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Jazz and destruction

In New Orleans, youíre reminded at every turn that even the most sophisticated music comes from the streets, the community. The brass bands incorporate raps as well as Coltrane licks. The various "tribes" of Mardi Gras Indians are more rightly called "gangs" by the locals, and their colorful feather-and-bead displays, their ritualized chants of "Hey Pockie Way," have their sources in real turf battles. The various Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs ó the Zulus, the Olympians, the Prince of Wales ó that lead brass-band parades through the festival grounds were established not just for the entertainment of tourists, but as very real neighborhood clubs, mutual-aid societies, who, among other things, help pay for funeral costs. Itís not for nothing that the famous "second line" of New Orleans funeral parades are led by members of a Social Aid and Pleasure Club. One band I saw last year sang a song in memory of a former member whoíd been shot to death by a New Orleans police officer.

Iíve been attending the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival every spring since 1994. If Jazz Fest is different than other music festivals Iíve been to, itís because it is identified in every way with the city and region of which itís a part. The food ó as much a draw as the music ó is always created by local vendors, many of them church groups. Even with big international touring acts playing the event, the Jazz Festís character is defined by New Orleans musicians, from still-hard-working one-hit wonders like Frankie Ford ("Sea Cruise") to local royalty like Allen Toussaint and the Neville Brothers.

Katrina brought home what a lot of us tourists sensed implicitly for years: that the New Orleans cultural scene owes much of its vitality to a community that lives on the edge of subsistence, for which that culture isnít merely "entertainment," but truly a matter of life and death.

Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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