It's midnight in Upper Ninth Ward. The vibrantly hued neighborhood in New Orleans is alive with brass, sweat, and secrets -- all of which I experience from the wooden stoop of a house painted pistachio, hugged by thriving palm trees. The humidity is as aggressive as the mosquitoes are. I hear drums, a reverberant bass, and somewhere nearby, an alto sax wails stories.
No one bats an eyelash. This is the Musicians' Village, a neighborhood of homes erected after Katrina for the gatekeepers of the city's distinct beats, melodies and riffs. The block, a Habitat for Humanity project headed up by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., houses local musicians who were displaced after the storm, in hopes to preserve the city's culture.
"Wow," I say, "They're practicing right now?"
"Shh," Calvin Johnson, Jr., a 27-year-old saxophonist and resident of the neighborhood, replies. "You're talking really loud."
I raise an eyebrow.
"There's a difference between music and talking. Talking is just noise."
Johnson's comment brings to mind the recent article in the New York Times about musician Bill Lee. Spike Lee's father, veteran jazz bassist and pianist, has been getting a lot of flak from his new neighbors in Brooklyn about playing and composing at random hours of the day. He's lived in his Fort Greene brownstone for over 40 years and has become a recent source of controversy in the newly gentrified neighborhood.
Anyone who knows about Fort Greene knows that it has undergone miles of evolution during the past few decades. On Jay-Z's debut album Reasonable Doubt, he raps with Biggie about the 'hood as a drug sales hotspot. Today, it is home to a slew of trendy bistros with $17 appetizers and faux-grungy, Ray Ban-rocking graphic designers. Regardless of the shift, it's always been a place where art is celebrated and creativity revered.
It makes me wonder, should these crotchety new neighbors just shut up and respect the history of their atmosphere (after all, they were warned before they moved in), or should Bill Lee be shipped off to someplace akin to NoLa's Musicians' Village, where he can strum and blow in peace?
I chatted with a few of the residents there about the Bill Lee conundrum.
Johnson says, "Frankly, I'm irritated with the chick who moved in and made the complaints. There are certain people, elements of a community, who are like a spice. That bit of pepper that when you bite into it, you experience a robust flavor. It's a privilege to live around them. These people add a whole new dimension to the community. [Lee] has been an active homeowner there and he is a staple, a defining characteristic. Don't come in there and try to change the fabric of a community. Very few neighborhoods have a Bill Lee. He should be cherished, not fought."
There's a tightness in Johnson's face that implies a sort of transference. All around New Orleans, where his family has been culturally and musically rooted for generations, an evolution similar to the Fort Greene Effect is occurring. His identity as a musician plays a big part in his aversion to fabric-changers who don't understand that children in New Orleans often learn to blow the hell out of a horn before even learning to walk. It's a respected custom in a city that feels like its own country. Others in the neighborhood are wary as well.
"Katrina changed everything," another resident musician, Steven Walker, 34, told me. "We had a lot of outsiders come and imitate what we've been doing for years. It was a good thing and a bad thing."
As proud as New Orleans jazz musicians are of their art, there's a complexity to their post-Katrina disposition. Many told me that after the devastation was the first time their city's music really got any shine.
"It's a political music. I can go anywhere in the world, and when I put that trombone to my mouth, they're going to know I'm from New Orleans. They don't have that and that's what everybody tries to get from us," Walker says, gesticulating with his lanky arms. "This is one of the musical meccas. We have all these different types of jazz -- tradition, bebop, brass -- that are mixed into a gumbo. We're playing funerals, marching down the street in the second line. We put bandhats on and march down the street for four hours. Ain't nowhere else that they're doing that."
He's right. Contemporary jazz in New York does not entail dancing, but instead leaning on the bar and sipping a pretentiously named cocktail. Johnson and his peers don't play that brand. They're loud and they make people (even locals) shake and gyrate and catch the spirit. Music is supposed to be a thing that moves you, literally. It's also their means of making a living.
The neighborhood was created strategically, since anyone with a drum and a stick can label themselves a musician. In 2007, applicants regardless of age had to prove that their primary source of income was from gigs in the city. Now, the Village is open to non-musicians who are financially fit, but it still consists heavily of the city's modern day muses. They have a quiet understanding of how they were brought together by tragedy.
"It's like if you kick over an anthill and everybody scatters," Walker says. "And then that anthill rebuilds better -- stronger -- than before. That's what happened to New Orleans [musicians]."
As I drive through the rebuilt anthill in the morning, I see an older man with a salt and pepper beard outside in an electric wheelchair, smiling and chatting with a neighbor. It's Smokey Johnson, a "living legend", I'm told. The man behind many Mardi Gras standards, including his 1964 track "It Ain't My Fault," which was sampled by No Limit rappers Silkk the Shocker and Mystikal in 1998. It was the gloriously ratchet anthem of junior high as I remember it.
My habit of contextualizing everything kicks in. This guy's music has branched out in 20 different directions, inspired other musicians as well as junior high school dances. I wonder what other gatekeepers live on this block, and start to feel resentment in the pit of my stomach for Bill Lee's complaining neighbors.
It's like moving in across from the Eiffel Tower and then complaining because the lights are distracting. A dramatic analogy, yes, but jazz is a crucial part of New York's culture as well. Even if it is played at inappropriate times of the night. Bill Lee is a local legend too. And not like that tone-deaf guy in subway tunnel of the 6th Avenue L Train station whose Beatles covers make you want to walk even faster. Lee played with Bob Dylan. He cranked out the soundtracks to some of Spike's classics. Our muses cannot be hushed.
The younger Johnson echoes my sentiment regarding the elder Lee. "It's that privileged mentality that gets me. The exact same thing is going on in New Orleans," he says, referring to the dramatic changes that have been altering historic neighborhoods such as Treme. "If people want a vanilla lifestyle they should go to the suburbs. The city is where the noise is."