Riffing on the Tradition: Amazing Grace
Late-November, 1993, I was touring in Europe with a band, who consequently would later bring me to New Orleans the first time. We were in Italy hitting five cities in as many days; Thursday was the town of Parma. Showcasing that region’s famous cheese, our hosts made a sinfully creamy turkey risotto. The turkey was in honor of our holiday, about which the abrasive yet genial chef said, in remarkably clear English, “Why do you Americans call it Thanksgiving?! You are not thankful for what you give, you are thankful for what you have. It is better you call it ‘Thanks-having.’” To this day, the Fall festival remains, for me, Thanks-having, and I try to use the occasion to reflect on things I don’t actually have and to acknowledge the good graces that have allowed me to work toward earning them.
The charms of New Orleans, are at the heart of this personal sense of divine favor. Despite the challenges I have used this column to discuss, being able to try and make a living here as a musician has never been a sacrifice, and I am thankful for everything that makes the effort so rewarding.
For example, despite the markedly reduced earning potential of musicians in New Orleans since the failure of the Federal levees in 2005 (see Riffing, week one), I love the regard that our city has for its cultural stewards. I am thankful for all the forces that actively shape our heritage, whether by documenting history or constructing mythologies, because they afford my profession a level of respect that few cities can boast for their cultural workforce.
Despite the dominant paradigm of “free music” that has allowed our indigenous music traditions to be taken for granted and become the stepchild of the service and hospitality industry (Riffing, week two), I love that the New Orleans music community has fostered and maintained a sizable and incredibly loyal base of support, and I am thankful to all who allow what we do to be an essential part of their lives.
Despite the inability to build infrastructure to make our careers in music more sustainable, I love that our function has evolved beyond just encouraging booty-shakin’. I am thankful for touring invitations as an ambassador for our culture, opportunities in education, possibilities in other media such as film and television, and that our recordings can be acquired by a global audience.
Lastly, despite the humble origins of Jazz around the beginning of the last century, I am thankful for leaders like Congressman John Conyers who helped introduced a bill declaring the art form, “a rare and valuable national American treasure.” Agents who encourage our dependence on their technologies, intentionally or not, reducing our efforts to a cheap advertising tool (Riffing week five) cannot convince me that our music is devalued. Neither can those who pander to our city's tourists by offering and promoting counterfeit versions of our work (last week’s Riff). Sure, in downtown hotel lobby bars, Jazz may only be the “best background music ever,” but the challenge to create music that lives up to the verbiage of H.R.-57 is my daily pride.
So, to my tireless colleagues, all the true supporters of our music, and to the great ones, including those who passed before I had any idea how much you would mean to me, I’m grateful for all of you and for the privilege of being a musician. Happy Thanks-having.
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of Nola Art House Music. Click here for an interview with the artist. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie.