The Book Cooks
From Chapter Twenty-One: Memory of the Flood
The history of New Orleans in the wrenching aftermath of Hurricane Katrina can be telegraphed in one sentence. Politics failed, culture prevailed.
Katrina’s winds shredded the Gulf South like a gigantic scythe; but it was the flood in New Orleans that jolted the national psyche. Produced by the largest civil engineering disaster in American history, the flood caused the greatest damage and left the deepest scars of memory.
Long after the networks stopped replaying footage of people stranded on rooftops, the dark line snaked across miles of façades of houses, stores and stucco or wooden exteriors, a linear tattoo symbolizing so much lost. The photographs, paintings and films that proliferated over many months portrayed the city where jazz began as a watery tomb. Like voyeurs, we gazed at the visual record: peering into homes denuded of life, furniture upended, dolls enmeshed in mud, family photos upside down, walls of slime, the colors of life degraded by that black line.
Jazz composer Michael White, back from a European tour, was preparing for his classes at Xavier University when he saw reports of the oncoming storm. White lived in a ranch house on a leafy lane in Gentilly that backed onto the London Avenue Canal. He fled by car to Houston with his mother, aunt, sister and significant other. As White watched coverage of the drowning city and destitute people trapped in the Superdome and Convention Center, he knew his house had sunk.
The trumpeter Marlon Jordan climbed onto the roof of his home in New Orleans East to escape the flood. He stayed there four days before he was evacuated by helicopter, sent to a military hospital in Birmingham and treated for dehydration. He had just released a CD marking the professional debut of his sister, Marlon Jordan Featuring Stephanie Jordan: "You Don’t Know What Love Is." The flood swallowed Stephanie’s home, that of her producer and sibling, Rachel Jordan, a violinist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and that of their mother and father, jazzman Edward "Kidd" Jordan who lived in Pontchartrain Park. The Jordans landed in the Baton Rouge home of the retired Southern University jazz professor Alvin Batiste, whose sister Evidge was Kidd Jordan’s wife.
Michael White lost 5,000 CDs, 4,000 books, dozens of original compositions, rare sheet music, original scores, fifty rare instruments, all his creative capital.
Fats Domino, his wife and several family members retreated to the second floor of his home in the Lower Ninth Ward. Harbor Police rescued them by boat and routed them to the Superdome. As he entered the Dome, dazed, his blood pressure soaring, seventy- seven-year-old Fats began shaking hands—he thought people were waiting for him to sing! After two nights in the packed New Orleans Arena, adjacent to the Superdome, the Domino group went by bus to a Baton Rouge shelter. There, a volunteer, LSU Tigers’ quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who was dating one of the granddaughters, invited them to his apartment. Twenty people ended up in the flat. "It was God’s will. That’s all I know," Fats told the Washington Post. "I’m worried about all the people in New Orleans. Tell them I love them and wish I was home with them. I hope we’ll see them soon."
Ben Jaffe, the bass player and owner of Preservation Hall, hired a car and nurse to relocate ninety-six-year-old Narvin Kimball, a retired banjo man and the last living member of the Hall’s original band, to a nursing home. Four of the band’s eight musicians lost their homes in the flood. The trumpeter John Brunious scrambled from his ground floor apartment on Elysian Fields Avenue as the flood engulfed his truck and two Cadillacs. He made it upstairs to his landlady’s level, losing seven trumpets, a stereo system and all his clothes, "watching water creep up the staircase step by step, until some neighbors drove by in a motorboat," Charles J. Gans reported in the AP. Making it to the Convention Center, Brunious "slept on the floor for four days, hungry, thirsty and in constant fear of being attacked by marauding youths." Bussed to Houston, then Dallas by the National Guard, Brunious finally called Jaffe from an evacuation center in Arkansas. The owner of a Little Rock music store lent him a trumpet. On September 9 Brunious flew to New York, joining the band for a telethon to benefit Katrina survivors.
James Andrews, the singing trumpeter from Tremé, drove upstate to Monroe, in the northeastern corner of Louisiana, with his brother Troy Michael, a bursting young talent nicknamed "Trombone Shorty," and other family members to wait out the storm.
Allen Tousssaint lost SeaSaint Studio, plus the grand piano, wardrobe, awards and sound files that were in his home. "But I will go back, and I will rebuild. Absolutely," he said from New York.
Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins made it to Houston.
The American Routes radio team relocated to Lafayette.
Irma Thomas was in Austin for a gig when Katrina hit. Back home, Irma and her husband, Emile Jackson, had operated a Mid-City nightclub-cum-eatery, The Lion’s Den, as her career base. Water reached above the door. Weeks later, when Emile got back, it took him three days to find the cash register. The Lion’s Den never reopened. They found transitional housing in the town of Gonzalez, halfway up the road to Baton Rouge.
Henry Butler’s large home on Elysian Fields Avenue filled with water, wrecking his grand piano, sound system, wardrobe and belongings. He moved to Denver.
Donald Harrison, Jr. got his family into the Hyatt Regency across from the Superdome. His sister, scholar Cherice Harrison-Nelson, and mother Herreast, an educator, transported the Mardi Gras Indian costumes of the late patriarch Donald Sr. to a storage unit, along with photographs, recordings and memorabilia, and then drove to Houston, with hotel reservations made in advance. Three days into the flood Donald managed to vacate New Orleans with his wife and nine family members. They drove to Baton Rouge, which was so overrun with people who had fled New Orleans that it took twelve hours to get everyone settled.
"The Mardi Gras Indian rhythms and chants were really the very first music that entered my consciousness," Donald told the writer Larry Blumenfeld, many months later, on the steps of his gutted double house in a Mid-City neighborhood that took six feet. "My mom recalls me tapping out the beats on the side of my crib." Cherice, who had occupied the opposite side of the house, would relocate to a house built by Habitat for Humanity in the Upper Ninth Ward—a few blocks from the nearly-destroyed house of her mother. When Herreast Harrison made it back in the early days after the storm the water had hit her block so hard "it just broke my heart," she told scholar Charles Rowell. "There were blocks and blocks of houses that were overturned. Cars in trees, houses pushed off foundations, debris everywhere . . . Looking at some of those houses tossed and torn apart, you knew that human bodies, torn apart and decapitated, were among those ruins."
"But I lost things that were precious to me, things that were my wealth, my legacy—the carrying on of traditions, like quilting, that my grandmother and my mother had participated in. I’m a fifth generation quilter. But I don’t want people to think that, for one minute, talking about the cultural things that I lost, that I did not have empathy for people that had actually lost family members. There were some families with five and six people lost to that storm."
Terence Blanchard’s nice home in the Garden District stayed dry as he evacuated to Atlanta, then Los Angeles, with his wife and manager, Robin Burgess, and their children. He carried the anxiety that coursed through people whose homes went underwater: his mother, Wilhemina Blanchard, lived in Pontchartrain Park, parts of which took as much nine feet. When the composer came back in November, he accompanied his mother to her house. A Spike Lee camera crew followed mother and son in what became one of the most heart-stabbing moments in Lee’s four-hour documentary, When the Levees Broke. This was the neighborhood where Terence took his first piano lessons, where his father (an insurance salesman and weekend hospital orderly) sang opera arias in the evenings and on weekends rolled with rich harmonies of quartet singing. Months after the day they were filmed, Blanchard watched the rough-cut of When the Levees Broke, his mind spinning with ideas for the sound track. He remembered the sensation that day, the blanket of overpowering silence—vast, empty silence. "Birds, cars and streetcars—those are sounds we all take for granted," Blanchard reflected later. "And you don’t have that life, it’s almost like the soul has left. That’s a scary thing. The neighborhood was there—what was left of it. . . . You heard the wind coupled with the visual of the watermarks along the rooftops, and you put all that together, with the cars being overturned, and it’s like you’re on the moon. People who saw the film have asked, was I hearing music when we went back that day—and the answer is no. My first experience was the opposite, silence."
Out of the silence he got to work on the score, sketching scenes on piano, shaping the base line for instrumental voices that would ebb and flow, fashioning chords to the movement of the pictures, laying out the long floating passages with blue undertones, an aura of restless quiet, stillness to break when the water surges in. Four hours long, When the Levees Broke is a stunning epic that won acclaim for Spike Lee. Critics praised Blanchard’s score with its intimations of church ritual. He refashioned the fim score into a concert and CD, A Tale of God’s Will.
Aaron Neville, who had left Valence Street for the good life in New Orleans East, got his family to Memphis. "It was the most horrific thing that I’ve seen," he told Nick Spitzer on American Routes. "Watching people that you know or don’t know, but they are still kin to you by being your home town people, and watching them in that water and getting plucked from roofs and knowing that a bunch of them died . . . . My house was a swamp at one time, so the swamp is taking it back."
Aaron relocated to a town near Nashville. Dealing with asthma, he resisted moving back. New Orleans had tons of soggy debris and a soaring mold count.
"Living there was just too hard," Cyril Neville said in a scathing interview with the Dallas Morning News. "The school system was shot. Talking to City Hall about the needs of the needy was like talking to deaf people. And I didn’t want to watch the news because night after night it was murder and anarchy and chaos."
Loving the city, hating its failure, was a reality for most of us.
Pass It On
As New Orleans crept toward the third anniversary of the flood, Dr. Michael White’s home in Gentilly was empty, and he was still waiting for the maddening bureaucracy of ICF to deliver his Road Home check. But White was living in New Orleans again, and each month saw signs of more artists returning to make their lives in a city that refused to die. Politically, it was still a mess.
On the night of May 13, 2008, White unfurled a lyrical clarinet solo on "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," backed by the Hot 8 Brass Band, in the Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s reception hall on North Rampart Street. Wearing dark slacks and a blue button down shirt with white stripes, White cut a professorial image in sharp contrast to the guys seated behind him in t-shirts emblazoned with insignia of the Hot 8. Three young players wore dreadlocks. Another sat in a wheelchair.
The irony of appearances was not lost on the three dozen people drawn to a rare evening of performance, laced with commentary about music and state of the culture. White had just released a new CD, Blue Crescent. Most of the songs were original compositions to push the threshold of an idiom many people consider static, its boundaries set and closed by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.
The Hot 8 had been steeped in funk, and a hard-charging street style long on rhythm and short on melodic polish, a groove popular with hip-hop fans. Since Baty Landis and Lee Arnold had gotten them to work with White, the Hot 8 was developing a stronger sense of melody, a reach back in time to a style that all but bypassed them in the 1980s as they moved through public schools and street gigs in a milieu where brass bands competed with rap as the sound track of street life. "Jazz is a way of life and there are many lessons that apply," White began. "The blues and hymn styles played by the early brass bands came about originally when jazz was dance music."
White stood at a podium behind a photograph of the late Tom Dent, the poet and historian who served as Jazz & Heritage Foundation president in the 1990s. "New Orleans jazz was functional," he continued. "They played it for picnics and parades of the social and pleasure clubs. Jazz was a voice of the African-American community seeking freedom."
The musicians seated behind White had taken traumatic hits that held a mirror to the city’s jagged social divide. A large oak-shouldered tuba player named Bennie Pete founded the Hot 8 in 1995. In 1996 the band’s trumpeter Jacob Johnson was murdered in a home robbery that netted his killers $40. Trombonist Joe Williams was shot dead by police in 2004 when he failed to heed orders to stop the car he was driving, unarmed. NOPD claimed it was stolen, a charge disputed by Williams’ friends. The band was still recovering from the murder of Shavers, in early 2006, when trumpeter Terrell Batiste (not directly related to Alvin) was struck by a car in an accident near Atlanta, which led to the amputation of his legs above the knee.
Batiste sat in a wheelchair wearing shorts, holding a trumpet. Seated around him were Henry Cook on bass drum, Samuel Cyrus on snare, Bennie Pete gripping a large sousaphone, trumpeter Greg Williams, trombonist Gregory Gills, and tenor sax man Wendell Stuart.
"Jazz can teach us about history," said White as the Hot 8 players listened. "We learn where we come from and how we can become better people if we understand our ancestors." He paused. "There is a parallel to democracy. Democracy is about the freedom to create, to participate as an individual with the group. In a band, one instrumental voice responds to the roles of melody and harmony with the other members of the band."
He paused. The room was silent, all eyes on him like a diamond.
"My colleague at Xavier who died last year, [the artist] John Scott, used to always say, ‘Pass it on.’ That’s what the early musicians I knew, when I was coming up, were all about. Pass it on. Pass on the jazz tradition."
Passing it on is the story of this culture, an expanding lineage of music-making families with sturdy roots of identity in neighborhoods that put a premium on life lived well. In November 2008, the musicians’ assistance group Sweet Home New Orleans issued a report which estimated that three-quarters of the 4,500 tradition-bearers—musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, parade club members—had managed to return, despite the higher rents, and a 45 percent decline in nightclub venues. In the fall of 2008, Aaron Neville moved to Covington, a bucolic town on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, just over thirty miles from his home town.
Irma Thomas resettled in eastern New Orleans, and won a Grammy. Irvin Mayfield, back in his house near Carrollton, opened the first jazz club on Bourbon Street in many years at the Royal Sonesta hotel. Fats Domino ended up in a gated community of Jefferson Parish on the far side of the Mississippi River. Michael White was living with his aunt amidst a long struggle with the Road Home program, while branching out in performances with transplanted musicians from the Ivory Coast. Spencer Bohren finished repairs on his home near Bayou St. John in 2008 and kept up his calendar on the road. Kermit Ruffins moved back and became a fixture at Vaughn’s, a cozy little club in the upper Ninth Ward where he liked to cook barbecue. James and Troy Andrews came back. So did the ReBirth Brass Band members. So did so many others. With fewer studios, recordings resumed nonetheless. Finding his own way back, while keeping an apartment in New York, Allen Toussaint released The River in Reverse with Elvis Costello. The cultural river flowed back as artists, musicians, and parade club members, over long distances and at great expense reclaimed their place of life.
Music is the memory of New Orleans. For all of the corruption, poverty and violence, the music is elemental, a gorgeous collective chorus to the best instincts of the human experiment. We know that "The City Where Jazz Began" lives on borrowed time, facing huge environmental odds in the age of climate change, a city that could be buried by one titanic flood or crippled by some long-running mayor or governor. Floods and epic storms are in our past and in our future; yet for close to three centuries the city as a human essence has prevailed. The world can be an unforgiving place, yet this maddening, charm-dripping, tragicomic town at the bottom of America registers a life force, like the Mardi Gras Indian, that won’t bow down. There is abiding comfort in the words of Harold Battiste, a guiding force of the heritage jazz that came out of the little clubs in the 1950s near the Magnolia Street housing project: "New Orleans, the city, has always been the focus. Musicians come and go, and their creations always seem directed at the city. Because after all is said and done, New Orleans is the star."