Listening to Loss

Knowing what it means to miss New Orleans


| January / February 2006


I'd been in a fury about the loss of New Orleans for two weeks, but only after listening to a radio benefit concert at Lincoln Center featuring the Marsalis and Jordan families -- and evoking the dynastic quality of musical descent that speaks to the sinking heart of the city's cultural treasure -- did I finally experience the sorrow. Standing at my kitchen counter, grinding spices to fry catfish, I thought about a past visit to New Orleans and burst into tears.

I had ambled through the Quarter, down Dumaine Street, up Bourbon, along Chartres, heading no place in particular following a day's work in the city. In Jackson Square, I rested on the cement steps to finish a bottle of beer I had carried out of a dark, noisy joint near Patout's. The moon arched above the statue of General Jackson saddled upon his horse, his hat doffed in one hand to hail the light. A boy with a trumpet stood at the foot of the invader's statue. He bleated and blahed his way through Miles Davis' 'All Blues.' I slipped back into the alleyways and zigzagged for another half hour until I found myself standing in front of Preservation Hall.

Now, I have never been a fan of traditional jazz. Worse, I had always imagined that the music featured inside Preservation Hall would, like Disneyland Dixieland, be an uninspired impersonation for the tourists. The line in front was very long, but a tenor sax player was wandering the street, playing for free, so I took my place at the end of the line, as much to rest and listen to the sax as to gain entry. When we were finally ushered into Preservation Hall, I saw that a lack of artifice was its greatest asset.

The hall looked about twice the size of my hotel room, dimly lit like the gloomy altar of some country church where a few candles sputtered bravely. Six musicians sat on wooden chairs atop a small stage some 18 inches off the floor. A half-dozen wooden bench pews filed back from the stage; everybody else -- maybe 75 people -- crowded together in the darkness, shoulder to shoulder.

I didn't recognize the band's first tune, but when the trumpet player took the lead, he shaved the melody close, King Oliver-style. After the clarinet solo, he stood up again and sang out to the audience. His woman had left him, giving him the blues: a story that has served America's popular culture for 100 years.

Traditional jazz has never seemed risky enough to me. But as the band continued to bang out one number after another, the piano, bass, drums, banjo, clarinet, and trumpet swelling into a sea of collective fakery with sufficient spirit and peculiarity to challenge conventional harmony, I caught for an inspired instant how daring the music must have felt at its inception. Even now the friction of creation showed sparks, the pain of squeezing something unheard before from a motley collection of instruments only recently transported to these shores. The band rambled on, and I realized this music had always been full of risk, unstable and liable to combust.