Joyful Noises and Joyless Measures in New Orleans
Posted on Jul 2, 2010
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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