By: Greg Mitchell
President Bush closed his comeback speech in New Orleans on Thursday night, standing not far from where Louis Armstrong grew up and Preservation Hall still (somehow) stands, with a reference to the local tradition of jazz funerals, which begin as dirges and end with the joyful “second-line.”
With that, Satchmo must have rolled over in his grave. But at least he has a grave, unlike the hundreds or perhaps thousands of fellow African-Americans who were killed by, among other things, federal indifference to the flood threat before it happened, and criminal negligence after it struck.
Armstrong, of course, sang it best in his 1930 classic ?Black and Blue?:
How will it end? Ain?t got a friend
My only sin, is in my skin
What did I do? To be so black and blue
It seemed almost a sacrilege for the president to stand in the jazz-mad French Quarter, using the St. Louis Cathedral and statue of Andrew Jackson as a Disney-like backdrop, and announce that now he is going to do something, after the death and destruction are done, leaving the taxpayers with a $200 billion bill (much of which will go straight into the already Iraq-packed pockets of his friends at Halliburton and Bechtel and the like). His speech came on the very day The New York Times published an article about the many jazz and blues musicians from the Big Easy now forced to live in Cajun country and beyond, perhaps never to return to their homes and livelihoods.
In the White House pool report just before the speech, the president’s men boasted that they had thrown extra light on the cathedral backdrop. One aide said of the fake illumination: “Oh, it’s heated up. It’s going to print loud.”
Somewhat late in life, I have come to love the city, people, food, and music of New Orleans, site of many recent newspaper industry conventions (including one of our own), not to mention the beloved JazzFest. In fact, I spent many hours, while chronicling the disaster two weeks ago here at E&P Online, searching for news of local musicians. On various days, I reported that Fats Domino, Pete Fountain, and “Gatesmouth” Brown were missing, then lost, then found (though Gates later passed away after evacuating to Texas).
The New York Times carried word earlier this week that many members of Preservation Hall bands had gotten out in time, now scattered with the tide, some as far away as New York City. One older trumpet player I caught at the Hall just this past June — John Brunious, from a famed line of musicians — was discovered in Arkansas. But I know nothing of his brother Wendell Brunious, who I?d seen the previous night at the funky club Donna?s. Wendell was playing that night with drummer Bob French, someone else I haven?t located.
And what of Henry Butler, who sat in with Michelle Shocked at a free outdoor concert in the rain, also in June? And Jon Cleary (not to mention his Absolute Monster Gentlemen)?
Then there?s one of my real favorites, a clarinetist/sax player with an extraordinary face named Jacques Gauthe. One memorable day, I came across him, quite by accident, in three different venues — in a street festival, at the Hall, and then even later at night at a club. Haven?t heard a word about him.
One shouldn?t assume that any or all of them, because they are fairly well known in NOLA music circles, had enough dough to live on higher ground or owned cars in which to escape. Most are black and barely making do. They earn enough to live on, and when you love music as much as they do, and live in New Orleans, that is just enough. Even Fats Domino, who has made millions, still chose to remain (until the flood) in the downtrodden and flood-wrecked Ninth Ward.
Last week, when I wrote about the amazing story of Charmaine Neville, another Ninth Warder, and her battle to survive through high water, rape, and gunshots, several readers wrote to suggest that her story could not possibly be true. As part of the famous Neville family, and a semi-successful singer herself, surely she had enough money to live, or get, out of town? But, sad to say, like so many others, she just made scufflin? money, and has, as she put it, “few resources.”
So perhaps I?m a bit touchy about our president using the French Quarter to try to bring what seems, this month, like the death, and burial, of his presidency to an end, hoping for a swinging “second-line” tribute to his glory days — before he squandered it all, and then some, on a foolish war and a bumbling rescue mission in New Orleans. One thing those two tragedies have in common: Americans dying needlessly.
Somewhere Satchmo is not singing ?What a Wonderful World.?
If you wish to share any particular New Orleans memories, or concerns, write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org