Cross-posted at New Orleans Slate
Dear Mayor Landrieu,
I voted for you. Twice. I felt then and feel now that you really want to work with the community. I felt then and feel now that having grown up here in New Orleans, you have a deep connection to the City, its people and its culture in all the various forms that culture presents. That said, I am greatly concerned, as are many others, that some of the cultural heritage unique to this City will soon be obliterated by bad laws, pressure from monied property owners (both natives and newcomers), and the pursuit of money for the City coffers which admittedly could use some shoring up.
Unfortunately it often looks as though that shoring up is being done on the backs of the regular working folks via traffic cam tickets that are a hardship on just about everyone trying to make it month to month, crazy new taxicab regulations that are a hardship on many career cab drivers, unwieldy and seemingly serendipitous permitting requirements on club owners who are the small business owner/job creators we hear about every day, more permits on the smallest of entrepreneurial business owners–the vendors at Second Lines, and on the culture bearers themselves—the musicians and artists who create the culture that draws visitors to our City every year from all over the world. Lately we’ve heard words like noise, crackdown, permit, and ordinance used to intimidate bands off of street corners, to cause clubs to stop live music for fear of total shut downs, and as you know, those words have been a sometimes unspoken threat to parades and Indians for a long time.
There have to be other, better ways to pay for the needs of this City, ways that don’t threaten an entire cultural fabric with becoming an historic footnote or an artifact in a museum; ways that don’t send our club owners into bankruptcy, our musicians into the unemployment lines or worse, into the clubs of Austin.
I know several men who grew up here who are about your age. They have entertained me with stories of their youth: jumping out of bed early to try to catch the Bone Men just as they start out, waiting on certain street corners to hear the approach of an Indian gang and being thrilled to catch a glimpse of the Spy Boy in his suit looking up and down the block. One friend has a story of being about 14, riding a Mardi Gras float as what he called a “float grunt.” He wrote the story down and it was published. They’ve told me lots of stories, some of which I am sure their parents still know nothing of today, but they all involved spontaneity, expectation of a remarkable experience, and above all, music. Whether they were walking down the street hearing it from a corner or a backyard or out the door of a club on their first forbidden walk down Bourbon Street, to a man their eyes still get wide in the telling of the story, the awe they felt seeing this or that now long dead musician is still in their voices, the joy of hearing that one long perfect note still resonates in their memories today. I am betting you have some memories like that. Perhaps you even have some still secret ones, the ones you’ll wait to tell your kids until they have kids themselves.
That makes you and all the other people who grew up here in New Orleans unique. Your contemporaries in other cities in other states didn’t have the wealth of culture, the almost embarrassingly rich culture, that you did. They most certainly didn’t have the wide range of music right there, right there in the streets.
On the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau website it says: “It is said that in New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the streets. Nowhere is this more evident than in the music scene. You’ll know it when you come across a street performance that rivals any ticketed show you’ve seen.” It goes on to say that “New Orleans is one big stage.”
I have been attending the discussion meetings that Kermit Ruffins has so kindly opened his doors for regarding clubs, permits, and all the other issues surrounding live music lately. The attendees are club owners, musicians, visual artists, and music lovers, all wanting to find a solution to the various issues involved. I very much want to thank Scott Hutcheson for joining us and speaking with us. I believe that since he is there on your behalf, that you believe the words on the NOCVB website. There is no doubt that it’s a true statement: “…in New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the streets.” Someone at the last meeting made a comment that that culture has come from the most marginalized neighborhoods and population in the City by and large. What they didn’t mention was the scope and importance of the street culture within those neighborhoods and the rest of the city.
As the discussion wandered off into ordinance technicalities, Big Chief Albert Doucette stood up and took the floor. He gave voice to the issues that most concern those of us in attendance. He said, “Things like Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are grandfathered in. They are trying to kill the grandfather. If you allow them to kill the grandfather, the walls are going to disintegrate. They can’t allow people who have a lot of money to come into our town and buy into OUR neighborhoods and tell us you can’t have that live music in your club. We need to make an ordinance where if you move into a neighborhood, you better accept what’s IN that neighborhood. This is our culture. This is our City. This is OUR City. We made New Orleans.”
Mr. Mayor, everyone applauded. The folks at this meeting were from various neighborhoods and various economic levels. Those applauding were business owners. They were musicians. They were creators of the culture we all want to protect. They were the locals who pay to see those cultural creators. They were, I believe, people who hold the same beliefs about this remarkable culture that you do. They also are fierce in their determination to let it grow, organically and naturally as it always has.
In 2009 the Louisiana Endowment for Humanities did a series of interviews with local musicians called, “As Told By Themselves.” I attended one that featured the Treme Brass Band. The LEH graciously put these online and I listened to it again earlier this week because there was one particular story that I remembered but couldn’t put the musician’s name to. As I listened waiting for that particular story, I heard Mr. Benny Jones, Jr. talking about seeing jazz funerals two or three times a week with parades of the Social Aid and Pleasure clubs on Sunday as a kid. That’s about four street performances a week that he saw free from his doorstep. He, along with all the musicians, explained that just about everyone in their family played an instrument, and just about everyone in their friend’s family did too. They all spoke of the mentoring, from one generation to the next, dropping names like Harold Dejean and Milton Batiste, Olympia Brass Band, Danny Barker. Each of them could recite a litany of “my uncle played trombone, my aunt played clarinet, my cousin played drums.” It was astonishing, and yes, as I said earlier, unique. I can think of no other city in which music is so totally embedded in the culture through family and community ties. They talked about hearing someone play in a backyard down the way, grabbing their instrument, even if it was only a bucket to bang on, and heading down there soon to be joined by others who heard the music and joined in. They talked about going down to the Quarter to play on street corners as kids learning their craft. They learned traditions from their elders and the great band teachers in the schools. If they saw someone walking down the street with a horn they’d ask if they were going to practice today, and join them. One said, “We created music right then and there, anywhere. There’d be a knock on the door and someone else would join in, then there’d be people in the streets dancing.”
Today, the way the ordinances are written, they could get a ticket for playing or rehearsing in their backyard, or on their stoop, or in their house, or on the street. Mr. Mayor, the way the ordinances are written right now you could get a ticket for playing a tambourine on your front porch, and while I don’t know for certain, I am pretty sure there is a tambourine somewhere in your house. It seems to be standard equipment in New Orleans’ households in every neighborhood.
Finally as I listened, I came across the story I had been looking for. It was told by Kenneth Terry, the trumpet player for Treme Brass Band. He remembered being about 7 years old, standing on his stoop when a parade or second line went by. There was a man playing trumpet with one hand, holding it up in the air like Gabriel himself. Kenneth was mesmerized and told his mom he wanted to do that. Soon she bought him a trumpet from Weirlein’s. A few days later there was a knock on the door and when Kenneth opened it, he saw a man standing there. Kenneth said to him, “You’re the guy who played with one hand!” The man said, “Yeah, Kenny, your mama said you want to play the trumpet.” That man was Milton Batiste and he took him to his house and taught him and helped him. Mentored him. A legend helping a 7 year old kid just because the young man showed interest. I am pretty sure that nothing like that happens in Dubuque. In that way the culture was handed down to the next generation intact with room for innovation, evolution and growth, but still uniquely New Orleans.
Every note played, every bead sewn, every dance step taken has been handed down by those who came before. It’s a living, breathing thing, this culture we are lucky enough to experience, and if we legislate it too much or try to make it too orderly we will lose the spontaneity that lets it breathe. If that happens, if it is allowed to happen, this culture we love will die, but only after becoming a caricature of itself. That, sir, would be the world’s loss not just ours.
Mr. Mayor, someday you’ll tell your stories to your grandchildren, maybe even some of the secret ones. I hope that you will be able to tell them the story and then show them what you’re talking about. You’ll sit on a curb with them in the summer sun, laughing to yourself about the blue snoball juice dripping on their clothes as they dance to the rhythms of an Indian practice taking place inside the door. You’ll take them into the Quarter where they’ll see other kids their age hoping the bigger guys will let them play a few notes on their horn and maybe one of those grandchildren will ask you for a trumpet. You’ll grab your tambourine and take them to dance in a second line letting them choose from the list of Sundays held by a magnet to your refrigerator door. You’ll play the music you grew up with for them and look forward to the kind of music their generation will create and hear, still bubbling up out of the streets, just like the Visitor’s website said back in your day.
You’ll do all this with a huge smile on your face, with the quiet knowledge that you played a large part in allowing that culture to live on by nurturing it and not letting it become a parody of itself. Or you’ll do it with great sadness, the sadness we feel when we look at an endangered species. Mr. Mayor, this cultural protection can be your most important legacy. Please, sir, take up the fight so that so that this culture, your City’s culture, isn’t as remote an idea to your grandchildren as a saber toothed tiger.
One of the attendees at the meeting last week said, “Frankly, the best friend you might have might be the Mayor to tell you the truth.” I am writing this letter in the hopes that that attendee was right.