Eye of the Hurricane: National Truths Revealed Through the Music and History of New Orleans

Update: This post was written in August, before Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated the Caribbean and Southeast United States. Finally published in late September, the content now seems even more pertinent to international discussion than it did previously.

I’ve been wanting to write about New Orleans for a while. Well-known as the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans was and still is as important to jazz history as it is to American history and culture. Searching through the archive for videos that offer a comprehensive view of New Orleans through the lens of jazz (or maybe it’s better to say a view of jazz, through the lens of New Orleans), I ended up listening to an interview of NOLA musician Wynton Marsalis on the Charlie Rose show, recorded during the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. Poignant and philosophical, Marsalis’s answers touch on multiple facets of the city, its music, and how the tragedy there centered the surrounding debate on so many issues Americans have on a national level. So I thought, as the interviewer begins on Altman tape 141, “Who better to talk to us about New Orleans than Wynton Marsalis? He is a world-renowned trumpeter, the artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, and a native of that great city [2:31:20].”

Asked about what family he had in the city at that time, while people were still trying to find shelter in the aftermath of the hurricane, Wynton replies, “I have my mother, my father, three of my brothers, cousins, uncles, I’ve got all kinds of various relatives. Everyone in our clan is accounted for. My brother’s people are scattered around in different places, but, everyone’s alive.” In that he includes Ellis Marsalis, his father and one of the greatest piano players in jazz history, and his brother, Branford Marsalis, who has been described as “arguably the most respected living U.S. jazz instrumentalist.” In addition to Delfeayo and Jason, these five form the Marsalis jazz dynasty, nicknamed “The First Family of Jazz,” and is probably the most influential family of musicians to come out of New Orleans and the United States. But they’re not the only one that New Orleans is home to: several of the most prominent and genre-pushing musicians active today can trace their family histories back to New Orleans. Trombone Shorty, brother to bandleader James Andrews and grandson of singer-songwriter Jessie Hill, played his first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival at the age of four, and has since been drawing young musicians with an in interest in rock and blues to his energetic type of jazz fusion. Even more relevant is Christian Scott Atunde, world-class trumpet player and grandson of the legendary Donald Harrison Jr., who is melding hip hop, Native American, and Creole music into a new genre of jazz he’s calling “Stretch Music.” All three musicians openly and frequently declare a love of their city and culture, as articulated by Wynton in the interview: “We’re a clannish kind of people… we have our traditions and our customs. We love being New Orleanians, wherever we go. Man, I been gone a long time, but I love being from New Orleans.”

Donald Harrison Jr.

Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah

 

Speaking on how music factors into the other facets of the city, Marsalis explains at 2:32:30, “We are really probably the only city in America that the economy and the politics kind of revolve around the culture. In most other places we don’t have as great a cultural base. Our ceremonies, our food, our music – we are known for those things internationally. We’re not as known nationally for them; nationally it’s known as a place where you can get a good meal and you can get drunk.” This is the first indication in the interview that something bothers Wynton about the way New Orleans is portrayed within the United States, but he doesn’t delve deeper until the interviewer asks him whether or not the city will rebound from the current tragedy.

The Marsalis family in concert

“We’re gonna fix it. That’s not even really an issue. We’re Americans; we’re good in a crisis. We have a tradition of rising to a crisis. Now the problem we’re gonna have is after that… What we have a tendency to do is we rise in that moment, but when that moment is past, we fall back again. We need a reminder. Because the heroism of Americans, when we come together, for some reason it never becomes a part of our national mythology. And so that’s why we are doomed to repeat the same kind of mistakes, just like what happens in your personal life.”

So Wynton sees the resilience in New Orleans and the strength of spirit available to overcome the current tragedy, but he’s concerned about the long-term: how do Americans deal before and after a crisis? What is our identity as a nation in peacetime? Asked about which parts of Hurricane Katrina have been personally difficult for him, Wynton responds,

“I guess the hardest for me is the stupidity surrounding the deaths of the people. I mean a hurricane is a catastrophe, there’s nothing you can do about that, you’re overwhelmed by it… But I feel that the type of callousness that was shown toward the people when they were stranded,  by our government, by politicians, I just feel like that highlights the incompetence on every level – like taking money away from the levee project – I think the more we investigate, just on every level, you’ll see a level of incompetence born of lack of interest and caring. And it’s in all of our other cities, it just takes a catastrophe or something to bring it out. It exposes it – the underbelly. It exposes a lot of the basic truths of how far we’ve fallen from our fundamental principles. And for us we’ve always had to struggle with our fundamental principles, you know? In this case we’re talking about race and class [2:35:10].”
Jumping from the present, local case of Katrina and New Orleans, Wynton points to the greater American historical narrative:

“It’s the same thing that we discovered when the Constitutional Congress decided that black people would be three-fifths of a person. Not because of the Southerners, because of the Northerners. When we discovered with Hayes-Tilden that Reconstruction would be repealed, so that black people could go back to basic slavery. 1876, when we discovered with Plessy v. Ferguson before the turn of the century that – and Homer Plessy was from New Orleans – when we discovered that, Separate but Equal, but, Separate but Unequal…

When we discovered after World War I the Harlem Regiment was the most decorated in France, and World War II, that black soldiers could not fight. When we discovered after the Civil Rights Movement, with what is now called the Republican Reclamation…

We discover this same thing over and over again, which is basically, ‘Don’t lean on us, don’t trust us.’ Because when you need us to be there for you, what we are saying in our ideology, we are not really prepared to live up to that with the type of intensity that we would have to live up to it to make our nation be a reality, to make our nation be congruent with its foundational principles.”

These insights into what this current disaster says about the failings of America as a whole are broad and difficult to contend with. But Wynton brings the discussion back to the local level by explaining his personal commitment to support New Orleans as a musician:

“My primary function will be to embody our culture, and to say that, ‘Our way of life is valuable’ – I’m here, I represent that, and people at home know that. We’re all together, and our way of life is not something that’s going to perish because of a flood. Now, basically, we are born in hardship, and by that I mean all New Orleanians. Especially, of course, black people are resilient people, we’re blues people – and blues never lets tragedy have the last word, that’s the nature of the expression. And let’s not forget that the expression comes from an experience, and from a people. And not just black people – New Orleanians, Southern people, American people, people of soul – we’re not going to just fade away because of a crisis. That’s not in our nature, in our character, it’s also not in our history [2:38:50].”

By invoking America’s history of oppression and the blues, Wynton is tapping into the root of both the problem facing New Orleans at this time and the strength the city drew on to confront it: the history of the slave trade, which spawned both the institutional racism and systemic poverty alive today and the culture and spirit that drew some people together in this time to alleviate the worst of the tragedy. The racism and callousness in the American government allowed politicians to ignore the concerns of lower-class, predominantly black New Orleanians and withdraw money from the levee project; as a result, the 9th Ward was among the hardest hit neighborhoods during Hurricane Katrina. It allowed a dehumanizing attitude as, in the midst of dealing with a hurricane, four officers that were supposed to keep order in the situation instead added to the chaos by shooting six unarmed black citizens, killing two of them. It allowed for a blatant negligence as President George W. Bush delayed the federal emergency response for multiple days as people were left stranded in floodwater.

These events are reflected and recounted by musicians, particularly those directly from New Orleans and those culturally indebted to it. Wynton Marsalis played at both the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Concert at the Lincoln Center (tape 180) and the Hurricane Flood Relief Show (tape 141), the latter including celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kanye West. Though Altman’s tape catches a glimpse of Kanye, it cuts off right before it would have gone into the hip hop musician’s famous off-script speech of the tragedy and ensuing criticism of the sitting president, neatly summarized in one sentence: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Just a few months ago, at the last Christian Scott concert I attended, the NOLA native talked at length about the influence his city had on him before revealing that the Danziger Bridge shooting was the emotional context for a song he was about to play. This tragedy deeply affected these musicians, and their music expresses and communicates that tragedy to the rest of the world, drawing a different, more humane kind of attention back to it; and that’s a recurring theme in the history of New Orleans and the United States. This is not the first hurricane to hit Louisiana and become subject matter for the musicians living there; there have been many, such as in 1947, 1965, and 1969. There have been all the historical events that Wynton briefly touched on in his interview. There has been the slave trade in the South, where on plantations African-American rhythms and song mixed with gospel hymns to form the beginnings of soul, blues, and, eventually, jazz music.

Those beginnings, the musical mixture that in New Orleans distilled gospel spirituals, the African tresillo, blues form, and swing sensibilities into a unique cultural genre, were embodied by Louis Armstrong, who took it with him from New Orleans to Chicago, and from Chicago to the rest of the world under sponsorship of the U.S. State Department (earning him the nickname “Ambassador Satch”). His and other musician’s championship of New Orleanian culture have made it one of the strongest representations of America on the world stage, despite the many bouts of tragedy in its history. As Wynton says, “We need to lead the world from a soul standpoint. The blues swept around the world, it came from the United States; jazz swept around the world, it came from the United States.”

The interviewer mentions that George Bush wanted to export democracy to the rest of the world, too. Wynton has a response to that as well:

“Well, let’s deal with some democracy at home. And stop with all this polarization and not caring, not having just a feeling for people, man, just a basic feeling, and nuances of human life. We’re seeing it exhibited with such grace and elegance all over the screen by all kinds of people. ‘Cause this is not just a black issue. So I don’t like it when it’s put in those terms. What about all the people flying helicopters, all the doctors, all the people on the ground, people in those boats, they don’t count? Those people count, man. They’re not obligated to do those jobs. Those people are working day and night. They’re living and sweating and dying with those people out there. Those people count. They’re Americans, and we see the working of our country together, but we don’t have the leadership to put that into context. Everybody’s ready to spin. Now they’re trying to think, ‘What photo can we get?’ or ‘How can we focus more on the looting? How can we create more of a story?’ It’s all just bulls–t, man.”

The interviewer: “And the story you want to see told is what?”

Wynton: “I want to see the story that will help our nation the best. That’s the story I’m interested in.”

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