New Orleans Newcomers Diary #3

A Bit of the Yin & Yang of Life in the Crescent City

Columnist Chris Rose, in the 1/16/08 edition of The Times-Picayune newspaper, wrote a humorously penetrating column on the eternal question those of us who live in NOLA inevitably face when venturing out: “How’s New Orleans Doing?”  This question is particularly acute for someone like me who is still a relative newcomer to the city, and may even be posed in a more pointed manner.  My standard response is this city is a place of enormous Yin & Yang — a term loosely generalized here to denote Positive & Negative — and the Yin outweighs the Yang… so far.  Or as Rose characterizes it: “things are much better than they are worse.”


It’s so easy to forget for a moment the Yang of life in New Orleans, to momentarily dismiss the misery index that might be lurking just around the corner.  If one were to confine oneself to the areas most visitors experience — namely the French Quarter, the Garden District, and most of the Uptown area (where we live and where the Monk Institute is housed at Loyola University) — one would get the impression that all’s well nearly two and a half years after the calamity that is referred to here as The Storm. 


The Monk Institute engages jazz masters to visit Loyola on residency teaching gigs with its grad students on a monthly basis, for weeklong stints.  Thus far such illustrious artists as Ron Carter, Lewis Nash, Nnenna Freelon, Danilo Perez, Benny Golson, and John Scofield have come down.  Danilo Perez in particular got an eyeful.  Initially once on the ground he hopefully exclaimed that all seemed well, all appeared to be back together, up and running.  That is until the program’s education coordinator Jonathan Bloom (musician and member of the family of the late clarinet master Alvin Batiste, Edward “Kidd” Jordan, Kent Jordan, Marlon Jordan, Stephanie Jordan, etc. and a family musician tradition going back seven generations), who literally knows where all the bodies are buried, took him on the obligatory Yang tour of such neighborhoods as the now-infamous Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Lakeside.  To see street after street of either ruins or ghostly concrete slabs where once were lively homes is a sobering immersion into the Yang of New Orleans ’08.  And we’re talking about black folks’ neighborhoods here — but not purely poor folks’ neighborhoods; black folks of all stripe have suffered over the last two+ years of lingering misery index.  The gap between have and have-not in New Orleans is as stark as any I’ve envisioned — even dating back to my former life in the euphemistically titled “criminal justice system” in my post-grad days.  Danilo and the other masters who’ve been on this tour through the lingering misery came away changed.


The Yin: the spirit here remains very high.  I have a friend who lost four houses to the Storm.  After decades of paying out homeowners insurance he settled for a grand total of $80K… for FOUR HOUSES!!!  But like so many he is determined to slowly but surely remake those houses, to make them viable dwellings once again — on his own.  You see and experience so much of that spirit that it raises your own sensibilities and optimism.  All over town are legions of work crews, largely Latino, working steadily to rebuild the many ruins.  Traveling a short distance from home to the monthly and quite bustling outdoor marketplace (for a Midwesterner who spent 18 years in the Northeast, the mild, often balmy winter weather here is a major Yin) at Freret & Napoleon on a lovely Saturday afternoon in January we navigated our way around work crews and the occasional neglected ruins — caved in roofs, sides ripped off, in all manner of disrepair — sitting starkly alongside homes brightly decorated for the holidays.  The market was buzzing — a blues band raucously followed the Treme Brass Band onstage while we were there soaking up the spirit… the Yin of New Orleans.


It’s Mardi Gras season and the spirits are further boosted.  The markets are chock full of seasonal king cakes and all manner of goodies designed to get your food & drink on for carnival season.  And if you think Mardi Gras is all about that fratboy French Quarter nonsense you see on television… think again.  We’ve learned in no uncertain terms that idiocy ain’t the real Mardi Gras, and we should prepare ourselves for a grand old time.  This weekend is the must-see Krewe du Vieux parade with its over-the-top humor and jamming brass bands — the Yin fo’ sho’.  All these years of disinterest in Mardi Gras based on no interest in that other ridiculousness appears to have been missed opportunities.  We’ll be right there chasing down the Mardi Gras Indians activities like so many Mardi Gras season revelers.  At times like these its so easy to forget the misery index… but it’s here, perhaps just around the corner. 


But again, the spirit is strong & high and the will to overcome must inevitably triumph.  The Second Line parades have been jumping every Sunday since late summer.  The rich African cultural traditions embodied in those parades is soul deep and yet more manifestation of the Yin of New Orleans.  The community radio station here, WWOZ 90.7 FM (sample it’s eclectic, New Orleans-centric music menu around the world at, is supported nearly as much by folks outside this region who yearn for that New Orleans’ sound as part of their daily life rhythm.  Each odd hour of the day WWOZ runs the Live Wire, detailing who’s playing the clubs.  For a city whose populace is still creeping towards 300,000 from it’s pre-storm 400,000+, the amount of musical joy to be found in its myriad clubs on a nightly basis is amazing.  And some of these joints have 9:00 a.m. hits and others that begin at 2:00 a.m.!


After 18 years on-air at beloved WPFW in Washington, DC part of my New Orleans’ Yin is finding opportunities on WWOZ, a station about which I’ll speak in detail next time.  Stay tuned…


Willard Jenkins

Jazz Cultural Warrior



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