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Jazz Fest and the Ghosts of New Orleans | The Nation

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Jazz Fest and the Ghosts of New Orleans

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Dancers perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The ghosts of New Orleans, Bruce Springsteen told a packed crowd of about 65,000 at this year’s Jazz Fest, “are powerful enough to haunt the rest of the nation.” Springsteen was returning to Jazz Fest for the first time since 2006, when, in the words of Times-Picayune writer Keith Spera, he put on a show that was “equal parts exorcism, outrage and embrace,” one that “stoked and soothed still-raw emotions.” Shocked by what he called the “criminal ineptitude” of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, especially its treatment of New Orleans’s poorer denizens, Springsteen returned home to pen “We Take Care of Our Own,” in which he described a city abandoned “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome.”

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Much has happened to this great city between Springsteen’s two visits, and as funny man (and social critic) Harry Shearer puts it, just about everything that’s gone right can be credited to “the indomitable spirit of the people of New Orleans.” Neighborhoods have been rebuilt “one house at a time, one restaurant at a time, one store at a time,” with people “saying, ‘Fuck it, this is my home, I’m not giving up’—the exact opposite of the stereotype that got propagated by a lot of media about this city.”

It’s tough to generalize about New Orleans, particularly after the twin scourges of Katrina and the Bush administration’s catastrophic response. It’s a city divided by extremes. In one respect, it boasts the most open and welcoming culture anywhere in America; in another, well… remember David Duke. Since the flood, parts of the city remain in ruins, with entire neighborhoods falling into a pre-industrial state (flora, fauna, abandoned pets, even the occasional alligator). Meanwhile, other parts have been reborn better than ever.

New Orleans has 200 more restaurants than before Katrina, but far fewer people, especially people of color. Solid numbers are impossible to come by, but according to the 2010 census, the city has roughly 24,000 fewer white residents than it did ten years before, and 118,000 fewer black residents. And if you think that was an accident, there’s an oyster bed beneath a BP oil rig I’d like to sell you. The tickets to Houston and elsewhere given to the city’s poorest residents made homeless by the flood were one-way. Outside Jazz Fest, one sees newly painted houses with manicured lawns next to collapsed properties that might be housing Bigfoot.

You can walk down the street in New Orleans and happen upon terrific musicians, delicious food, indigenous art and people mingling to cook up something new from all of the above. But the festival brings it all together in one marvelously steamy (and impossibly crowded) place. Founded in 1970 with an audience of a few hundred in Louis Armstrong Park’s Congo Square, Jazz Fest now draws some 400,000 people over two weekends, with twelve music stages and hundreds of staging areas for exhibitions by local artists, Native American ceremonies, cooking demonstrations and oceans of alcohol. While the biggest draws are often the touring bands (Springsteen, Eagles and Foo Fighters this year), many of the rest are local musicians doing what they do every night, but this time before an audience that is multiples larger. It’s an amazing feat of coordination—one that again debunks the cliché of a lazy, laissez les bons temps roulez attitude toward hard work—but pretty much everyone remains in a good mood, with lots of stranger-to-stranger conversations and the sharing of extra suntan lotion and spare beers. It’s a big business as well, since the festival’s foundation does well enough after everyone gets paid to provide $500,000 in grants each year to other nonprofit arts organizations, local writers, artists, photographers, filmmakers and education programs.

Of course, New Orleans is just as important for what it has exported to the rest of the world as for what takes place in the city itself. Just after sunrise on the Monday following Springsteen’s performance, I was one of the few people in Congo Square who had been to sleep the night before (and who was drinking coffee rather than something stronger) as we listened to Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, Dr. Michael White and others kick off the first-ever International Jazz Day, sponsored by Unesco and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, of which Hancock is the chairman. For “Watermelon Man,” Herbie was joined onstage by two students, as well as by others playing in Paris, Rio and elsewhere via a satellite link. That night, the same players—along with pretty much every other jazz musician not still in New Orleans—joined together for an amazing show inside the UN General Assembly. I found it sad and ironic that Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, celebrated the fact that America’s greatest cultural innovation, born in New Orleans, “became the world’s music long ago.” Here was an example of why Unesco is so valuable—and yet, as a sop to right-wing supporters of Israel, Congress chose to decimate its funding over its democratic decision to invite the Palestinian Authority into its ranks. As angry as I was at my government’s sanctimony and hypocrisy, a cure came when that son of New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis, and company took on “St. James Infirmary.” I had seen his old man, 77-year-old Ellis Marsalis, in Congo Square that morning, pounding the keys with the natty Kermit Ruffins on trumpet for their version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” As my friend Harry notes, “When you hear politicians prattle on about freedom, this is what they should be talking about.”

But this, alas, is an old story. We are, as Springsteen sang from the Jazz Fest stage, “traveling in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before.” And in case you’ve forgotten the last verse of that particular American hymn, it goes like this:

When our leaders learn to cry
When our leaders learn to cry
Oh Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

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