Life in New Orleans might certainly be viewed as paradoxical. The love/hate yin & yang of the place is as vivid as anyplace on earth I’ve ever experienced. As some may know Suzan Jenkins was named Senior VP of the Thelonious Monk Institute last spring, in charge of the Monk’s auspicious graduate studies program which has relocated from the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles to Loyola University on lovely St. Charles Avenue in the ever-recovering Crescent City of New Orleans. This prompted a major relocation, which was finally achieved in October. One of the upsides of my work is the fact that geographic locale is fairly fluid.
So off to New Orleans, loaded with curiosity, we went. Driving back and forth from Loyola to the Monk offices, either tooling down St. Charles with its prodigious homes or driving bustling Magazine Street to our abode in the neighborhood known as the Irish Channel — adjacent to the leafy Garden District — there is scant evidence of the lingering misery legacy of Hurricane Katrina (known among the locals as The Storm or The Flood, rarely Katrina). Skirting around those areas one sees evidence of many vigorous home reconstruction or rehab projects even in those places which suffered only wind and not water damage. Adjacent to the more fortunate areas and homowners, every federal housing project I’ve spotted appears abandoned and it doesn’t take much to spot rows of completely abandoned homes. We’re talking over two years later folks. The latest post-storm population figures and increased influx of new residents announced last week in the daily Times-Picayune, have the New Orleans populace creeping towards 300,000.
Having received a comprehensive driving tour of the devastated areas last August from musician-educator and Suzan’s colleague at the Monk Institute Jonathan Bloom, and benefiting from numerous conversations and anecdotes with various New Orleanians about the aftershocks of The Storm/Flood including musician-composer Terence Blanchard who is the artistic director of the Monk Institute grad studies program, I’ve gotten a quick education on that misery index. Then on separate evenings the view became visceral — and in yet another paradox, it took an amazing cultural event to bring some things home. As a good friend pointed out, out of great suffering comes great art.
Actor Wendell Pierce, who has a wealth of stage and screen credits but is likely best known currently for his ongoing cop role in the gritty HBO crime & punishment drama The Wire, grew up with Jonathan and Terence. If you saw Spike Lee’s brilliant documentary "When the Levees Broke" you heard Wendell’s family tale of post-Katrina heartache. Terence and Jonathan introduced us one evening at the Monk Institute student ensemble’s first of an ongoing series of performances and jam sessions at Tipitina’s. One afternoon during visiting master educator-drummer Lewis Nash’s weeklong residency at the Monk Institute, while Bloom was giving Nash the by now de riguer tour of the devastated areas, Jonathan described Pierce as literally popping up out of the weeds in the now-infamous Lower Ninth Ward. He handed Bloom and Suzan a flier for a forthcoming series of free, open-air performances of the famous Samuel Beckett play "Waiting For Godot."
The daily Times-Picayune ran an intriguing preview of the production. So on a breezy Friday November 9 I picked up friend and colleague (and Katrina Fellow) writer Larry Blumenfeld to go "Waiting For Godot." Some of you have likely read Blumenfeld’s penetrating ongoing series on the cultural significance of post-Katrina New Orleans and the recovery in the Village Voice, Salon.com, New York Times, or perhaps in Jazziz magazine. As we crossed the St. Claude Bridge into the Lower Ninth Ward we were surrounded by the most vivid post-demolition images of post-Katrina New Orleans, a witches smorgasbord of blasted, gutted, toppled homes or concrete slabs where once stood a family dwelling alongside weedy fields where once stood a vibrant neighborhood of homeowners.
We stood in one line for our free tickets (the turnout was impressive, a rainbow of faces that included every economic strata imaginable) then eased into another line for a free bowl of gumbo! As the throng slaked its collective tastebuds, we joined The Big 9 Social Aid and Pleasure Club for a Second Line to the venue. Where else on earth would this scene have evolved? So Second Line we did, down the weedy block on pavement that had once been someone’s home street, around the vacant corner to a cryptic intersection (sign-less street poles still embedded) of two weedy fields and a temporary bleachers. Just beyond stage left stood further reminders, a motley array of FEMA trailers. What ensued was a powerful performance of Beckett’s "absurd take on the meaning of existence," that for this and three subsequent performances over the next two weekends, was salted with New Orleans and post-Katrina parallels and reference language in a manner that would have doubtless been greatly entertaining even for the great playwright.
Special thanks to The Classical Theater of Harlem and the Creative Time organization for mounting these incredible evenings. Ah, but we’re not done with this one yet. While Blumenfeld and I were enthralled by the performance, Suzan couldn’t hang due to a travel obligation. So she determined to catch it the following weekend (11/9-10) when the setting was a storm abandoned home in the Gentilly neighborhood. New Orleanians like nothing better than hosting good times — unless its being a guest at one. The week preceding the Gentilly production of "Waiting for Godot" our new friend Danielle Taylor, a professor at Dillard University, hosted a pot luck supper for members of the Godot production crew and cast, including Wendell Pierce’s co-star J. Kyle Manzay.
As we drove the unfamiliar streets of Gentilly we were struck by its ghost town qualities. Here was a middle class neighborhood whose Katrina devastation was nearly as brutal as that visited upon the Lower Ninth Ward. Driving those streets I had a sense of deja vu; sure enough this was the same neighborhood we had once visited years ago when I conducted an extremely revealing oral history interview for the Rnythm & Blues Foundation with the great New Orleans R&B pioneer trumpeter-bandleader-arranger-songwriter Dave Bartholomew (recall all of Fats Dominoe’s greatest classics and you know the work of Mr. Bartholomew; but a small slice of his mastery). In September ’05 when so many of us around the country were scrambling to account for the whereabouts of friends and loved ones in New Orleans, Dave Bartholomew and poet Kalamu ya Salaam were two of our major concerns. Both had their lives ripped asunder, and though Kalamu has returned to the area, apparently Bartholomew has forged a new life in Houston.
Professor Taylor has a lovely home in Gentilly that has been thoroughly rehabbed. As a constant reminder she keeps a framed photo collage near her front door of what she encountered when she returned to her home post-flood. Her home took on 10 feet of water, necessitating a complete gutting and remodeling of her first floor; meanwhile she described the incredible contrast of her second floor as having been left in "pristine" condition post-flood! That weekend’s ensuing Gentilly production of Godot took place this time in the backdrop of a devastated home and included commentary from the former resident of that home. And the production — including hundreds of over-capacity turnaways, gumbo, Second Line and the whole bit — was described as equally incredible as the Lower Ninth Ward experience, though different based mainly on geography.
That same weekend of the Godot/Lower Nine experience Terence Blanchard brought his superb concert adaptation of the music he wrote for the "When the Levees Broke" documentary and subsequent Blue Note album "A Tale of God’s Will" (if ever there was certain Grammy material this is it) to the stage of Dixon Hall on the campus of Tulane University. The New Orleans premier of this music with the Louisiana Philharmonic (it was also performed with orchestra on the preceding September’s 50th annual Monterey Jazz Festival) was another extremely touching post-Katrina experience — a catharsis for many New Orleanians in the packed audience, and certainly for Blanchard.
Many recall perhaps the most heart-rending scene from "When the Levees Broke" when Terence accompanied his mother for her first look at her storm destroyed home. That evening his mother sat front row center, her distinguished crown of white hair serving as poignant recall of the indelible images of the devastation wrought on the Gulf Coast for those of us in the ensuing rows. While Terence and his quintet and the orchestra beautifully unwound his work, a big screen poised above the stage ran a stark series of Katrina stills in stages from pre-storm to aftermath. Blanchard, whose trumpet playing these days continues to ripen and evolve in its mastery, blew great gusts of emotion that evening and one could see on his face what a soul checking process it must have been for him to sketch his feelings in music and subsequently perform that music.
New Orleans… proud to call it (new) home