Dec 8, 2013
Jazz Fest ‘08: Homecoming on Muddy Ground
Posted on May 27, 2008
She’s right to conflate housing and culture, as was Marshall Truehill Jr., pastor of the First United Baptist Church and former chairman of the city’s planning commission, when I interviewed him. He mentioned how much the housing projects meant to Mardi Gras Indian culture and vice versa. “When you destroy neighborhoods, you tear apart a culture too,” he said. “Once you tear down these buildings, you can’t put them back.”
“Under the Bridge” used to refer to the shadowy space beneath the Claiborne Avenue overpass for I-10, where Mardi Gras Indians convene on appointed days and where brass band music echoes mightily when a second-line parade finds its way there. That phrase now holds a different meaning, as it did splashed across the cover of the local weekly, Gambit, earlier this year, headlining a piece about the growing encampment of some 200 homeless underneath the freeway.
Half the working poor, elderly and disabled are still estranged from New Orleans, according to Bill Quigley, who directs the Loyola University Poverty Law Center.
“The demolition of public housing has of course greatly exacerbated the problem we’re dealing with,” said Angela Patterson, who focuses on homelessness as director of the nonprofit UNITY Welcome Home of Greater New Orleans. She estimates the homeless population in the city at 12,000; according to a UNITY survey done in collaboration with Common Ground, more than 95 percent of these people lived in New Orleans prior to the floods.
As for the city’s overall population, July 2005 census reports estimated a population of some 450,000—a little more than the total of Jazz Fest attendees. Greater New Orleans Data Center estimates, based on an analysis of homes receiving postal service, yields a new population figure of 325,000. Yet it’s near impossible to determine how many of this number are new residents, and there are no reliable figures for former residents of New Orleans who still wish to return home.
One thing that is clear: The changing population of the city will have political implications. An April 24th Times-Picayune piece by Michelle Krupa cited a recent study by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, based on voter turnout in the 2003 and 2007 gubernatorial elections. The results, Krupa wrote, “confirm what election-watchers have suspected since Hurricane Katrina: The number of voters in the New Orleans area has fallen sharply, with African-Americans and registered Democrats losing the most ground.” According to Christine Day, chairwoman of the political science department of the University of New Orleans, “It has really important implications for the redrawing of districts—congressional districts and all the way down.”
These facts and figures may have been lost on or irrelevant to many of those who charged from stage to stage, softshell crab po’ boy in hand, at the Fair Grounds, the horse-racing track that transforms into a music stadium once each year. Yet in many ways, politics were in the air during The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell (as it’s officially titled)—literally, in fact, at one point. While the Neville Brothers played the Acura stage, a plane circled above the Fair Grounds towing a banner: “Shell, Hear the Music. Fix the Coast You Broke.” Not all the commentary was so overt, and none as visible, but it was there if you kept your eyes and ears open. Mind you, it’s easy in New Orleans these days to read meaning and purpose into every lyric or song choice—was Sheryl Crow commenting on the housing crisis by covering “Gimme Shelter,” or was she just doing a Stones tune? Also, it’s impossible to take in all the music and all the messages emanating from the event’s 10 stages. Still, a good deal of what I did catch was timely, topical and worth remembering.
Stevie Wonder flat-out endorsed Barack Obama’s campaign at the start of his show: He decried the racism that could threaten the senator’s run for the White House, then segued into “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” biting down hard on the line, “Hate’s goin’ ‘round.” And how’s this for a slogan Obama’s campaign manager didn’t think of? When Mardi Gras Indians Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias reached the climax of their Jazz & Heritage stage set, an election-year twist on an Indian chant, best known via a pop song, could be heard a football field away: “Iko, Iko, Obama!”
Perhaps no song speaks to the Katrina experience as well as Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927.” Written more than 30 years ago, the song has, as Geoff Himes wrote in a recent and insightful New York Times piece, become a modern-day folk song, its chorus—“Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away”—bearing new relevance. Yet it was Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” that elicited the most knowing chill, especially with its final verse:
“The end of an empire is messy at best/ And this empire is ending/ Like all the rest/ Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea/ We’re adrift in the land of the brave/ And the home of the free/ Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”
If trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s statements at the jazz tent were political, they were also wordless, as he performed selections from his Grammy-winning CD, “A Tale of God’s Will,” with his band and members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The music, drawn from Blanchard’s score to Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke,” called up indelible images of Katrina’s aftermath and their associated emotions. Violins voiced the storm’s fury, woodwinds the foreboding calm of its wake, his horn the anguished cries and later rage of those left stranded. Blanchard’s requiem contains tightly composed passages but also moments during which he pushes his trumpet beyond its comfortable range. Not screeches, exactly—nothing close to Abbey Lincoln’s screams on Max Roach’s 1960 “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” but angrier and more daring than anything in his previous work. And, like Roach’s music almost two generations ago, meant to make a point.
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