July 2, 2006—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.
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.