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Roderick Spencer Headshot

New Orleans; as Important as Ever

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The city of New Orleans is hopeless and indomitable. There's no earthly reason to be optimistic about such a place, unless you find yourself in club Snug Harbor after midnight on a Friday in when Marsalis patriarch, Ellis, is playing with at least three generations of drums, trumpet, sax and guitar; two young black horn players in baggy shorts, a willowy Japanese guitar man, and a nerdy bespectacled white kid coaxing and punishing the little drum set, before giving way to another drum geek who couldn't stop smiling as he made his cymbals and snare drum sound like a nest of snakes.

I was sitting with my friend Steve, a New Orleans sax player himself, and he couldn't stop whooping and riding his chair like a surfboard.

Yet another night just outside the French Quarter.

On the street outside, a brass band, I swear none of them were over 17, had a crowd of maybe a hundred, marveling. Hours after midnight, the street was shoulder to shoulder. But out beyond the light and music of the city, a huge and growing monster, sticky and stinking, was drifting toward the shore.

At the time I thought the BP spill could make Hurricane Katrina seem like the good old days, and of course it still might, especially now that the catastrophe is 'over' as far as the media is concerned.

Here is the kind of thing that routinely happens to most of the people of New Orleans: A recently passed package of 'reforms' of the banking industry that reduces so-called swipe fees, still allows "fees charged to prepaid debit cards -- generally used by the poor -- to remain unregulated."

Typical. Despite their symbolic status as plucky, 'real Americans' the people of New Orleans continue to be served dismally by the politicians who represent them, both locally and in Washington. So it'll cost them more to spend what little money they have. What else is new?

Most Americans have no problem with poor people getting the shaft, because we hardly ever see, or hear them. But New Orleans is different. A majority of the people who make New Orleans such a fabulous place, are poor and black, but many of them are also musicians, without whom the sound that nearly everyone in the world hears in their heads when New Orleans is mentioned, would die.

Jazz music is the least lucrative popular art form in this country, and there are more ultra competent jazz musicians per square mile in New Orleans than anywhere else in the world. For example: Lenard R. "Beau" Peters, whose obituary appears in today's New Orleans Times Picayune.

The obit is moving for its prose, and also for the simple facts of Mr. Peters' life. It describes a veteran, a patriarch and a world-traveling band-leader, who also worked as a tour guide and grain-elevator operator to support himself and his family. The sound and fabric of New Orleans is sustained by generations of African-American men and women like Beau Peters. They have families, employees, fans, managers and service providers. But only a small fraction live 'comfortable', let alone wealthy, lives. Our culture depends, for its' very legitimacy, on their continued health and presence, yet not since the great depression has the kind of life Beau Peters led been more endangered.

So if you can't identify with the millions of hidden poor people in this country, if you blame them for their plight, and consider their poverty tolerable, then just know that you are also tolerating the continuing, systematic neglect of the cradle and laboratory of The Great American Art Form, Jazz.

And if you don't like Jazz or Blues, consider this. If it weren't for New Orleans, there might be no R&B, Soul, Rock&Roll or Hip Hop. All are rooted in jazz and blues, and all were wholly or partially invented by, you guessed it, poor black people.

The current administration seems willing to pay only marginally more attention to New Orleans' plight than previous administrations. Why is that? It seems likely that President Obama has fallen prey to the same perverse logic which, for generations, has prevented real action on behalf of urban areas like New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago (especially the South Side), Harlem, North Tulsa, the Bronx and Detroit, not to mention most of Washington DC. All have at least the following two things in common; a lot of poor black people, and great music.

It would appear that, like his predecessors, this president is trapped in an ingrained political calculus that goes something like this:

"Look, if we start paying real attention to these places, we might have to acknowledge how important the people who live there are, and how much poorer we would all be without them, and how much of a debt we owe them, and how much of our cultural identity was and is invented by them and their ancestors. Maybe we should stick with congratulating those tenacious few who 'escape', rather than making life better for those they leave behind. Lip service, after all, is so much cheaper."