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Joyful Noises and Joyless Measures in New Orleans

Posted on Jul 2, 2010
N.O. musicians
AP / Alex Brandon

Alana Jones, left, leads the Treme Brass Band through the French Quarter of New Orleans in a 2007 parade to call attention to the plight of musicians.

By Larry Blumenfeld

There’s a scene in episode three of the HBO series “Treme”—David Simon’s TV drama depiction of post-flood New Orleans—wherein Antoine Batiste, the itinerant trombonist played by Wendell Pierce, walks through the French Quarter after playing at a Bourbon Street strip club. It’s a gig he took only reluctantly, out of need, from the slim pickings around in New Orleans in late 2005. He’s tired, maybe a little drunk, and carrying his horn, sans case. He pauses before two street musicians on the corner of Royal and St. Peter streets, in front of Rouses Market. Energized by the version of “Ghost of a Chance” played by a pretty young violinist (Annie, portrayed by Lucia Micarelli) and a gangly young pianist (Sonny, actor Michiel Huisman), he sings a verse, nods in approval of Annie’s improvisation, then turns and half-staggers into the night. His trombone grazes the side-view mirror of a police car parked nearby. Then, in a rush—“Hey, you tryin’ to bust up our unit?” shouts one cop—Antoine is up against a wall, his instrument slammed to the ground by an officer. A minor beat-down and arrest follow.

Simon clearly meant to highlight the pressure-cooker atmosphere of New Orleans, especially within an undermanned and overburdened police force, in late 2005. And he foreshadowed a theme that courses through his show: the longstanding tension between the city’s culture bearers and its powers that be. That tension has ratcheted up, or at least has grown more pointed, since 2005.

Let’s say that “Treme” scene played out in real life, in June 2010: Police officers approach Annie and Sonny to inform them that playing music after 8 p.m. violates city ordinances, that even Antoine’s casual singing along is forbidden. They ask the musicians to read and sign their names and dates of birth on documents acknowledging receipt of a notice stating: “Effective immediately, the New Orleans Police Department will be enforcing the below-listed ordinance”—Section 66-205, which says, “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.”

In the real New Orleans, on June 12th, as the premiere season of “Treme” drew to its close, having celebrated the street musicians and brass bands of New Orleans as something like heroes, just such notice was served by quality-of-life officer Ronald Jones Jr. on the To Be Continued Brass Band (that’s to be continued, as in a cultural tradition). They’d set up shop, just as they’ve been doing most Tuesdays through Sundays since 2002, on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, in front of the Foot Locker store. At issue here were two ordinances: the above-mentioned Section 66-205, as well as Section 30-1456, prohibiting street entertainment between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. within the entertainment section of Bourbon Street, from Canal to St. Ann streets.

OK, forget TV fiction: For irony, one need look no further than a new series of television ads created by Peter Mayer Public Relations for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, urging viewers to “book your New Orleans reservations right now.” At one point, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield looks straight into the camera: “Right now in New Orleans,” he says, “you can hear great jazz in the streets of the French Quarter.” Behind him is dark of night, likely past 8.

In New Orleans, it’s not unusual for folks to line up behind a brass band, much as in a second-line parade, in order to make their voices heard on matters of public policy. In January 2007, a crowd of 10,000 strong followed the Hot 8 Brass Band toward City Hall to demand better and more sensitive police protection in the face of violent crime. By June 29, 2010, more than 15,000 folks had signed on as Facebook followers of the page “Don’t Stop the Music. Let New Orleans Musicians Play!” which was created by Lisa Palumbo, who teaches marketing at the University of New Orleans in addition to managing the To Be Continued band. In a brief interview posted on YouTube, To Be Continued trumpeter Sean Roberts described his frustration. “What they’re doing is slowly but surely killing the New Orleans tradition,” he said. “I learned how to play trumpet on this corner.”

On June 16, the city’s new police superintendent, Ronal Serpas, issued a statement to deflect the groundswell of protest: “The New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District has for many years, and as recently as within the last several weeks, received numerous complaints from residents of the French Quarter noting that musical street performers are violating existing ordinances. These complaints have also resulted in repeated requests for enforcement from the NOPD.”

To Be Continued wasn’t the only band to receive notice: A night before its encounter, the Young Fellaz Brass Band was effectively shut down at the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres streets in the nearby Marigny neighborhood, as was the Lil People band that same week, according to accounts posted on Facebook. As NOPD spokesman Bob Young described it, “This is not enforcement per se. No one was cited. They were presented with a letter advising the musicians that they were in violation of the law.” Scott Hucheson, adviser to the mayor on cultural economy, called it “an information exercise.” The new administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Serpas’ force are by many degrees kinder and gentler in their approach to such matters than those of the former mayor, C. Ray Nagin, and the previous superintendent, Warren Riley. In the past, quality-of-life enforcement sometimes meant sending a dozen or more cruisers, ripping mouthpieces out of hands and slapping on cuffs. Still, serving notice of these ordinances and requiring signed acknowledgment seem tantamount to enforcement. At least the message is clear enough: Your next note is illegal.

Landrieu, who took office May 3, and a newly elected City Council must ultimately address the tangle of city ordinances that inhibit or even prohibit the very street culture that drives New Orleans’ lore and lure. None of this is new stuff: There’s a rich history of musicians being arrested while making music in New Orleans. When I first began interviewing musicians, I was shocked to learn that just as surely as the horn players I spoke with had soaked up musical tradition from authoritative sources like Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, a beloved musician and bandleader who died in 2004, so too had they been introduced to this other legacy—arrest while playing—by badge-wearing authorities. Even Tuba Fats got arrested. More often than not, the way musicians tell it, the police tasked with enforcement knew him. They’d take him in to the station, show him a bit of hospitality, send him off 30 minutes later. It was as much a game as a show of force. But it served a purpose.


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By Bill Shepard, July 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

New Orleans street jazz IS the “private sector”. What
would you have instead, government approved jazz?

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By W. Royal Stokes, July 10, 2010 at 6:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

July 8, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Below is a medley of arresting sentiments culled from Larry Blumenfeld’s
splendid essay on the current musical scene in New Orleans.

“Where are the incubators? . . . The streets are incubators and critical venues. . .
. Whereas in most cities culture trickles down from the top, in New Orleans it
bubbles up from the street. . . . Change, real change, transformative change,
enduring change, comes from the streets. . . . As a culture, we’ve been doing it
for 100 years or more, and we’re not about to stop. . . . But the thing is that the
music and the culture survives despite it, and finds its way around, over, and
under these laws.”

As one who fell in love with the city’s music in the early 1940s during the New
Orleans Revival and has followed its developments, in all its variety of forms,
over the course of seven decades, it renders me very sad indeed to learn of the
stifling of this basic and essential aspect of the area’s culture. To cite only one
of the many styles of the city’s rich music that I enjoy, I continue to listen to
and profit from the sounds of Bunk Johnson, King Oliver, Freddie Keppard,
George Lewis, Jim Robinson, Papa Celestin, and other pioneers, as well as the
younger generations of musicians who followed in the footsteps of their
predecessors, for example, the Preservation Hall groups. I have recently been
renewing my acquaintance (first made in the 1950s via LP) with the Jelly Roll
Morton Library of Congress Recordings (remastered and reissued on eight
Rounder CDs several years ago). No student of New Orleans jazz, or of the city
itself, should be unfamiliar with master raconteur Jelly’s epic 1938 piano-
accompanied “first hand account of a largely undocumented world that existed
a century ago and still has a profound effect on present day jazz and popular
music (from an customer Comment).

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By thebeerdoctor, July 6, 2010 at 7:17 pm Link to this comment

omisaide7’s 11:31 am comment is the best on this thread, for its distinctively accurate observations.

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By omisaide7, July 6, 2010 at 6:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

new Orleans is and was a distinct enchanted place unlike no other in the US. Full of culture unlike no other. My birthplace and the birthplace of my Mother’s Mother’s is a connection to another time and era. We are the gateway to the carribean right here on native soil. Where souls of the African, Indian, French and Spanish collide to create this great big melting pot-Da Gumbo. Their are those who want to harness this national treasure and pre-package for commercial use only(corporatize it). Their are those who want to contain and only take it out as an ole photo album when guess come along-other than that put up-HUSH! the day tuba died, We cleaned him up, shrouded him, and awaited his grandmother and them. The moment he took his last breath, he CD was played loudly thru out the building and we fanned and danced-only in New Orleans. I look at Treme so differently now since I was small. So many strangers there,culture vultures and all. I will have to begin to write the stories I know…Like Troy Micheals Pitbull’s funeral and stuff for future generations. Our New Orleans is secretly being wrestled away-its authenicity lost to those who want to infuse their images into the backdrop. Farewell beautiful Lady-mi fille, jolie

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By thebeerdoctor, July 6, 2010 at 12:10 am Link to this comment

@ UreKismet
My NO comments were overly harsh. This perception came about due to the incredible corruption of the New Orleans Police Force and the post-Katrina hiring of Blackwater operatives to supposedly maintain order. So there is a built-in bias to see things from the viewpoint of the not-economically-connected, where it becomes quickly apparent that if you are poor, there is the distinct possibility that bad things will happen to you, which is often the case. But of course that is only one tiny portion of the overall picture, so please forgive my angry simplification.

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By Armond Aserinsky, July 5, 2010 at 6:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks to Larry Blumenfeld for a heartfelt and enlightening essay on a city that has a genuine folk culture worth nurturing, but which in an age of “business uber alles” is awash in the same commercial noise that busts our eardrums in every urban center across the entire country.  Surely there are solutions to urban decay other than chain stores, but one sees in city after city the same soulless emporiums of coffee and clothing. You can even go abroad and find as I did that a Foot Locker had taken up space on the ground floor of a 12th century cathedral (in Bruges). I know that the upkeep of a church that’s over 800 years old costs a lot of money, but there has to be a better way of preserving a cultural treasure than by trading in pieces of that treasure for a ton or two of dreck.
Too much is left to the “private sector”. What we have is not freedom as those on the right would have us believe but a tyranny of the dollar. Choices do not increase in a capitalism that allows unlimited growth of corporations.

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By UreKismet, July 5, 2010 at 3:20 pm Link to this comment

The beerdoctor’s comments strikes me as overly harsh.  Although I haven’t been to NO since Katrina by the sound of it now it would be an even better fit for the role I believed it had in the 1980’s.
That is as a sort of Potemkin village, model city showing humanity exactly what happens when you roll out cardboard cut out pretend democracy over centuries of nepotism and murderous corruption.
The dire scorched earth policy being practised in the former public housing areas won’t get a look in on the one place it is most needed and that is the patronage of a voracious and inhumane political machine.

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By Richard_Ralph_Roehl, July 5, 2010 at 11:49 am Link to this comment

Twenty Earth years from now… most of New Orleans will be ashes under poisoned salt water.

New Orleans does not need another tuba parade. It needs full scale rioting.

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By grumpynyker, July 5, 2010 at 6:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My favorite scenes in Treme involved Albert (Mardi Gras
Big Chief) and his futile efforts to get loans to
repair his property plus the runaround on re-opening
the mostly undamaged public housing adjacent to the
French Quarter.  Pity David Mills died; hopefully he
would’ve written more incisive scenes about the
collusion by insurance co/banks/politicians/developers
in the corruption/ethnic cleansing of New Orleans.

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By ContentGuru, July 4, 2010 at 11:55 am Link to this comment

As a recent visitor - having returned to New Orleans after over 25 years away - the biggest shock for me was the decline in professionalism and pride for workaday musicians around Bourbon Street.  Bourbon Street caters to mostly drunken and rowdy college students, and the clubs are now dominated by T&A joints.  The few live music venues were the most cynical and cliched versions of traditional New Orleans jazz and bad R&B.  As the author writes, the one chance to hear music with real authentic spirit on Bourbon Street was that brass band on the street in front of the Foot Locker store.  Once I got away from Bourbon Street, the real New Orleans music scene was alive and well on Frenchman Street - and it was terrific!  Still - it’s a shame that so many great musicians and young ones learning their craft have to work for tips, fight off obnoxious drunks, and deal with unpredictable public policy and arbitrary enforcement of laws.

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By thebeerdoctor, July 3, 2010 at 2:41 am Link to this comment

This article serves as a powerful incentive to never ever visit that wretched city, sustained by legendary delusions. Even Louis Armstrong found it to be an appalling city, back in the 1950’s.

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