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Jazz Fest ‘08: Homecoming on Muddy Ground
Posted on May 27, 2008
Among the Mardi Gras Indians at the festival, I noticed Eddie “Big Easy” Vanison, “gang flag” of the Hardhead Hunters, passing by with an elaborate suit, including one embroidered patch that could have been a news story. “Chocolate City,” it read along the top. Underneath was a detailed image: a sign reading “Club Tremé,” in memory of one among many long-gone neighborhood venues; a bleeding body with numbered shell casings alongside; a police cruiser and yellow police tape; Mardi Gras Indians and neighborhood kids on the sides, watching it all. In context, amid the other patches on Vanison’s suit—second-lines and the Superdome, among other things—it was just one element of a panorama of New Orleans life. “But it was a piece that needed to be shown,” he told me later, “and that we live with.”
The neighborhood known as Tremé is under siege these days from not just criminals, but from the very police charged with protecting it—at least in terms of the cultural traditions celebrated at Jazz Fest. At trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews’ performance, not long after he drifted in and out of the lyrics to Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” he dedicated the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” to Kerwin James. He wasn’t just honoring a dear departed friend and tuba player: He was referencing the evening of Oct 1, when police cars converged on a Tremé corner, busted up a funeral procession for James, and slapped cuffs on Andrews’ wrists. Months later, the charges against Andrews and his brother, drummer Derrick Tabb—parading without a permit and “disturbing the peace by tumultuous manner”—were dropped. But the ante had been upped up in the fight over the city’s culture, which has intensified amid the long struggle to rebuild. With his tribute hymn at Jazz Fest, Andrews was completing that cut-short ritual—free, onstage, employed and empowered.
Funeral processions are an essential element of New Orleans culture, and the impromptu variety in particular—honoring the passing of someone of distinction, especially a musician—is a time-honored tradition in neighborhoods like Tremé, which some consider the oldest black neighborhood in America. For black New Orleans residents who have returned to the city, these and other street-culture traditions—second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indian assemblies—offer perhaps the only semblance of normalcy, continuity and community organization left. It’s good fun, even educational, for these traditions to be on display at Jazz Fest—Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands play on stages, mock second-lines weave through the Fair Grounds at appointed hours—but it’s important to remember that their real venue is the streets, where they’re functional aspects of daily life.
Just as the festival was swinging into action, another funeral procession was cut short in Tremé. Sirens blared. Children, musicians and mourners were commanded through bullhorns to disperse. Jerome Smith, who runs the Tremé Cultural Center, called this latest episode an “attack on culture” when interviewed by Katy Reckdahl of The Times-Picayune. “He found the timing ironic,” she wrote. “At about the same time that police had scattered an authentic funeral march, near Esplanade and Claiborne avenues, Jazz and Heritage Festival-goers were lined up behind a band at the Fair Grounds, ready to follow a second-line recreated for tourists.”
Such irony is no new twist: Last year, three days before members of the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club danced their way through the Fair Grounds—second-lining with the Mahogany Brass Band—they were represented in federal court. A lawsuit on behalf of a consortium of social aid and pleasure clubs, aided by the ACLU, protested the city’s hiking of police security fees—triple or more from pre-Katrina rates—for second-line parades held September through May. The suit invoked the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, claiming that parade permit schemes “effectively tax” such expression. “Should the law not be enjoined,” the complaint stated, “there is very little doubt that plaintiff’s cultural tradition will cease to exist.” The city settled without a trial and the fees were lowered (but not to their original level). Though the issue remains a source of consternation to second-liners, at least the parades have rolled.
At this year’s Jazz Fest, Mac Rebennack, best known as Dr. John, offered up a few songs from “City That Care Forgot,” his artful yet angry rant of an album set for release June 3. He drew more than a few knowing nods with his lyrics to “My People Need a Second Line,” which referenced both the October Tremé arrests in particular and the embattled parade culture in general.
“You know it ain’t right to charge people for a second line,” he sang. “It’s something spiritual, ought to be kept out of politics. Sending 20 squad cars to stop a second line/ sending musicians to jail instead of stopping crime.”
Rebennack’s new album takes on a wide range of issues—from disappearing wetlands to oil-industry greed, the Iraq war to the botched response to Katrina (and connects the dots between these problems). But Rebennack’s deepest ire is saved for recent challenges to the culture he grew up with. When I met with him at his management company’s Harlem office, he recalled reading about the funeral-parade arrests in Tremé. “I called up the woman who wrote the article, and she gave me the skinny,” he said. “And it was even worse than I thought. There were kids watching, and the guys they hauled off were their teachers. Can you imagine that?”
Near the end of saxophonist Donald Harrison’s jazz-tent performance, after his masterful displays of bebop and funk, the band vamped as Harrison disappeared from the stage. He returned in full regalia, as Big Chief of Congo Nation, which he named for Congo Square, the spot where, two centuries ago, enslaved Africans would drum and dance on Sundays: Their bamboula rhythm, essential to any Mardi Gras Indian gathering, still courses beneath most of the homegrown music at Jazz Fest.
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