By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
"When the riverbanks are overflowing / and the streetcar has seen its day / when all is gone / the plantation, Tremé, Vieux Carré / I'll be swingin' to that music on higher ground / where Pops is blowing 'Walk On' / Up with Gabriel making sacred sounds / I'll see you there at the foot of Canal Street." -- New Orleans singer John Boutté, "At the Foot of Canal Street," 1998
"Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"
So, long ago, asked Louis Armstrong, and it looks like we all might have to find out, and right now nobody knows for how long. It's looking more and more like the city won't be back to anything close to normal for several months at the very least, and -- God forbid -- it could be lost forever. Sadly, at this writing, the pearl of the Gulf Coast and loveliest and most musical of American cities looks like a lawless, toxic, snake- and fire-ant-ridden southern extension of Lake Pontchartrain. Mad Max meets Escape from New York meets Waterworld. Clearly, life in the Big Easy will never be so easy again.
Long ago, in his biography of seminal jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton, my great-uncle Alan Lomax equated the city's contribution to American music to Florence's involvement in the arts of the Renaissance. But it is another city in Italy that seems closer to the mark now. "We've lost our city," said Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans. "I fear it's potentially like Pompeii."
Apocalyptic words indeed. If so, what a ride it had. New Orleans has always had a doom-laden existence. In the old days, the city was decimated by frequent malaria, cholera and yellow-fever outbreaks, and the violent-crime rate has always been staggering. And everybody has always known about the environmental perils: gator-infested swamps on one side, the mightiest of American rivers sweeping past on another, a huge lake literally looming overhead, a frequently storm-tossed gulf lapping at its toes. As the English physician Henry Bradshaw Fearon wrote in 1818, "Yet to all men whose desire only is to live a short life but a merry one, I have no hesitation in recommending New Orleans."
And from the time Buddy Bolden blasted Dixieland jazz into existence out of his golden horn right through to the late Soulja Slim's suicidally boastful raps, the city's musicians have always played as if each day was the city's last. "Seize the day" came through with every salacious sax solo, red-hot piano run, funky-ass bass riff and, above all else, the percolating, funky-butt second-line rhythms. (What's more, all too many of the musicians lived short merry lives offstage as well. You could fill whole mixtapes with 50-year-old New Orleans songs about heroin alone -- or "hair-on," as it's often pronounced there -- not to mention booze, and you could stock several amazing bands solely with former and current inmates at Angola Prison Farm.)
The Crescent City's musicians have been casting a spell over people since long before even Bolden, who went insane and never played another note after about 1900. I remember reading an account of a Yankee traveler in New Orleans, just after the city was purchased from the French, marveling at the weird, rowdy music a band of mixed blacks and Indians was making on one of the city's wharves. From his description, it sounded a lot like an early form of the blues or jazz -- and remember, this was in about 1820.
New Orleans was and is the nexus, the vortex where African, Spanish, French, German, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Italian and Caribbean sounds blended into the first truly American music: the blues and jazz. Later, funk would arise from the drumming in the city's many parades, which itself echoed the drums that once were pounded in Congo Square by slaves' hands. Congo Square was unique in America -- the only place where slaves were allowed to play their drums, and you can hear that unbroken line back to Africa in most of the city's music even today.
My first trip to New Orleans affected me deeply for life, musically and otherwise. My dad and stepmother brought me along to the New Orleans Jazz Fest in about 1977, and the city truly bewitched me. The banana trees, the vines scrambling all over the gabled, ornate little shotgun shacks and grand Victorian mansions, the antiquated streetcars, the wrought-iron decorations in the French Quarter, the cities-of-the-dead-style cemeteries, the weird Greek mythology/French Catholic street names, the stories of pirates and the overwhelming voodoo vibe, flaming, liquor-soaked bananas for dessert, the automated bare legs swinging back and forth out of that strip club on Bourbon Street And the people there danced in the streets when their loved ones died!
I had never been to a foreign country, and New Orleans epitomized the exotic for me then. And even though I eventually would travel to 20 countries and live in three, no place I visited was ever stranger, more magical or lovelier.