Crisis of culture in New Orleans

Trumpeters still blow their horns past midnight at Donna's, a weather-beaten club at the edge of the French Quarter.

Zydeco bands still raise Cain at Rock 'n' Bowl, a rowdy bowling alley that doubles as a music joint in Mid-City; and slow-cooked mustard greens and duck and andouille etouffee still get heaped high on gleaming white china at the celebrated Upperline restaurant, near the Garden District.At first glance, a semblance of cultural stability has returned to New Orleans, 10 months after Hurricane Katrina shattered the city.

But you rarely see kids with bottle caps tacked to their heels anymore, dancing fast for loose change on Bourbon Street. And the brass bands that once shook the narrow avenues of New Orleans neighborhoods on Sundays--inspiring folks to come out of their homes to join the pageant, white umbrellas raised against the scorching Louisiana sun--surface only sporadically.

Look past the glittering facade that a battered New Orleans presents to tourists, in other words, and this city is expiring so far as its native culture is concerned. As America prepares to celebrate Independence Day, the place that first gave this country a cultural identity of its own--in the form of nascent jazz and offshoots such as swing, gospel and R&B--faces the greatest aesthetic crisis of its history.

Vast neighborhoods that produced the talent that staffed the marching bands and lit up the jazz clubs have been wiped off the map. Cultural traditions that had been passed orally from one generation to the next have been scattered across the nation, surviving mostly in the hearts and minds of New Orleanians who fled.

Cuisines that were nuanced from one street corner to the next, bars where folk musicians exchanged ideas and front stoops where the songs of the city cried out on sweltering summer nights have been wrecked, perhaps never to re-emerge.

Though New Orleans devotees drew hope from Mardi Gras parades in February and Jazz & Heritage Festival performances in late April and early May, these were short-lived, tantalizing reminders of what once was.

"It's a national treasure that's going down the toilet as we're speaking," said Jerry Goolsby, a professor of music-industry studies at Loyola University New Orleans.

"It's on life support. If someone doesn't do something, they'll regret it."

Added David Torkanowsky, one of the city's esteemed jazz pianists, "New Orleans has always been the singular place where the confluence of the European and African traditions basically gave birth to truly American art forms. But the African-American neighborhoods--where the village elders lived--have been decimated."

"We've lost not only the griots [cultural storytellers] but the legacy that they represent--the legacy of Storyville," he said, referring to the notorious vice district of late 19th and early 20th Century New Orleans where jazz first emerged.

No heirs to tradition

Said Jerome Smith, a community organizer for decades, "At this moment, we're really walking on quicksand.

"It's about inheritance, and there's no one here to inherit this culture."

Among the tragedies that Katrina heaped upon New Orleans, one seems particularly cruel, in cultural terms: The destruction of African-American neighborhoods that had served as unofficial repositories--and standard-bearers--for ancient folkloric traditions.

The Lower 9th Ward, where musicians as famous as Fats Domino and as obscure as the nameless marching bands that convened spontaneously on its streets, looks like a war zone. Pianos teeter on their sides in abandoned homes; scraps of sheet music flutter in the wind through empty streets; silence grips block after block of neighborhoods that once roared with homegrown, self-styled music. Ditto for New Orleans East and Bywater, artistically vibrant areas largely washed away by flooding from the Industrial Canal.

Treme, where poor children routinely banged on pots and pans as they joined the second-line parades that made the neighborhood an international cultural destination, looks like a ghost town. And large swaths of Mid-City, where craftsmen who built New Orleans by day doubled as musicians by night, are eerily devoid of life.

In essence, the African-American and Creole populations of New Orleans--which in the 19th Century transformed America's starched, European-derived culture into something more original, dynamic and populist--have been disproportionately punished by Katrina, resulting in enormous cultural loss. The polyglot, multiracial city that produced Jelly Roll Morton and the great Louis Armstrong, Spanish Colonial architecture and tiny but distinctive "shotgun" houses, has had much of its cultural DNA erased.

"We are fortunate that many of our historic neighborhoods, such as the French Quarter, are coming back to life, but the real indigenous culture -- particularly the African-American culture that came to the neighborhoods and founded our traditions--is devastated," said Don Marshall, executive director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation.

"These are neighborhoods where people lived forever, and now they're in different parts of the country."

Left behind are areas of the city--outside the tourist stops--that for decades fed New Orleans' rambunctious cultural scene.

"Every neighborhood had clubs and restaurants that had music, [and] all of that now is not up and running," said singer Charmaine Neville, a New Orleans stalwart who lost her home in the Lower 9th Ward and now lives outside the city.

"But all the neighborhood stuff, it's going to be a long time before that's back, if--I hate to even say this--if ever," she added.

"You feel like a part of you is missing--your culture is missing."

Even those who promote New Orleans' hometown artists are hard-pressed to find them. After Katrina cast an international spotlight on New Orleans culture, interest in its best practitioners soared, but the global demand for Crescent City talent now is difficult to meet, said longtime promoter Scott Aiges.

"If somebody calls up and says, `I need a brass band,' I really have to look around," said Aiges, who before the hurricane was the city's first director of music development and now heads a non-profit marketing firm called the Louisiana Music Export Office. "Before, there were at least 15 or 20 brass bands you could hire. Now, there's not even half that.

"The brass bands still function, in a way, but they have to fly in from different places because most of the members don't live in New Orleans.

"And the networks of communication are gone. You don't have the second-line parades every week anymore, so you don't know who's around."

The easily observed dearth of New Orleans talent is substantiated by a report from the Cultural Committee of Mayor C. Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, issued this year and still the only comprehensive study of its kind.

The study found that after Katrina:

- A pool of more than 2,000 musicians had plummeted to fewer than 250.

- About 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes, or clubs, had suffered $1.6 million in losses.

- Seventy social aid and pleasure clubs incurred $1.4 million worth of losses.

- Fewer than 250 of the city's 1,000-plus arts organizations had reopened.

- A cultural workforce of 15,000 had dropped to fewer than 5,000.

Though a systematic updating of the study has yet to be launched, the picture has not improved significantly, said one of its authors, Jay Weigel, director of New Orleans' Contemporary Arts Center.

"We said in the report that 10 percent of the musicians were back--maybe now it's 20 percent, or 25 percent, or 18 percent," Weigel said.

"Staffs are still down, 50 to 80 percent."

In all, the report envisioned a price tag of $600 million to bring the city back culturally.

But that amount of money, even if it's forthcoming, won't necessarily reignite cultural New Orleans.

First, the exodus of the city's artists--both celebrated and obscure--has had an unintended consequence: The performers are flourishing in new places.

"I'm having the best year economically that I have had in probably eight or nine years," said legendary New Orleans pianist-singer Henry Butler, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., and doubts he'll move back.

Like Butler, many noteworthy New Orleans figures have left, including singer Aaron Neville and the brilliant young trumpeter (and former Chicagoan) Maurice Brown.

"Even people who may not have been making a lot of money in New Orleans, even the brass bands, are making more money these days out of town," Butler said. "I think everybody is sort of realizing a renaissance by being in new environments."

The numbers support the anecdotes. Though the New Orleans metropolitan area's population dropped significantly after Katrina, from 1.29 million in July 2005 to 914,000 in January 2006, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the most severe effects were felt in Orleans Parish--the region's cultural center. There, the population in the same period went from 437,000 to about 158,000.

The cultural implications of that exodus are profound.

"We're going into a second year in which young musicians are not being taught the music and their culture," said Bill Taylor, executive director of the Tipitina's Foundation.

"I'm not a cultural anthropologist, and I don't know exactly how long it takes to lose a tradition when it's not passed down, but that's another major issue we're facing."

Should the New Orleans diaspora want to return, it will not be easy.

"All our affordable housing was destroyed--it was wiped out," said Missy Whittington, executive vice president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors.

Many of the artists who have defiantly returned, said singer Fredy Omar, find themselves sharing cramped quarters with strangers.

Lost richness of close quarters

And if federal dollars eventually pour into the city, inspiring waves of new construction, something culturally vital still will be missing. The narrow streets where poor New Orleanians lived cheek by jowl, teaching each other age-old songs, were wrecked by Katrina.

Rebuild the old neighborhoods up high, so that the waters can't get them, and it won't be the same, observers said.

"You can't re-create cracked weatherboard, you can't re-create leaky roofs, you can't re-create ramshackle houses, nor would you want to," said Torkanowsky, the jazz pianist.

"But the conundrum is that that in fact is where a lot of the richness came from. The funk was in Bywater. The funk was in the Lower 9, which is gone. A lot of people had moved from Lower 9 to New Orleans East--all of that is gone.

"It's a stake to the heart of where a lot of the funk was."

Added Goolsby, the music industry professor, "What made New Orleans great, what made the music of New Orleans great, is a lot of stuff that you don't want back: economic poverty.

"Sometimes the music expresses great suffering. Do you really want to make a class of people in New Orleans miserable so they can start writing again? The economic segregation and the racism--do you really want that back?"

Still, there have been flickers of hope.

New restaurants, such as Alberta, on Magazine Street, have opened, and venerable ones, such as the aforementioned Upperline, have returned, even though epicures await the return of icons such as Dooky Chase, a Creole landmark in Mid-City; Dunbar's Creole Cooking, Uptown; Willie Mae's Scotch House in Treme; and Commander's Palace, an upscale restaurant in the Garden District.

Venerable institutions such as the Historic New Orleans Collection, a leading repository of the region's cultural legacy, is up and running in the French Quarter. Performers are commuting into New Orleans from across the Southeast and Southwest, "holding on to their gigs with the hope that they'll get back here, though I don't know how long that's going to be able to last," said Tipitina's Foundation's Taylor.

Habitat for Humanity's Musicians Village, where struggling artists can get no-interest, no-down-payment loans for houses through "sweat equity," recently handed the keys to its first property owner, singer Omar.

And a consortium of business, government and cultural leaders--including the Chicago-based owner of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans--has announced plans to build a 200,000-square-foot National Jazz Center and 20-acre jazz park as a tourist destination and a boon for development in the Louisiana Superdome area.

Yet everyone knows that this summer could be crucial in determining the future of New Orleans' distinctive culture.

With only one major convention booked for the season (a gathering of the American Library Association, which ended last Wednesday), the popular Essence Music Festival having decamped to Houston and visibly tiny audiences in the French Quarter for the typically slow summer months, a culture hangs in the balance.

One more hurricane could wipe away the remnants of the city's artistic life, residents said.

"If we get a hit this summer, then that's going to be very alarming because then [New Orleans artists] are going to be very leery of returning and making a real commitment to this town," said Jason Patterson, a longtime jazz advocate.

"Everybody is terrified," said Aiges, the Louisiana talent promoter.

"If we get clobbered over the head, the carpet will be pulled up over us."

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About the writer

Howard Reich, the Tribune's jazz critic, has been writing about New Orleans culture since the late 1980s. He is the author, with William Gaines, of "Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton," a biography of the New Orleans jazz giant. The book was inspired by Reich and Gaines' 1999 Tribune series, "Jelly Roll Blues." Reich is a graduate of Northwestern University's School of Music.