Riffing On the Tradition: Believe It Beloved
Charlie Parker, who arguably revolutionized jazz, shares the anniversary of his birth (August 29) with Hurricane Katrina, which compromised faultily constructed federal levees and thus decimated New Orleans, and now, boorish Hurricane Isaac. Among my favorite anecdotes about “Bird” is that, when asked about his religious affiliation, he responded, “I am a devout musician.”
You see, Parker trusted the music. He had faith in his creative vision and he was confident in the expressive and artistic potential of the musical language he was pioneering.
For those of us who are self-proclaimed “devout musicians,” it's time for a reality check. This last week was a serious test of our faith in New Orleans and in our beliefs about our role that keeps us here. It is urgent that we start defining those beliefs and work to articulate the nature of our commitment to our city as culture-bearers.
We should be glad that our city leaders do not want to have a hand in managing “culture.” Agreed, it would be even better if they would get out of our way completely and let things evolve organically. But the fact is that the “temperature” of the public’s desire for zoning compliance is as uncomfortably “hot” as your homes were last week without electricity.
In the pre-Isaac permit crack-down, more than 130 businesses were called into question. I have yet to determine how many of those are now battling City Hall for their right to have “live entertainment,” but even if it’s only a handful, one thing is clear: Just as our city’s leadership clearly over-estimates the potential for New Orleans to become a modern American City, I contend that we, the musicians, severely over-estimate our perceived value in the community.
In short, no, we will not be allowed to perform where we want, when we want simply because we believe it to be our right.
This is why it is crucial that we act now. We need confidence in our resolve, but we need to be realistic also. The fiction of New Orleans as a Bohemian paradise is just as fantastical as the Disneyesque New Orleans depicted in the city's “Master Plan.” But, whether our livelihood is threatened by the systematic closing of venues, or because we're not raising the bar for what constitutes remarkable music, the fact remains: We need to work harder at clarifying our indispensability to the cultural life of the city in a meaningful way that can sustain us.
In the end, it is the activities of the cultural workforce that make the city so distinct and vibrant; we are among the ONLY reasons that people choose to be here. It surely isn’t because of the quality of our schools, crime statistics, business-friendly environment, or ability to recover expediently from category one hurricanes.
What our leaders believe about why people visit or live in New Orleans doesn’t much matter; we know the truth. What matters is that we maintain faith in our vision, the value of our unique cultural traditions, and how our city’s future can be shaped by our art and the dialogues we inspire.
As we gear up for autumn’s promise of “cultural” activities, please be prepared to mobilize your followers and your peers to support a culture-friendly environment, not based upon how much beer or hotel beds it sells, but as we define it here, in a New Orleans in which we are proud to live.