Listening to Loss

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.

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