May 22, 2013
Jazz Fest ‘08: Homecoming on Muddy Ground
Posted on May 27, 2008
But for the past several years—even before Katrina—Congo Square has been off limits. Thick chains and a padlock greet visitors at the gates of the surrounding Armstrong Park, just off North Rampart Street. A few days before Jazz Fest, I’d seen those gates open. A few dozen people wearing identical T-shirts were hard at work painting fences and sprucing things up around Congo Square. My heart nearly leapt. Turns out it was a volunteer group sponsored by the National Tourism Foundation. Their shirts read “Tourism Cares.” Yet the city that derives much of its tourist appeal from Congo Square’s legacy has quite uncaringly cordoned off the place: We’re left with a freshly painted fence that, except for an occasional special event, stays locked.
President Bush couldn’t stay for Jazz Fest, but just prior he hit New Orleans for a few days. The trip had a focus: a press-worthy summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to shore up free-trade spirit in general, and to defend NAFTA from critics like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
On Earth Day, Bush and his new friends took to Lafayette Square, to plant an oak tree. When I got to Lafayette Square the next evening, I found a small granite monument left by our president: “Planted a Summard Oak Tree on April 22, 2008, in honor of Earth Day and the Cresent City’s hosting of the North American Leaders’ Summit”—just like that, with the word Crescent misspelled. By the next day when I returned, camera in hand, a new, corrected granite block had been installed. The gaffe received surprisingly little attention around town. But a local satirical newspaper, The New Orleans Levee, ran a front-page piece, with a photo of an in-between moment I’d missed: Someone had spray-painted a proofreader’s caret and the letter “c” on the monument. If only the president’s more damning blunders in New Orleans could be so swiftly and easily fixed, and not set in stone.
One politician who showed up at Jazz Fest with a purpose was Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. He gathered notable local musicians, painters, even a celebrity chef, along with reporters, in a trailer between stages. As the music of the nearby Fais-Do-Do stage thumped mightily, Landrieu, a pleasantly animated bulldog of a man in a T-shirt and khakis, began a conversation about local culture. Though the city of New Orleans does more to inhibit than to nurture its arts through uneven enforcement of arcane and vague zoning and permit statutes and police-led intimidation, the state, behind Landrieu’s lead, has fostered a more positive climate—mandating music and art in schools, for instance, and establishing tax incentives for the film and music industry. Landrieu is organizing the next edition of his World Cultural Economic Forum, in October, and it’s a right-thinking affair. “I don’t know that we did not take for granted the cultural riches we have here,” Landrieu said at last year’s event, “until after the international community gasped when they thought about what might be lost. A focus on how culture holds important keys to many aspects of recovery, be they economic, civic or spiritual, is essential for productive conversations about recovery.”
On that count, the Jazz & Heritage Festival might be considered a mighty conversation-starter. Festival producer Quint Davis once told me he thought of the event as “this big soul-generating battery.” Surely the $300 million in estimated revenue the seven-day event generates in the city can’t hurt. And apart from the national pop acts on Jazz Fest’s bill—from Al Green to Tim McGraw to Billy Joel—there is a dazzling range of homegrown artistry, the breadth and depth of which is stunning. The musicians and Mardi Gras Indians and second-liners at Jazz Fest who were born and raised in New Orleans tell the city’s truth beyond the Fair Grounds fences, for those who care to listen thoughtfully. And it’s even possible that something necessary, perhaps instructive, was conveyed during that first weekend—some basic feeling that locals understand—when we all had to slog through the mud just to get where we were going.
Larry Blumenfeld is working on a book about cultural recovery in New Orleans based on his research as a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice, among other publications, and his essay “Band on the Run in New Orleans” will appear in the forthcoming “Best Music Writing 2008” (Da Capo). He is editor at large of Jazziz magazine.
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