Beyond Jazzfest, Ruffled Feathers in New Orleans

Cultural growing pains in a rebuilt city

If that scene sounds like something out of Treme, it wasn’t—although in a recent episode of the show, fictional civil-rights attorney Toni Bernette explained how raised permit fees threatened brass-band-led second-line parades. She referenced reality; in 2007, the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs took the city to federal court, invoking First Amendment rights, and won. “Should the law not be enjoined,” the complaint stated, “there is very little doubt that plaintiff’s cultural tradition will cease to exist.”

Nothing has ceased. But much has been threatened, repeatedly, often via new enforcement of old, blurry laws. Last year, the To Be Continued Brass Band was cited for violating sound ordinances at its usual spot on the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets. Such tensions are nothing new; the history of musicians arrested for making music in New Orleans is long. But since Katrina, there has been a distinct feeling among the culture’s keepers, whose purest expressions happen in the streets, that what they do stands in the way of where New Orleans is headed.

“Congo Square is not just a stage at Jazzfest,” New Orleans Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer declared at City Hall the day before Jazzfest opened in late April. With a unanimous vote, the council removed the name “Beauregard Square,” which honored a Confederate general, from the spot in the Tremé neighborhood’s Armstrong Park where, two centuries ago, enslaved Africans and free people of color spent Sundays dancing and drumming. Everyone already called it that, but Freddi Williams Evans, author of the new Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, had pressed the matter. Now it’s official. Following the vote, a procession of Mardi Gras Indians, brass band musicians, civic leaders, elders, and kids headed from City Hall to Congo Square. Libations were poured, drums beaten, and dances danced before a thick live oak tree. The ordinance was read aloud, like an incantation.

Saxophone player Donald Harrison Jr. is in New York.
Courtesy Jim Wadsworth Productions
Saxophone player Donald Harrison Jr. is in New York.

Yet changed symbolism need be matched by policy shifts. Which could happen. Meetings between Mardi Gras Indians and city officials have temporarily defused the tensions and raised the issue of “cultural sensitivity training” for officers. A year-long task-force review led by Councilwoman Palmer has led to a revision of the sound ordinance, currently under public review, that is, according to mayoral staffer Scott Hutcheson, “more enforceable for police, and more respectful to musicians.” A much-despised curfew on musicians is to be dropped, he said. David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM and a member of the working group on the ordinance calls the revision “a thoughtful attempt to address the issues surrounding culture that have arisen over decades.” Next on the agenda, one hopes: a maze of zoning ordinances, adopted in 1974, that effectively prohibit live entertainment in New Orleans, save for specially designated exceptions.

“It’s a balancing act,” Mayor Landrieu told me of the reforms. There are legitimate demands and concerns of homeowners in all these discussions. Still, the city’s local culture needs of pride of place outside events like Jazzfest—on the streets, and on the books.

Season two of Treme opened with an 11-year-old trumpeter sitting on a stoop, wrestling with the beginning of “When the Saints Go Marching In”—pure cliché, except when played by a born-and-bred-in–New Orleans musician. David Simon wants us to consider what’s enduring about this music while his weekly drama unfolds. Will Landrieu’s administration sound the right notes and stake its city’s new storyline to timeless culture? Stay tuned.

Donald Harrison Jr. and his quintet, along with Cyril Neville and Mardi Gras Indians, perform “A Day in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans” as part of the R&B Festival at MetroTech June 23; ‘A Night in Treme,’ featuring the same personnel, is at the Jazz Standard June 23 through 25

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