"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!
All of this fried my little brain, as did "The Blues Cruise," wherein I got to see B.B. King, Roosevelt Sykes and Muddy Waters perform a night concert on a huge ship on the Mississippi River.
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.
And what a music town! In later years, among many other shows, I would see the Neville Brothers at the 1984 World's Fair, and bluesy funkster Walter "Wolfman" Washington at Benny's Lounge on Valence Street deep in the Uptown ghetto. So shady was that 'hood, the cabby insisted that he drop me and my buddy off right at the door. That show started about two in the morning and lasted until five or six.
My last trip to New Orleans was in 1998. My wife, young son and I drove to meet my mother-in-law, who was over from England on a package tour of the Southern states. Just as we entered New Orleans' radio orbit, I tuned in to WWOZ and heard the following message, which must have sounded like spy-versus-spy code to those ignorant of New Orleans music's arcane slang: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have terrible news: The Tan Canary has flew home." (Translation: The incomparable soul singer Johnny Adams had died.)
A couple of days later, I took my wife, son and mother-in-law and joined 4,000 others at the jazz funeral in the now drowned Mid-City neighborhood. A who's who of Crescent City music luminaries was there: Allen Toussaint, Marva Wright, the Neville Brothers, George Porter and many others. Dr. John was also there, resplendent in white suit and hat, with mahogany cane. "Ooh, Mac, you look shahp as a tack," said a Creole drum majorette in that Yankee-style accent they have. She herself was no slouch, in her beribboned derby hat and gold lamé vest. Ernie K-Doe, visibly drunk even at that early hour, and wife rolled up in their gaudily painted van, and Mr. and Mrs. K-Doe were not to be outdone by anybody. They wore matching black-and-gold suits, each topped with gold-glitter and feathered headdresses.
The Olympia Brass Band played the funeral march, which was a mess. TV crews kept getting underfoot; in fact, a tall, muscular trumpet player yelled he was gonna put his foot up a cameraman's ass if they didn't get out of the way. To the strains of a death march, we made it only about half a block toward the cemetery before a sudden, angry September storm blew in off the gulf and we all scattered. But not before I was able to snap a picture of my mother-in-law with Ernie "Mr. Mother-in-Law" K-Doe.
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I never once left that city without profound regret.
Houston Press contributor Greg Ellis grew up in New Orleans and has plenty of favorite memories of his own. While having Meters drummer Zig Modeliste call his name from the stage was a thrill, and seeing Fats and Muddy at the Jazz Fest were two others, a Clifton Chenier show at Jazz Fest topped them all.
"I was a senior in high school. My dear, late friend Wayne and his girlfriend Kathy had come down from Mississippi for the fest. It was a muggy April day, and there was a large crowd. (In those days a large crowd was about 3,000 folks.) Clifton still had all his arms and legs and was probably at an artistic peak in 1976. The great blind saxophonist John Hart was in his band, and it was a revelation to me. I had heard Cajun music before, but this was really my first exposure to zydeco. The band was unbelievable, and the crowd looked like a mosh pit with all the dancing. We were a bit on the edge, next to some bleachers. There were probably 250 to 300 folks in the bleachers. We were all dancing as well, Wayne the most enthusiastically. To our right was a young man in his twenties who obviously suffered from Down's syndrome. His eyes locked with Wayne's, and an unspoken challenge was issued. While Clifton's band played a song for what seemed like 20 minutes, the dance-off went back and forth. Each ended his session with a quick step and the extension of an arm and open palm -- the universal symbol for 'Top that, mofo!' The crowd in the bleachers was going nuts. Clifton was merely an expediter for the main event. Finally, the song and the challenge ended to a sustained cheer from the bleachers. A draw was declared, and it was back to business as usual. Those sort of spontaneous 'melting pots' that spring up whenever music is playing in New Orleans -- and it's always playing somewhere -- are to me the essence of the city. I pray to God we don't lose that."
"Melting pots" is right. New Orleans is -- I'm steadfastly sticking to present tense here -- where food and music, sex and death, African and European, and beauty and danger all fuse, truly one of the world's great cities. Let's do whatever it takes to keep it alive for another 287 years.