What It Means to Miss New Orleans

Scenes from the Big Easy before Katrina took her toll

Long ago, in his biography of seminal jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton, my great-uncle Alan Lomax equated New Orleans' contribution to American music to Florence's involvement in the Renaissance. But another Italian city seems closer to the mark now. ''We've lost our city,'' said Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans. "I fear it's potentially like Pompeii.''

Apocalyptic words indeed. New Orleans has always had a doom-laden existence -- in the old days, the city was decimated by frequent malaria, cholera, and yellow fever outbreaks, and the violent-crime rate has always been staggering. And everybody has always known about the environmental perils -- gator-infested swamps on one side, the mightiest of American rivers sweeping past on another, a huge lake literally looming overhead, a frequently storm-tossed gulf lapping at its toes. As English physician Henry Bradshaw Fearon wrote in 1818, "Yet to all men whose desire only is to live a short life but a merry one, I have no hesitation in recommending New Orleans."

And from the time Buddy Bolden blasted Dixieland jazz into existence out of his golden horn right through to the late Soulja Slim's suicidally boastful raps, the city's musicians have always played as if each day was its last. "Seize the day" came through with every salacious sax solo, red-hot piano run, funky-ass bass riff, and, above all else, the percolating, funky-butt, second-line rhythms. What's more, all too many of the musicians lived short merry lives offstage as well. You could fill whole mixtapes with 50-year-old New Orleans songs about heroin -- or "hair-on," as it is pronounced often there -- not to mention booze, and you could stock several amazing bands solely with former and current inmates at Angola Prison Farm.

The Crescent City's musicians have been casting a spell over people long before even Bolden, who went insane and never played another note after about 1900. I remember reading an account of a Yankee traveler in New Orleans just after the city had been purchased from the French who marveled at the weird, rowdy music a band of mixed blacks and Indians was making on one of the city's wharves. From his description, it sounded a lot like an early form of blues or jazz, and remember, this was in about 1820.

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New Orleans was and is the nexus where African, Spanish, French, German, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Italian, and Caribbean sounds blended into the first truly American music -- blues and jazz. Later, funk would arise from the drumming in the city's many parades, which themselves echoed the drums that once were pounded in Congo Square by slaves' hands. Congo Square was unique in America -- the only place where slaves were allowed to play their drums, and you can hear that unbroken line back to Africa in most of the city's music even today.

Journalist Greg Ellis grew up in New Orleans and has plenty of favorite memories of his own. While having Meters drummer Zig Modeliste call his name from the stage was a thrill and seeing Fats and Muddy at the Jazz Fest were two others, a Clifton Chenier show at Jazz Fest topped them all.

"I was a senior in high school. My dear, late friend Wayne and his girlfriend, Kathy, had come down from Mississippi for the fest. It was a muggy April day, and there was a large crowd. (In those days a large crowd was about 3,000 folks). Clifton still had all his arms and legs and was probably at an artistic peak in 1976. The great blind saxophonist John Hart was in his band, and it was a revelation to me. I had heard Cajun music before, but this was really my first exposure to zydeco. The band was unbelievable, and the crowd looked like a mosh pit with all the dancing. We were a bit on the edge, next to some bleachers. There were probably 250 to 300 folks in the bleachers. We were all dancing as well, Wayne the most enthusiastically. To our right was a young man in his 20s who obviously suffered from Down syndrome. His eyes locked with Wayne's, and an unspoken challenge was issued. While Clifton's band played a song for what seemed like 20 minutes, the dance-off went back and forth. Each ended his session with a quick step and the extension of an arm and open palm -- the universal symbol for 'Top that, mofo!' The crowd in the bleachers was going nuts. Clifton was merely an expediter for the main event. Finally, the song and the challenge ended to a sustained cheer from the bleachers. A draw was declared, and it was back to business as usual. Those sort of spontaneous 'melting pots' that spring up whenever music is playing in New Orleans -- and it's always playing somewhere -- are to me the essence of the city. I pray to God we don't lose that."

"Melting pots" is right. New Orleans is -- I'm steadfastly sticking to present tense here -- where food and music, sex and death, African and European, and beauty and danger all fuse, truly one of the world's great cities. "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" Louis Armstrong asked years ago. It looks like we all might have to find out, and right now, nobody knows for how long.

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