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.
The bass player seemed determined to prove the point. He launched into a flurry of notes that were both too rapid and dissonant for New Orleans vintage jazz, playing more like Charles Mingus than Pops Foster. He scurried up the instrument's neck from the bridge to the scroll, shattering the tune. The other players grunted encouragement. Together they were demonstrating how music (and culture) argues, blends, dissolves, mutates, and then takes the next step. The odd bird who hears something different plucks his strings too quickly or queerly or flat out plunks the wrong note, but he does it over and over until it sounds right and the people around him begin to listen. He finds his own groove and fashions new music from the old.
And that's exactly what American music -- American culture -- has always managed to do. Our nation's truest anthem contains the funeral dirge of the New Orleans street band combined with the whorehouse piano and the last slave's work song and the bickering melodies of two hundred disparate points of origin, from Marseilles to Dakar, from Manaus to Guangzhou, now stretched out over the American plains like the hide of some mythical beast. Perhaps this is the irreplaceable loss in New Orleans: the erasure of proximity that allows for the accretion of influence over time. Perhaps this is what many of us hope may somehow rise again: New Orleans as simultaneously past and prologue, the foundation for all things opposed and American.
Of course, when the city's great music was just being born, it was then a fashionable complaint to jeer that America had 'no culture,' a notion that still raises its silly head even among sophisticated people who today may confuse vox populi with a loathsome noise. In truth, we have more culture than one people will ever be able to digest. And that helps explain why the melting pot sometimes bubbles up -- and, when we least expect it, explodes.
Fred Setterberg won the 2004 essay prize from the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society in New Orleans. In 2006 Heyday Books will publish Under the Dragon, an account of multicultural California, co-written with Lonny Shavelson.