Will New Orleans Please Love Its Music? (Everyone Else Does)

Cover "The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein

Will New Orleans ever learn to nurture, respect and promote its culture? Will it ever take to heart the title of clarinetist Sidney Bechet’s memoir, “Treat It Gentle”?  Will it ever simply realize that live music is good for business?

Evan Christopher, a clarinetist who moved to New Orleans 18 years ago, largely inspired by Bechet’s legacy, wrote this to me in an email once:

“In New Orleans, the music community has arguably been in a cultural crisis for two or three generations. We have staved off cultural annihilation by embracing fictions in harmony with the tourism machine and smiled upon by the ‘New Right’ and their fetish for nostalgia. Post-Katrina, our community’s leadership was nowhere to be seen and before half of our city had returned, 80% of us came back with hat in hand. The utterance of ‘Jazz,’ that should have represented a true strategy of transformation or an answer to revitalization, quickly became an empty slogan hung from streetlamps.”

There’s a lot packed into that comment that I could but won’t go into here. Among other things, it points to one of the deepest ironies surrounding music in New Orleans: The longest-running, wrongest-headed obstacles to making or hearing live jazz in New Orleans are the city’s policies.Two years ago, I wrote a long essay for Truthdig.com about skirmishes that surrounded a police crackdown on brass bands playing in the streets—the very sort of brass-band experience that the tourism ads promote. Below is a brief excerpt (some of these references are circa-2010, but the issues are still currrent). You can find the whole thing here:

At her law office in a MidCity shotgun house earlier this year, civil rights attorney Mary Howell—whose work inspired the character of attorney Toni Bernette in HBO’s “Treme”—recalled for me how she began defending musicians on a regular basis more than three decades ago. A nearby picture frame held Matt Rose’s 1996 photograph, which ran in the Times-Picayune, of musicians marching after one such incident: There, next to a 10-year-old Troy Andrews—better known as “Trombone Shorty” these days and, just last week, a guest on “Late Night With David Letterman”—is a teenage snare drummer wearing a sign: “I Was Arrested for Playing Music.” The French Quarter, where tourists regularly get their first encounter with New Orleans music, has long been contested space, she explained. And throughout the city, music still has a surprisingly uneasy relationship with established law. “The citywide curfew ordinance regarding music is completely overbroad and obviously unconstitutional,” she says. “And it’s unenforceable.”

Section 66-205 could be construed to prohibit a lone guitarist strumming on a corner or someone playing harmonica to no one in particular in the street. Same for Section 30-1456, which, curiously, pertains to a stretch of Bourbon Street filled mostly with bars that blast recorded music well into the night. Add to this, Howell explains, that in 1974 the city passed a zoning ordinance that actually prohibits live entertainment in New Orleans, save for spots that are either grandfathered in or specially designated as exceptions. Those interior shots in “Treme” faithfully depicting the vibe at Donna’s Bar & Grill and Bullet’s Sports Bar? Grandfathered in, or they’d be technically illegal. Current zoning restrictions could, without much of a stretch, be construed to prohibit band rehearsals, parties with musical entertainment, even poetry readings. “It’s a draconian ordinance,” says Howell, “and a blanket over the city.” The very idea is mind-boggling to those who live outside New Orleans: a city whose image is largely derived from its live musical entertainment essentially outlawing public performance through noise, quality-of-life, and zoning ordinances.

The latest foot stepping on the cultural community’s throat is what appears to be a coordinated effort to reshape and newly enforce that “draconian ordinance” regarding zoning and live-music permits.

One new response—and the most promising I’ve seen in a long time—is a new website and campaign “NOLAnoise.” There’s also a Facebook page.

This initiative was launched by Christopher and Sarah Gromko, who is a musician and music-marketing professional. It’s intended as a community-oriented call-to-arms and public square, harnessing the power of social media. “We hope first and foremost to educate each other about what the rules are surrounding music,” said Gromko, “because it’s not very clear to the musicians and venues. Once we have that, we can organize in a meaningful way. Ultimately, we need a reasonable platform that we can present. This is the beginning step.” Christopher has been writing about these cultural policy issues with a good blend of fire and composure at the NOLAvie.com site; his columns can be found on his site too. Locals have been writing about all this. Perhaps Owen Courreges went too far in citing Mayor Mitch Landrieu‘s “War on Music” (yet he did make some good points) on the Uptown Messenger site. Alex Rawls, at MySpiltMilk, took a more measured approach, and is worth reading.

This situation—a long-simmering tension, newly ignited—demands action from musicians and music lovers in New Orleans. And it warrants watching for anyone else who cares about anything from music marketing to civil rights (or anyone who has or intends to dig live music in New Orleans). NOLAnoise seems like a good gathering spot for all of that. I’ll be checking in. More on this to come.

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.