Hard Listening in the Big Easy

Jazz Fest is on. Clubs are open. The water's receded. The stakes remain high.

Later that night at Donna's on Rampart Street, the city's most glorious hole in the wall, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield placed his horn on the bar and sounded a similar refrain: "Around the country, art is considered secondary or tertiary. People don't really see how that's the biggest centerpiece we have to rebuilding. Culture defines this city."

Mayfield's grasp of Katrina's personal and political implications runs deep as it gets. He lost his father to the storm. He also directs the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and works closely with Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco as a congressionally appointed cultural ambassador. "I like New Orleans like it is right now," he said. "People are pissed off and want answers. I've never heard so many people speaking about politics, voicing concern about education. This is what the city should be like."

The next day, I noticed little storm damage at the Uptown home of Ellis Marsalis, pianist patriarch to the New Orleans jazz scene. One of his famous sons, Wynton, has distributed nearly $3 million in aid through Jazz at Lincoln Center's Higher Ground fund. Another, Branford, has joined forces with Harry Connick Jr. and Habitat for Humanity to create a Musicians' Village near the Ninth Ward.

"Our music was born from limited opportunity and developed from a hustle," Marsalis said, "and the danger to our culture isn't so much a natural disaster. It's the leadership of this country."

Funny—those same themes run through "Get Ya Hustle On," the hit from rapper Juvenile, who grew up in the Third Ward's now uninhabited Magnolia housing projects. The video, shot in the Lower Ninth, features a forlorn resident holding a sign reading, "Still Here," and local boys grinning through George Bush and Ray Nagin masks.

"I have three faces that I wear right now," Rebirth Brass Band co-leader Philip Frazier told me later, before performing at the Maple Leaf Bar. "One is worried about what's going to happen to the culture I love. Another is angry with a government that should help the people who need to come back. But another is happy because all eyes are on New Orleans right now. People have a chance to see what this music and this life are really about."

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