BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Marking Time, and Making Time For Smart Cultural Policy, in New Orleans

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

My son Sam turned six today. We’ll make a big deal out of it in our family, reflecting on remarkable growth that began in trauma (four weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit) and dreaming about his future.

Next Friday will mark nine years since the floods in New Orleans caused by the levee breaches that followed Hurricane Katrina. I suspect some locals will celebrate or conduct solemn ceremonies, while others entirely ignore the date. I doubt much national media will pay attention. I know there will be a big wave of coverage (mine included) next year, when that particular trauma turns ten: We tend to reflect most around round numbers.

I’ve been ambivalent toward these anniversaries based on my experience. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as an anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Point being: Pay close attention to—don’t ignore—the lives represented by each house destroyed and rebuilt or not, every neighborhood that comes back or doesn’t. (For what it’s worth, here are my accounts of August 29 in New Orleans, from 2007 and 2010.)

The conversations—often battles—of nine years ago concerning what would get rebuilt and wouldn’t and who would return and wouldn’t has in large part now given way to debates—and, again, battles—over the shape and character of a “new” New Orleans.

Those of us who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission—targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space—know that the future of New Orleans, and the city’s character, has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of alarmed residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, and who expected to return and to rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land-grabs.

On August 26, three days before the anniversary of the 2005 disaster, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will begin a series of public hearings regarding a Draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

According to the Planning Commission’s website:

New Orleans’ zoning ordinance no longer meets the needs of the city today and is an obstacle to creating the city of the future. The 1970s zoning ordinance—unsuitable for a 21st-century city—has been amended so many times and overlaid with so many changes that it is extremely difficult to understand and riddled with inconsistencies.

Public hearings on the CZO are scheduled for August 26, as well as September 2 and 9. Written comments must be received by 5pm, Monday, September 1, 2014. (For details, look here.)

What does all this have to do with culture?

A great deal. Continue Reading

When Culture Runs Into Trouble in NY and NOLA

I suspected—wrongly—that I was the only one drawing connections between the ordinances and enforcment measures that inhibit culture in New Orleans with those of New York and other cities.

Continue Reading

The Ballad of Glen David Andrews

Here’s yet more from me on a musician who stole my heart and captured my attention in New Orleans — trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews: A cover story for the August digital edition of Jazziz magazine.

I’ll give you a taste of the beginning:

Midway into his set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May, trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews left the outdoor Congo Square stage. “Surrender,” a ballad of his that sounds like a spiritual and forms the emotional high point of his recent CD, “Redemption,” (Louisiana Red Hot Records) began with his disembodied voice accompanied by his onstage band

Soon Andrews could be seen wading into the crowd below, singing softly at first and then with raspy intensity about faith and hope, his white suit jacket flapping at his sides in the breeze like tiny wings. As he implored a higher power to “take my troubles away, take me away,” he stepped up on a small platform. He hovered above the gently swaying bodies and waving arms, and pointed up toward a blue sky. During past jazzfest performances, he and others — from Bruce Springsteen to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (another homegrown hero, and Glen David’s cousin) — have taken to crowd-surfing at climactic moments, letting fans literally carry their weight. Here, Andrews seemed to do the reverse. He wanted to support his listeners, lift them up….

And of the end: Continue Reading

Sonnygate’s Spawn

Why pick on Sonny Rollins by name? Let's just make fun of jazz, which is even older than him.

Hey, that Sonny Rollins piece (well, it wasn’t really a Sonny Rollins piece, but you know…) by Django Gold (who said in a comment on a blogpost that that’s his real name) in The New Yorker (on its website, anyway, by way of Gold, who mostly works for The Onion) got a lot of attention, didn’t it?

It made a lot of jazz fans upset, and they chimed in. And it made a lot of people who don’t like jazz, or don’t know jazz but think they probably wouldn’t like it, or are a little scared by jazz, or sort of like some jazz but like to pile anyway on when there’s a chance to put something or someone down and feel good about themselves while doing it—yeah, all those people chimed in too, right?

And all those blogposts and Facebook likes and tweets and online comments, that’s got to mean it was all important. Like the writer was onto something, had something to say, touched a nerve.

Hey, the jazz world should be happy for all the attention, given the paltry sales of jazz recordings. That community is so high and mighty, really, someone needs to set things straight, call them out, no?

Problem with Django Gold was that he picked on one guy. The wrong guy—Rollins, who, well, isn’t known as Colossus for nothing, has a lot of friends (many with regular columns in print and online), and isn’t dead yet (so he can speak up, and did).

Problem with Gold was that he picked on just one guy, instead of just jazz by name.

The above was told to me by Justin Moyer, who wrote a gripping column in the Washington Post’s online Opinions section, with the title “All That Jazz Isn’t All That Great.” (Gripping, as in the slight sweat and tremors you feel when, say, the fish wasn’t fully cooked).

Ok, Moyer really didn’t tell me anything. Never spoke to the guy. But since when does that matter, in the post-Django-Gold discourse about culture? Continue Reading

Sonnygate Redux: The New Yorker, and Rollins’ Own Words

I’ll admit to some ambivalence about turning our attention to this matter, especially since it’s no longer breaking news. Yet here goes:

By now you may be aware of a “Daily Shouts” column at The New Yorker magazine’s website, posted last Thursday under the title “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” and bylined to Django Gold, who is a senior writer at the news-satire outlet, The Onion.

In 11 brief paragraphs, the celebrated 83-year-old tenor saxophonist made confessions such as these:

I really don’t know why I keep doing this. Inertia, I guess. Once you get stuck in a rut, it’s difficult to pull yourself out, even if you hate every minute of it. Maybe I’m just a coward.

I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life.

Only these weren’t Rollins’ words. They were Gold’s.

New Yorker readers might not have known this, since the website made no mention of the fact that Gold made the stuff up in a now-apparent effort to by funny. I happened to be in Maine, with little access to the internet or even cell service when I caught wind of all this. At the time, I’d read only the first three paragraphs on my phone, which ended like this:

Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it.

I’d considered the idea that this really was Rollins, and that once I had a chance to read on, the text would pay off. After all, Rollins has a playful sense of humor; his statements sometimes do begin with a dodge, followed by a weave, only to make his point stronger (same is true of some of his wondrous extended tenor-saxophone solos).

But once I read the whole column, nothing like that happened. No dodge, no weave, no payoff. Just more of the same: flat, foolish, and obviously not Rollins.

I knew so, but many who were drawn to the New Yorker site by this promotional Twitter feed from the magazine might not have been so clear.

A wave of online confusion followed. Facebook posts, tweets, and online posts wondered: Was this Rollins speaking? Was he misquoted and taken wildly out of context? Who is Django Gold, and did he ever actually meet Rollins? If it was a gag, was Rollins in on it? What did Rollins think? Continue Reading

From New Orleans to New York: On The Care and Feeding of Jazz Culture

On a muggy Thursday evening in Manhattan last week, six musicians formed a loose brass band, with sousaphone, snare drum and such, and stood before a banner that read “Justice for Jazz Artists—Fairness. Dignity. Respect.”

Trumpeter Kevin Blancq, who grew up in New Orleans and has lived in New York City for 30 years, led the musicians through “Li’l Liza Jane,” a brass-band and traditional-jazz standard. This was a rally organized in cooperation with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians to promote ongoing efforts to get Manhattan’s key jazz clubs to contribute to a pension fund and to secure other rights, such as recording protections.

As they left Madison Sqaure Park, the musicians formed a miniature mock second-line parade, turning north on Park Avenue South and played “Bourbon Street Parade,” another standard of New Orleans repertoire. When they arrived at the Jazz Standard club, leaflets were handed out to the strains of “Mozartin’” composed by a Crescent City clarinetist and educator of great renown, Alvin Batiste.

Few would argue against the idea of pensions and other benefits for jazz musicians who play New York’s clubs. However, this particular initiative is complicated, folded as it is into an effort to expand the union’s scope of representation.

As James C. McKinley Jr. reported in a 2011 New York Times piece, after similar rallies were held in front of the Blue Note jazz club:

The disagreement between the union and club owners dates back to 2005, when union leaders joined the nightclubs to lobby the State Legislature for a reduction in the sales tax on tickets because the extra revenue would be used to pay for pension and health benefits…. The tax break was passed in 2006, but the union never hammered out a formal pact with the club owners.

As McKinley’s piece described, clubs have resisted the proposal for a variety of reasons.

That initiative is specific to New York City. Yet as I work on a book about “The fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means for America,” the rally’s choice of repertoire pointed, for me, to more than coincidence. Continue Reading

New Orleans Trumpeter Lionel Ferbos Dies at 103

I arrived in New Orleans the night after trumpeter Lionel Ferbos celebrated his 103rd birthday, which was July 17, at the Palm Court in the French Quarter, where he’d held a longstanding gig. On Saturday morning, word quickly passed that Ferbos had died.

As Keith Spera’s obituary in the Times-Picayune explained:

His life in music spanned the Roosevelt administration to the Obama administration, the Great Depression to the Internet era. Louis Armstrong was only 10 years his senior, but Mr. Ferbos outlived Armstrong by more than 40 years.

Mr. Ferbos was the personification of quiet dedication to one’s craft. Few people in his 7th Ward neighborhood realized he was a musician — they knew him as a tinsmith who had taken over his father’s sheet metal business. That occupation sustained him and his family for decades.

But he always nurtured a musical career on the side.

And there were some lovely quotes in there from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield:

“He proved that the greatness of the city of New Orleans is that ordinary people can be extraordinary on a daily basis…. Everyone has an opportunity to be something special. The culture gives us the opportunity. He was an example of that.”

Ferbos liked to say that he was “a melody man,” which is to say that he knew a lot of tunes and the correct way to state each melody. Continue Reading

Speaking Truth to Power, and Embracing Beauty: Bassist Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

Bassist Charlie Haden in 2010/photo by Steven Perilloux

In conversation as on the bandstand, where he played his bass with graceful authority and achieved great renown, Charlie Haden was both soft-spoken and outspoken. In his life and his music, he was exceedingly gentle, drawn to simple beauty yet also at home within wild complexity and unafraid of controversial ideas and hard truths.

Haden, who died on Friday morning at 76, was a towering figure of American music. His influence and appeal reached into all quarters of jazz, and well beyond that genre. His ability to innovate helped sparked at least one musical revolution, as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. His unerring sense of time and love of melody anchored and focused many distinguished bands, some of which he led. His radiant humanity and stalwart voice for social justice was both rare and powerful in any field.

As Nate Chinen reported in a New York Times obituary:

His death was confirmed by Ruth Cameron, his wife of 30 years. For the last several years he had been struggling with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, related to the polio he contracted in his youth.

Charles Edward Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, on Aug. 6, 1937 into a distinctly musical family, and grew up in Springfield, Mo. Long before he helped seed what is known as “free jazz” while in his early twenties as a member of Coleman’s group, along with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, before he spent a decade in another landmark quartet led by pianist Keith Jarrett, alongside saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Paul Motian, before he formed his Liberation Music Orchestra, which blended avant-garde, big-band jazz, Latin American folk traditions with bold political statements, and showcased the compositions and arrangements of pianist Carla Bley, before his Quartet West, which played noir ballads inspired by Raymond Chandler novels and movie themes, before he worked with nearly any musician one could name on jazz’s radar and good many off that screen too, he was known as “Cowboy Charlie,” singing his way into listeners hearts at the tender age of two on his parents’ country-music radio show, “Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family.” Continue Reading

New Film Captures Nat Hentoff, Still Gloriously Out Of Step at 89

Nat Hentoff at work in his office in Greenwich Village, 2010. Photo by David L. Lewis

Nat Hentoff likes to say he was an “itinerant subversive” from the beginning. Growing up in a then predominantly Jewish Roxbury neighborhood within an otherwise largely anti-Semitic Boston, he grew defiantly individual and developed a strong sense of social justice while still quite young. In his memoir, “Boston Boy,” he recalled his defining moment of rebellion at age 12—eating a large salami sandwich on Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement, while sitting on his family’s porch. He enjoyed not so much “that awful sandwich” as the experience of rebellion, combined with the knowledge of “how it felt to be an outcast.”

That sentiment is amplified by a phrase from one of Hentoff’s memoirs that provides the title for a wonderful new documentary about Hentoff by director David L. Lewis: “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” (There’s also a companion book, published by CUNY Journalism Press.)

On the film’s website, Lewis describes the film and its subject:

Pleasures profiles legendary jazz writer and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, whose career tracks the greatest cultural and political movements of the last 65 years. The film is about an idea as well as a man – the idea of free expression as the defining characteristic of the individual.

Hentoff is a pioneer who raised jazz as an art form and was present at the creation of ‘alternative’ journalism in this country. Pleasures wraps the themes of liberty and identity around a historical narrative that stretches from the Great Depression to the Patriot Act.

In his recent New York Times piece, Larry Rohter provided some good context: Continue Reading

New Orleans—Not Disney & Not Williamsburg

A new tourism campaign promotes “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”

As I sit and wrestle with the issues that swirl beneath the working title of the book I’m writing—“Marching With Saints: The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Since the Flood, and What It Means for America”—I’m forced to reflect on fears many of us shared in 2005 about the future for New Orleans, and to consider the ironic manifestations of these worries.

I recall feeling uneasy about the title and subtitle that Salon placed atop an October 2005 essay of mine—“America’s New Jazz Museum! (No Poor Black People Allowed): Jazz musicians warn against the Disneyfication of New Orleans.”

Yet eventually I warmed to such sensationalism; there were truths in there.

The idea of a Disneyfied New Orleans was a common theme then and now. In the December 2007 issue of The Journal of American History, an essay by J. Mark Souther (whose excellent book, “New Orleans on Parade,” I’m working my way through a second time) considered the matter in great depth. Here’s how he opened:

The idea of a “Disneyfied” New Orleans is not new. Walt Disney, referring to the city’s Bourbon and Royal streets, once remarked, “Where else can you find iniquity and antiquity so close together?” Sharing the assessment of the local author Harnett Kane that the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, “means New Orleans to the outside world,” Disney added New Orleans Square, a cleaner, shinier replica of the city’s most noted district, to his southern California theme park in 1966. New Orleans leaders, developers, and preservationists, meanwhile, were producing an urban space that, if not as controlled as its Disneyland counterpart, nevertheless invited comparisons.

Souther ended by sounding this warning:

…. Such continued attention to the tourist hub, along with discussion of a “reduced footprint” for the city, conveniently salvages the Disneyfied facade seen by tourists, while writing off the hidden areas where tourism’s laborers lived and its culture thrived. Indeed, Katrina’s flooding consumed the 80 percent of New Orleans that tourists rarely saw, including the notorious Lower Ninth Ward and part of Tremé. Perhaps the countless tourists, trying to make sense of a national tragedy in their own way by straying from the well-worn paths scripted by promoters, may compel New Orleans leaders to recast their city in ways that educate, enlighten, and encourage reform. If not, New Orleans, with its French Quarter ever at the forefront, may well recapture its pre-Katrina reputation as a “Creole Disneyland.”

A post from Sarah Chase titled “The Disneyfication of New Orleans is an Actual Thing” at the NOLA Curbed site made mention of Souther’s essay, as well as the “DizneyLandrieu” brochure that was, as she put it, “the throw of Krewe du Vieux this year” during Mardi Gras season. (That brochure bore the subtitle, “Mitchey Mayor’s Gentrified Kingdom,” the implication being that this was something less than the “happiest place on earth” for locals and lovers of all things New Orleans.)

Chase’s real point was to alert us to some unwelcome irony: “….But for New Orleans to actually use a Disney character to tout tourism? Oh, it’s happening.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune described “a new collaboration with the Walt Disney Company using the character Tiana from the film ‘The Princess and the Frog’ to pitch the city as a family destination…. The campaign presents family attractions as recommended by Tiana, giving people a view of “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”

“So where does this Tiana chick like to go?” Chase asked. “Jackson Square, Cafe du Monde, the zoo, Audubon Park, City Park, the Steamboat Natchez, St. Louis Cathedral, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.”

The animated Disney film “The Princess and the Frog” did introduce theatergoers to a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis, whose horn was actually played by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, thus acknowledging meaningful New Orleans musical tradition. Still, the whole idea of this promotion seems tone deaf to the fears and hopes of anyone steeped in that sort of music and what it stands for and reflects.

I recall standing at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Alex Rawls, then-editor of the local music monthly Offbeat and who now blogs at My Spilt Milk. Rawls told me:

“The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. But the danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing.”

Which brings me to a piece by Joah Spearman for Huffington Post titled “Will New Orleans Reach Its Potential?” Continue Reading