“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” asks the old saloon song, recorded most famously by Louis Armstrong. Speaking personally, my answer is “no.” I’ve been there a number of times, eaten passably well, and seen the sights, but I haven’t been in ages, and I don’t miss it one bit. In the period since my last visit, I’ve been to Cajun country dozens of times, most recently a few weeks ago, and as always, I’m ready to go back. But New Orleans? Not so much.
This is heresy, I realize, but frankly, I think New Orleans’ greatness is behind it. Considered honestly, the city hasn’t really innovated or contributed anything new to American culture in decades. But when did that greatness end? An extremist might argue that it was when Buddy Bolden dissolved his great band, legendary because not one pair of living ears has ever heard it: cue Eric Dolphy’s quote about the ephemerality of performed music. Others will point to the black (and some white) musicians who brought about several generations’ worth of dynastic studio bands, ranging from the Dave Bartholomew Band to the Meters, and backed vocalists (and made recordings on their own) that redefined American popular music. I recently rejoiced in the discovery of a four-disc set called The Cosimo Matassa Story, which features 120 tracks recorded at the former grocer’s legendary studio before 1957, leaving out (due to copyright restrictions) hundreds more recorded later. But most of those musicians left New Orleans for better working conditions in the mid-1960s. And yet others will point to a single night: August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed levees and submerged some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, the very places where the culture New Orleans is most renowned for was born and had thrived.
That one storm had the effect of dispersing some of the city’s most talented people—those who hadn’t already left for other reasons—and ripping the heart out of what was left of New Orleans’ fragile indigenous cultural scene. Because make no mistake: as beloved as the Meters might have been, as many people as may travel to the city for Jazz Fest (officially known as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which hasn’t been an accurate description for a long time now), New Orleans hasn’t been anywhere near the popular cultural mainstream of the United States in decades. A couple of years ago, out of curiosity, I watched the first episodes of Tremé and found myself bewildered. The show concerns itself largely with the problems of people, black and white, seeking to keep alive a tradition of brass band revivalism that is largely ignored by the locals—only for the sake of keeping it alive. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact there are other themes in Tremé (for instance governmental incompetence and corruption, which seem to have visited post-Katrina New Orleans in disproportionate quantities), but the plot just felt weird next to the stories I was reading in the press about the city’s recovery, which focused on people with other priorities, like making their houses livable again and finding jobs.
But the culture portrayed on Tremé—a culture of brass bands and backward-looking jazz musicians like real-life trumpeter and Tremé character Kermit Ruffins, who seems to be channeling Louis Armstrong—does still exist. Whether it exists for a viable community of like-minded local people, as it has in the past, or for the tourist trade, which has kept New Orleans alive for years and now seems to be recovering nicely in the post-Katrina years, I can’t say, but the music itself does smack of antiquarianism. Don’t forget that jazz’s most reactionary figure of recent decades, Wynton Marsalis, is from New Orleans, a city in which both his father (Ellis) and his brother (Branford) played far more progressive music than he did himself. Maybe there’s something in the water. Still, nobody wants to see culture destroyed by the dispersal of its host community.
John Swenson came to New Orleans from a long journalism career in New York to try to integrate himself into the local culture, and he’s largely succeeded. It’s always tempting to brand people like him as carpetbaggers, but Swenson’s book New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans reveals a person who is genuinely invested in the cultural community he covers: he lives there (part-time, at least), he covers it for OffBeat, a local music paper, and he’s gotten to know some of the prime movers on the scene. He makes it clear that he believes the people he writes about are unselfconsciously creating music in a tradition that was born in the same city they were. They’re doing it for all the right reasons—because they perceive themselves as artists and see no alternative, and because they believe that it’s their duty as residents of a city with a rich cultural heritage to maintain and preserve that tradition. To what extent the rest of the city is aware of them or supports them is unclear: Swenson’s in up to his neck in this stuff due to his reporting job, which gives him extraordinary access as well as a sort of blindness to context. And it’s hard to imagine any journalist of Swenson’s wide experience—forty-five years of it, not all in the music press—failing to jump on the story here: with venues, homes, and plenty of people swept away (not only by the storm, but by a rash of murders within the musical community), with interpersonal and institutional networks like the Mardi Gras Indians virtually demolished, how much dedication and strength does it take to prevent something as complex and yet fragile as the New Orleans cultural tradition from disappearing entirely? And just how do you do it? One part of the problem is that a certain amount of substance abuse and anti-social behavior exists in the community to distract and damage its artists. Another is that without regular, albeit low-paying, work, the artists simply can’t afford to keep going.
New Atlantis suffers from a couple of problems. It’s in part derived from OffBeat pieces Swenson wrote on the fly as events were occurring in the wake of Katrina, and the book could have used an editor to make the narrative more cohesive. It doesn’t acknowledge the fact that much of America’s only connection with New Orleans these days comes from a television show, which is barely mentioned (although Tremé producer David Simon has a nice blurb on the book’s back cover). And while it’s cheering that the city is still a magnet for artists seeking a place to create, Swenson’s story sweeps up a number of them whose relationship to the larger culture seems very tenuous: people from elsewhere who have found New Orleans a comfortable place to practice their art. Swenson is at his best when he gets inside the ongoing story of the Andrews family, one of whom, Troy, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty, has seen fame after being featured in Tremé and through live performances, while the others are struggling with demons familiar to many musicians.
In the end, Swenson wins over my cynical attitude toward his adopted home by convincing me that, like the Cajun country I know better, a living traditional culture still exists there, and that despite the New Orleans police, Hurricane Katrina, FEMA, the diaspora, Hollywood, and the tourist hordes that descend for Jazz Fest, on some level New Orleans is still being New Orleans—and you’d miss it if it weren’t.
New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans by John Swenson
Oxford University Press
320 pages / $18.95