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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I've been enjoying this from HBO Sunday night distance, unfortunately, but it's something to look forward to in life - great article.


what happened to my comment from 11 hours ago?


I agree that the jazz aspect of the festival has been lost to a great extent over the years, and there certainly are groups that never should have been even contemplated for the lineup (Bon Jovi - really? They barely qualify as music). But the selection of Arcade Fire at least has a connexion to the Haitian musicians, as Régine Chassagne was born in Haïti and emigrated to Canada when she and her parents fled the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime. And Arcade Fire have done several benefits for Haïti and have played there. So sure, Arcade Fire aren't jazz, but they had more right to be there than some...

Oh, and Donald Harrison Jr. is a national treasure...


Thanks for the article. The question for me remains the same: does the administration understand this creative economy's proper scale? When artists selling handmade Mardi Gras costumes are being shut down while the city supports more sponsored road races for elite runners and allows festivals on every weekend to set up directly in front of businesses losing customers, we seem to be making the creative economy a commodity rather than a series of elegant, culturally appropriate choices that support the opposite of mass production. We thought we were going to get support from this administration and some relief from the 75 years or we have had of local leaders and entrepreneurs simply strip-mining our beloved cultural ecosystem. Instead, many people who are the spine of the creative economy are suffering and wondering what is coming next. I believe the mayor is a fan of much of it, but also needs to find an economy to replace the fast disappearing Katrina economy. I hope he understands it will take more than a (valued and honored) television show or adding bigger pop names to our Jazz and Heritage Festival. Every city wants to keep the creative class, but it is necessary to remember we already have those citizens and skills here; no need to import or invent larger events to sit over the authentic ones happening now.Add to that the crackdown in chasing petty creative "crimes" such as playing music a few minutes past the dinner hour or suing artists who incorporate a certain sewer cover logo in their work and you don't need to squint too hard to see a pattern that has become unsustainable, top-down hogwash. The vaunted creative economy didn't come with with the World's Fair, nor with the Riverwalk or even the development of Louis Armstrong Park and it will not work now because of 1 or 2 big ideas.www.neworleanscanthrive.blogsp...

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