Not Wash Away

The fight for New Orleans' culture continues, one parade at a time

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kicks off this weekend—good news from a city wracked by too much bad. Last year, the mounting of the event at its customary Mid-City Fair Grounds site was an inspiring triumph against odds. "Now, in a way, it's even harder," says festival producer Quint Davis, who has upped the ante for this year's event, packing its six days denser than last year, with stars ranging from Rod Stewart and Van Morrison to Gregg Stafford's Young Tuxedo Brass Band. "The euphoria of destruction has passed," he continues. "We're in the reality of the long-term recovery. None of this is going to get someone their check from the 'Road Home' program. None will rebuild their house or get their insurance straight. But it will do something important beyond all that."

Anyone in New Orleans will offer stern correction should you refer to Katrina as a natural disaster: Plenty of unnatural barriers and failures, a great many bureaucratic, are to blame beyond Mother Nature. And anyone involved in the city's culture will point out that new barriers, similarly unnatural, impede the city's ability to rebuild artistically as well as physically. You'd think that New Orleans would welcome back the communities and establishments that anchor its storied culture. But the message implicit in the post-Katrina skirmishes club owners, Mardi Gras Indians, and parade organizers have experienced with city officials is, "We don't want you back." Or at the very least, "We're not going to make it easy."

Just three days before members of the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club dance their way through the Jazz & Heritage Festival Fair Grounds—second-lining with the Mahogany Brass Band—they'll be represented in federal court, fighting to protect the century-old tradition from threats to its future.

Joe Henry (in wheelchair) takes joyfully, defiantly to the streets
photo: Ariane Wiltse
Joe Henry (in wheelchair) takes joyfully, defiantly to the streets

On April 25, a federal judge will hear arguments on behalf of a consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure clubs, aided by the ACLU, in a lawsuit protesting the city's hiking of police security fees—in some cases, triple or more from pre-Katrina rates—for second-line parades, the regular Sunday events, held September through May, at which members snake through neighborhoods, dancing to brass bands. The suit invokes the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, claiming that parade permit schemes "effectively tax" such expression. "Should the law not be enjoined," reads the complaint filed in Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force v. City of New Orleans, "there is very little doubt that plaintiff's cultural tradition will cease to exist."

"It's a solid, core ACLU issue," says staff attorney Katie Schwartzmann. "We handle freedom of speech cases all the time. But this one is different in that the speech at issue signifies this city and an entire cultural tradition. At some point, I mean, the power to tax is the power to eliminate, right? At some point, if the government can put enough fees and enough obstacles in the way of somebody exercising their First Amendment right, then they're ultimately going to eliminate it."

Second-line parades derive from funeral rituals, transforming mourners into celebrants; the term "second-line" refers not just to up-tempo rhythms signifying spiritual rebirth, but also to the tight-knit communities who follow the musicians, dancing and clapping along. Yet now the very tradition itself appears endangered. For all the ink spilled about post-Katrina New Orleans, surprisingly little has been written about the cultural costs of this ongoing tragedy—what it means for centuries-old rituals and for jazz tradition in general, and what it says about how Americans value our homegrown arts, if we value them at all.

Erosion of our coastal wetlands may have paved the way for the natural disaster that hammered this city. But the least- mentioned aspect of the resulting devastation—the erosion of what ethnographer Michael P. Smith once called "America's cultural wetlands"—is of tantamount concern. The resilient African-American cultural traditions of New Orleans, famously seminal to everything from jazz to rock to funk to Southern rap, also contain seeds of protest and solidarity that guard against storm surges of a man-made variety. Erasure of these wetlands exposes many to the types of ill winds that shatter souls.

The brass band–led second-line tradition is particularly and somewhat curiously caught in the crosshairs of violence and controversy now fixed on New Orleans. The wave of homicides that swept through New Orleans in late December and early January claimed among its victims Dinerral Shavers, the 25-year-old snare drummer of the Hot 8 Brass Band and a teacher who had established Rabouin High School's first-ever marching band. Hundreds gathered at the gate to Louis Armstrong Park earlier this year for an all-star second-line, yet not a note was played nor a step danced for two miles. The silence—unthinkable throughout the hundred-plus- year history of this raucous tradition—was a carefully thought-through statement. It addressed the violence afflicting the city, the desperately slow process of post-Katrina recovery, and the enabling power of jazz culture for disenfranchised (in many cases, still displaced) communities. Two miles into that procession, not far from where M.L. King Boulevard meets South Liberty Street—the statement having been made—the men of the Nine Times club (in lime-green suits and royal-blue fedoras) and the Prince of Wales club (in red suits and mustard-colored hats and gloves) started jumping and sliding to the irrepressible sounds of the Hot 8 and Rebirth Brass Bands. Such scenes underscore what's now at stake, both in and out of court.

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