Why New Orleans Matters

Cover of "Why New Orleans Matters"

Cover of Why New Orleans Matters

I have just discovered that I can put my plastic camelback bottle in the microwave to make tea without an explosion. Now that I have, I’m sitting on the office couch with a blankie reading Tom Piazza’s “Why New Orleans Matters“. Obviously it’s Friday morning. If you must know, I am reading it for a combination of work and pleasure. I’ve read through it several times, and anyone who has knows that it’s chock full of amazing quotes that help explain to folks, well, why New Orleans matters. If I remember correctly, there are a few that would slip ever-so-nicely into the cracks of my thesis – hence the work aspect… and it’s a nice relaxing way to spend Friday morning in the office, right? Now my tea is getting cold…

Here are a few good quotes from the current pages I’m flipping through:

“New Orleans is the most religious place I have ever been, even though much of the population is profoundly profane, pagan, and steeped in the seven deadly sins and some others not even listed.

“Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience – dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing – is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music – she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone – the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dances, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name…”

Of jazz funerals… “In the real old times they would continue this way (in a dirge) all the way to the graveyard before the next stage  of the funeral ritual took place, but even New Orleans isn’t totally immune to the Worldwide Attention Deficit, and today this part of the procession will last for a block or two at most before the band stops playing the dirge…and the snare drum beats out a familiar sharp tattoo, the band launches into a jubilant, life-affirming stomp, and the entire crowd explodes into dance.” 

“It amounts to a kind of cultural synesthesia in which music is food, and food is a kind of choreography, and dance is a way of dramatizing the fact that you are still alive for another year, another funeral, another Mardi Gras.”


Small Archiving Project [Pt 1]

As many of you know, last year I inherited a small archiving project of and relating to New Orleans opera in the mid-1900’s. As of two days ago, this “project”, which has consisted of a giant box of mildew-scented newspaper clippings, has come to life. (Immediately I feel a rush of “GAH!” as I realize I have no clue where to start.) I have yet to take an archiving course, although I hope to at some point, even if it has to be a DIS. Regardless, I need to invest in some texts or friendly conversation with those “in the know” regarding the methodology.  So… I have a giant box of old newspaper clippings. Now what?

I suppose I should talk about the clippings for a moment. I inherited the box from a music library in New Orleans which didn’t harbor the means/resources to give it the time of day. It had been given to the library as part of an estate and I can only assume this is because the owner was getting on in years or perhaps passed away. So here I am.

…no clue who the “owner” was (i.e. who assembled the box of clippings), or their relationship to the articles they clipped. The articles themselves range from 1930-1984, and they discuss two particular opera stars from New Orleans who rose through the ranks toward the Met, then came back home  [to New Orleans] during their final years (from what I can see thus far). It’s not simply a survey of opera in New Orleans via media clips. It’s an intimate portrait of two particular people, as if a mother was saving every newspaper clipping of her rising star children.

This is going be like the board game “Clue” for the next few weeks.  Step one was to pull them out of the box and glance them over. I’m about halfway done with this step (there’s a few hundred articles and they’re frail – give me a break!), and I have been taking notes as I peruse them: particular questions I’ll need to answer, people/places/dates that keep popping up, etc. Once I’m done with this, I suppose I’ll continue picking through and asking questions as I put them together chronologically.  Then it gets tricky. I can further split them up via location, musician, opera, role, or even critic. After that I’m not quite sure which direction to take. I know there’s a story to tell here. I just have to unravel it.

Of course these clippings can likely all be found in digital  [or other] archives, and perhaps I won’t come to any conclusions at all with this small project of mine, but it gives me something to do for the next month and I need to brush up on the 20th century opera scene in New Orleans anyway. For now, back to playing Clue

Read a Book!

Do you have 2 minutes and 47 seconds to watch a video today? Then check out this song released in 2007. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look. Caution – there’s ‘offensive’ language. Right before I left New Orleans this summer I noticed lots of new graffiti with the same statement, “Read A Book”.  Considering how viral this video by Bomani Armah became over the past year or two, I wouldn’t doubt if all that graffiti was a result of this tune. I also wouldn’t doubt if this was used in local schools. I’ve seen worse.

Known also as D’Mite,  this artist self-identifies as a poet with hip-hop style. This brings us to his other nickname, “Not a Rapper”.

Notable to my own research, Armah also released a song in 2007 about the Jena Six case in Louisiana (also mildly interesting yet entirely unrelated is that I lived on Jena St. in New Orleans when it was released). Remember that the Jena Six case involved six black teenagers from Jena (about 4 hours northwest of New Orleans) who were convicted of beating a white teenager.

Anyway – here it is:



P.S. Read a Book!

Losing NOLA: Donna’s

New Orleans is my holy city. The soundscape of it is a spiritual practice, a place to reflect, to create, and to commune.  Each musical venue – perhaps a sidewalk, a bar, a stoop, the length of a street, a high school band room, under a bridge, or the stage of a jazz club – has earned its story of veneration. When a musical site fades, New Orleanians grieve.

Today we’re grieving for Donna’s Bar & Grill, the last live music club on North Rampart Street.  It faces Armstrong Park, the site of Congo Square. For those of you into television, Rampart divides the French Quarter from the Treme neighborhood, where the HBO show Treme is based.

Offbeat, New Orleans’ music news resource, has just published an article about the closing of Donna’s. Read it here.

On her site, Donna gives us a farewell notice as seen below. You can click on the image through to her website:

I am very saddened by this. Donna’s was the first place I saw Mardi Gras Indians perform.  It was also the first place I had REAL red beans and rice (which I always thought was appropriately across from Louis Armstrong Park). It was a place I saw so many friends have their first ‘real’ gigs, especially after my favorite dive closed down (The Funky Butt – which closed right before Katrina).

As an aside… when things like this happen, as they do so often these days, it only reinforces what I want to do after I have that PhD under my belt. Someone needs to step in and create a cultural space to disseminate grants to keep these places alive, a place to archive the stories, objects, and traditions and to foster tourist expectations, a place to sell the music, to offer tours of our sacred musical spaces,  and to teach a new generation of New Orleans musicians. So many of the above organizations exist as separate entities, and none of them work together to become a strong enough voice on a National level.  If someone gets to putting it together before I do, I’ll raise a glass to them.  In the meantime, I’d wager that a jazz funeral for Donna’s is in the midst…