Live From Jazzfest: Family Affairs And Holding On To History In A Changing New Orleans

Larry Blumenfeld
Mavis Staples.
In the grandstand, away from the heat of the Fair Grounds—the horse-racing track that becomes a music stadium for each New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—stood an exhibit of black-and-white photos that suggested much of the music going on outside. "Faces of Tremé," drawn from 30 years of work by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, evoked the past of a New Orleans neighborhood that has long been hothouse for much of what jazzfest offers. Namesake of David Simon's HBO show, Tremé is both the beating heart of living culture and contested turf in that culture's ongoing battle for survival.

Calhoun's and McCormick's work is artful enough, its content weighted with sufficient history to convey some of these facts even for those who don't recognize, say, a very young Troy Andrews (also known as Trombone Shorty) and his older brother, trumpeter James, posing with Danny Barker, the banjoist and bandleader credited with keeping brass-band tradition alive during a period of waning interest. I'd just heard the current Rebirth Brass Band, 30 years along and going strong, at the festival's Congo Square stage. Pictured here, in a more formative version (including trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who'd just led his Barbecue Swingers at the Gentilly stage), Rebirth paraded with the Sixth Ward High Rollers, a neighborhood second-line club.

Water damage, a reminder of 2005's floodwaters, blotted out the center of one large, brilliant shot taken at The Shop, a favored musicians' hangout of decades ago, where the Rebirth band is said to have gestated. Much of what Tremé once was has been blotted out, and much of that occurred long before and independent of Katrina, having more to do with winds of civic change. Laurie Kaufman, whose family has lived on North Villere Street for more than a century, smiled at one shot of Claiborne Street before the live oaks were gone and the I-10 expressway overpass cast its shadow, before a section of homes was razed to create the gated park that bears Louis Armstrong's name. "When I was a little girl, that neighborhood was formidable," she said. "So much of it disappeared overnight."

And yet so much remains—vitally so, and not without a fight. Sometimes that happens in dramatic fashion. I flew away, back to New York, too soon to attend the "Tuba Fats Tuesday" celebration, which honors Anthony Lacen, better known as "Tuba Fats," a mentor to many Tremé musicians during his life. That post-fest party takes place on the open lot of North Robertson Street where, five years ago, acting on a neighbor's complaint, police swarmed and broke up a memorial parade, cutting short the hymn "I'll Fly Away" and slapping cuffs on two musicians. Sometimes the skirmishes over culture are less pointed and largely out of view; a few days before this year's jazzfest, two dozen Tremé residents stood before a city council planning commission with impassioned ideas about the zoning ordinances and approvals that will help determine the fate of live music venues in a changing neighborhood. The mundane mechanics of city governance will play a central role in the future of the New Orleans culture as it occurs beyond the Fair Grounds. The TBC Brass Band (whose name stands for "To Be Continued") sounded sharp and mature on Sunday at the festival's Jazz & Heritage stage. Two years ago, cops asked them to move along from the spot on Bourbon and Canal Streets where they'd honed their performance style before a crowd while earning cash; the band was in defiance of a city noise ordinance and a public-performance curfew, its members were told. These are complicated issues; residents and business owns have rights, and governments a duty to find balance. The ways in which the city council deals with pending changes to this legislation—still very much on the table and worth watching—will have much to do with what you may or may not hear at jazzfest a decade from now.

Back in 2010, To Be Continued trumpeter Sean Roberts described his frustration. "What they're doing is slowly but surely killing the New Orleans tradition," he said. "I learned how to play trumpet on this corner." Standing with me before the Jazz & Heritage Stage a few days ago, Alex Rawls, the savvy editor of the local music monthly Offbeat, said: "The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. But the danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing."

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