Hard Listening in the Big Easy

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

Stick to the "Sliver by the River," the high-ground neighborhoods along the Mississippi's banks, and you might think New Orleans is healing. Take a taxi from Louis Armstrong Airport to the French Quarter and you'll find scant evidence of Katrina's wrath. Sluggishly approaching its former self, the Quarter again boasts coffee and beignets, music and mystery.

But the Gray Line Hurricane Katrina bus tour reveals miles of destruction, still stunning six months past the storm. And the Gray Line doesn't run through the devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward: houses impaled by cars and reduced to rubble that stretches as far as the eye can see. Signs tacked to lampposts voice suspicions: "Saw Levee Break? Witnesses Wanted." Spray-painted notes from house-by-house search teams bear gruesome details, like one marked simply, "Possible Body." Graffiti scrawled on the side of Fats Domino's house reads, "R.I.P. Fats—You Will Be Missed." Domino is still with us, thanks to a dramatic rescue; his new CD will benefit the Tipitina's Foundation, one of the many local organizations working with musicians to rebuild their lives.

New Orleans is two cities now—one inching toward renewal, the other caught in what David Winkler-Schmidt of the local Gambit Weekly called "the horrible unending of not knowing." Already Gambit's music section lists my favorite clubs hosting my favorite bands, many of whose members travel from Atlanta or Baton Rouge for gigs. But the great body of culture that long inspired and still shapes the sound of American music—in the form of jazz musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-liners, neighborhood brass bands, and up-from-the-projects MCs— remains stuck in that unending.

There is one hard, good fact. The annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will take place at its customary Mid-City Fair Grounds site. When I passed by Gentilly Boulevard, cranes lined the grandstand. Hasty restorations aim toward April 28, the start of Jazz Fest's two consecutive weekends. Headliners include Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, but more than 90 percent of this year's participants are Louisiana based. Familiar favorites, from Buckwheat Zydeco to pheasant-and-quail andouille gumbo, will be served up.

Jazz Fest's downtown offices now buzz with orderly energy. But producer Quint Davis's staff first set up shop in the Sheraton and W hotels back in the fall, and thought about mounting this year's event elsewhere—Houston, or even Madison Square Garden.

"New York has a jazz industry, but New Orleans has a jazz culture," Davis said. "And we knew that if we put this big soul-generating battery on and, for two weekends, people could plug in, it'll mean something." The festival also generated $300 million in city revenue last year; that should mean something too. Still, the event was in doubt until January, when American Express and Shell kicked in key funding. "Planning began," Davis said, "with 'the Big Finding'—tracking downall the artists involved, who were scattered to the wind, literally."

Jazz Fest is both symbol and spark for cultural renewal. "But will these cultural communities knit and hold together enough?" Davis asked. "I'm not sure. Children have to grow up in it. The kids who find themselves in Houston won't have Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands coming down the street. They can fall out of the well."

By 7 p.m. on a warm Sunday, I was deep in the well on St. Joseph's Night, one of three times each year that Mardi Gras tribes gather en masse. The intersection of Washington Avenue and La Salle Street was packed with Indians, decked out in feathers and beads. Across the street, A.L. Davis Park, named for a reverend and civil rights activist, was filled with FEMA trailers housing displaced families.

Looking fierce in his African-inspired green-and-red mask, Victor Harris of Fi-Yi-Yi shouted, "They spit us all over this land. They told us we had to evacuate. But they didn't say we had to stay away." Spy boys led the way. Flag boys bore identifying colors. Chiefs haltingly greeted fellow chiefs. Suddenly, drums and feathers were overpowered by sirens and flashing lights. Police cars drove straight through the procession, enacting their own now annual ritual. Some officers wore uniforms emblazoned with SWAT team logos. Representatives of the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild signified too, with armbands marked "Legal Observer." It's true that some recent Mardi Gras events have been punctuated by shootings, but there's also growing opinion that the city's hard-line challenges to these assemblies right now mean to send a message to participants: You're not welcome back.

At Monk Boudreaux's temporary apartment, overlooking FEMA trailers, the Golden Eagles chief opened a suitcase and pulled out the stark white costume he began sewing shortly after Katrina hit. "The police can't stop the Mardi Gras Indians and neither can Mother Nature. This tradition dates back to the 1700s, and it's weathered far worse." But Donald Harrison, well known as both a jazz saxophonist and the Congo Nation big chief, sees the moment as pivotal. "What's happening in New Orleans right now is a test for the soul of America," he said at Tipitina's, where he teaches foundation students. "If we say the cultural roots of this city are unimportant, then America is unimportant."

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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