Wednesday, October 18, 2006
W T I X, New Orleans
I am now the old man, that generic term for the father figure we used in my youth, the old man my own children will look at with increasing suspicion for the next decade. I am now the father, not the child who received an AM transistor radio for his sixth birthday in 1963 just in time for the British invasion, who stood at the corner of Egret and Robert E. Lee and could hear the screaming (but not the Beatles) at Tad Gormley Stadium across the length of City Park.
I am not the newly minted teenager with the Mother Radio bumper sticker, the one who found I could just get WTUL when I twisted the radio just right, and called in requests as the Lone Lakefront Listener, the one who later found a favorite request from those halcyon days--Micheal Perlitch's Keyboard Tales--tossed into the bin behind Lenny's Records.
This is not the city in which we tore down the reckless streets, Bleeker Street blaring across the hundreds of miles over a clear AM channel, emulating the Captain when Jamie Brockett's Legend of the USS Titanic was played. WRNO plays the same music 30 years later but best I can find Captain Humble is selling po-boys on the Northshore, looking at lot like the gentleman who watches me from the rearview mirror as I lean down to turn up the volume.
My son piles into the car and quickly switches the station. I find myself listening too often to the same mostly worthless hip-hop and pop that blasts out of 97.1 FM in New Orleans in much the same programming that bombarded me out of 94.6 FM in Fargo. While I like to refer to them as my two practically perfect children, one area of their education in which I have been remiss is in music. Its pleases me endlessly that my son and I can sing the words together to just about every song on The Kinks-The Singles together, or that my daughter goes digging through my car's CD box looking for Radiohead when the radio bores her. But that's not what's important, is not enough.
Staring at the online picture of blogger Traveling Mermaid's old box of 8-tracks, many of which I once owned on vinyl or that now reviled tape format, I am reminded that somewhere along the line my tastes improved, that I left behind Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult and discovered the treasures that had been around my all along: jazz, R&B and funk, the brass bands: the music of New Orleans.
I want my own children to make this transition, to discover that the city they live in offers an alternative to mainstream FM radio, to the fast food restaurants of their childhood, to the sterile stores my daughter favors at the mall. I have brought them here so that they have the opportunity to grow up New Orleans, and hopefully be changed by it, to become part of the centuries old tradition that is New Orleans. I also recognize that they, like their old man, will mostly be consumers of that culture, not creators of it.
I read last week in the Boston Globe online a story that has been repeated endlessly in the media for almost a year now: will the real culture of New Orleans survive? The music is born in the street of Indians and brass bands, that is nurtured in little corner clubs and house parties and in the pews of the churches, and only after a hard march through sometimes mean streets finds it ways onto stages where correspondents for the Boston Globe can comfortably listen and sip an Abita. If the brass bands and Indians are scattered, if there are no corner clubs or house parties, what will happen to the music?
Until we solve the problems of bringing people home, it remains a critical question: if the overwhelmingly African-American working class of New Orleans cannot come home, will the culture be transmitted? Or will it merely be preserved by well-meaning fans as a thing under glass, taken out and paraded once a year around the fairgrounds at Jazz Fest like the relics of a saint. What will happen to the children of New Orleans in Houston and Atlanta when there is no role model up the street to make them want to learn trombone, or the intricate rhythms of New Orleans funk? Will all the future Nevilles and Trombone Shorties be left to aspire to be, instead, 50 Cent?
When I listen to WTIX or WRNO I realize I am immersing myself in a hall of mirrors, where the trick is to show me a teenager wearing my face, or a young man of twenty something with a full head of shoulder length hair. Entertaining, but not the reality of the fellow I shave every morning in the mirror. Even as my finger twitches toward WWOZ to redeem myself, I realize that station is itself a museum piece. The child of the white, middle-class promoters of Jazz Fest, an event most working class Orleanians can't afford to attend, even 'OZ itself can't transmit culture. It can't create the next generation of horn players or funk bassists any more than the acetate tapes of Alan Lomax can create a Delta bluesman or an Appalachian picker. 'OZ is a closer than any of us listening will easily admit to the dioramas of the Museum of American History than to a living thing .
We are the archetype of the 'OZ listener: white, middle class, captured by the glamour that is New Orleans. My children could spend their lives here and not know the difference between living in the diorama and living in something like the city I grew up in, unless I teach them the difference. I know its not too late because like many a kid growing up on the Lakefront decades ago, I came to realize what the city had to offer only when I was well on my way toward adulthood. But it will take more than just introducing them to the magic of New Orleans. The trick of the thing is what can people like myself do to make that magic a living thing and not a trick of Disney animatronics? I did not come into this place so that I and my children might be docents in the museum of what once was New Orleans.
That middle-aged white guy in the rearview mirror can't start a brass band any more than I could turn back the waters. But I can work to make sure that we bring home as many people as we can, that everyone who wants to come home to work and rebuild has the chance to do so. It won't be enough to teach my children to love New Orleans as I do, unless I can help make sure they some day hear people of their own generation playing in a brass band, or see them in the full regalia of Mardi Gras Indians, so that they can be a part of a living city in its next century. It is only worth being here if that happens, and the outcome is far from certain.
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I am lucky enough to have my 6 yr old grandson here, learning to "be" New Orleans. Last Friday, his school did a recital. He and his fellow first graders had learned how to play "When the Saints Come Marching In" on xylophones. I went to hear it. It was short, and many of us grown ups were crying. In this little room in a school in the Quarter, were tiny 6 yr olds ringing in a new New Orleans with their little mallets. Words can't express how emotional those 30 seconds were.
We left the school and he and I were walking home along Bourbon Street. He loves Mardi Gras Indian music (particularly Wild Tchoupitoulas and Wild Magnolias). We hear some music coming out of a flat on Bourbon. I took him over to listen. He insisted that it was a recording. I said, nope, it was real guys playing in there. He didn't believe me, so I knocked on the door. A woman opened it, invited us in with a big smile, and around the bed was a keyboard, drum set, the band and Big Chief Doucette, all rehearsing. We stayed for one song and the Big Chief shook my grandson's hand and told him he could stay and listen some more. He was a little cowed by the experience but grinned all the way home and I know he'll remember it.
I'm right in there with you and hope little things like those two moments will make a difference. If they didn't for him, they certainly did for me.
But I cannot have you dissing Blue Öyster Cult.
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