what is perceived as the best option for their family’s mental, physical and financial well-being.”
But what about those who don’t really get to make a decision? All this Jazz Fest-prompted talk of “home” and “reunions” echoed in varying ways, depending upon where you were in New Orleans, and what was your situation. For many, three years after the floods, Cyril’s 2006 comment didn’t sound outlandish: There really was nothing there.
It seemed a cruel indignity, some mash-up of Dickens and Orwell, when, five days before Christmas last year, the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a HUD-ordered plan to tear down some 4,500 units of public housing. I was in New York, watching CNN as residents assembled outside near barricades and police lines. “If you know New Orleans, you’ll know how dilapidated these housing developments are,” said anchorwoman Kyra Phillips. “They’ve been crime-ridden, very popular for drug-running. ... According to the mayor, this is an effort to clean up the city, have better housing for folks.”
Meanwhile, like some bizarre B-roll footage, we saw a live shot of protesters, mostly New Orleans residents who did not share that sentiment, being turned away with pepper spray; one woman fell to the ground after being Tasered. But we heard only Phillips. The residents were voiceless, as they’d been in the debate about demolition and rebuilding of public housing in a city hard-pressed for affordable homes.
By the time of Jazz Fest, and even as the cloud of impropriety that would cause HUD Secretary Alfonso Jackson to resign was gathering, bulldozers were unleashed on the city’s “Big Four” projects—B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, St. Bernard and, finally, despite an outcry from not just housing activists but also architects and cultural leaders, Lafitte. With them went those 4,500 public housing units, many of which are unlikely to reappear through the “mixed-income” developments on tap.
With those buildings—nearly all of which were structurally sound after the floods—now almost completely gone, there’s a notable deflation of energy among the ranks of activists who protested loudly last year. “It’s difficult not to be discouraged,” said lawyer and housing activist Tracey Washington. “There just isn’t the groundswell of support for this issue that there was before the demolition began. But it’s important to understand that this is about even more than rights and basic human needs. With the tearing down of Lafitte, we didn’t just tear down viable affordable housing for our working poor and working class, we removed a huge part of the culture of the city of New Orleans.”
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