Melodies of Loss and Love
By Patricia Keegan
If you tossed 50 stars, representing 50 American cities, up in the air and tried to catch the shiniest, brightest and most alive, without a doubt, you would be reaching for the birthplace of jazz -- New Orleans.
What I found in New Orleans while attending the Satchmo Summer Fest, just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina, was one of the happiest and most inspiring places I have ever been. Inspiring because as I learned the history of the survival of New Orleans through devastating fires in the late 1700’s, yellow fever epidemics in the 1800’s, the floods of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and its struggles during the Civil Rights era, it was clear to me that what attracted visitors from across the country and around the world was something the people of New Orleans created with their own limited resources -- Joy!
Jazz and joy are intermixed as expressions of the human spirit. There is no other city in America that has the concentration of music in quite the same way as New Orleans. This is one example of the melting of differences between black and white when spirit sees beyond the realm of limited dimension.
I attended a screening of Make it Funky by New Orleans filmmaker Michael Murphy. One of the most memorable, and now most poignant moments, was when the camera zoomed in on leaves of trees lit by moonlight in the garden of pianist Allen Toussaint. He is talking about the importance of family. In the background we hear “Southern Nights” playing softly. Toussaint was asked why someone with his fame and talent and the opportunity to live anywhere in the world returned to live in New Orleans.
” I am home,' he said. 'There is nothing more I need, I am here with all the people I care about and knowing they are close and well, is enough!“ In Make it Funky I saw the Laurel Plantation which at one time held 80 slave cabins. The image of slaves working the fields, and the sadness of their deep, heartfelt sighs which gradually turned into song, still resonate at the very roots from which blossomed much of the jazz tradition.
As Fred Johnson Jr. expressed it: 'The history of music and survival are so close for African American people that it is difficult for anyone to tell which came first. . . If we worked like a dog, we sang songs that kept us spiritually uplifted to get through the heat of the day, or the whip that was coming across our back, and out of that came a hum, or a moan or something. . . Then came a sound and a tone.”
Could this deep, heartfelt moan from the past be the same brokenhearted sound we hear erupting in New Orleans today -- an unrelenting moan for the loss, for the dead?
We hear a sadness across our country as it struggles to understand why the cries of people on rooftops, in flooded homes or in squalid holding areas were not swiftly answered by an organized government prepared for quick response to the inevitable.
How will the depth of pain ever be assuaged? Will it have to circle back to its very roots and start over?
Despite the horrifying sights daily unfolding in New Orleans, beautiful images kept crossing my mind. I am walking down Chartres Street, heading toward the Ursuline Convent Museum, when a startling tableau of beauty grabbed my attention. I paused to listen to a five-year old boy, framed in the doorway of an antique shop, playing Leibestrum on his violin. In this music centric city, a tiny Chopin, with pale, delicate features and long curls, had found his own stage upon which he could play freely. As each earnest note lifted into the air, passing strollers were being blessed by a wondrous and generous moment of perfection.
Other images appear of the rousing spirituality of the Jazz Mass I attended at St. Augustine’s where people of all shades held hands and swayed together to waves of music praising God and enfolding each person in a harmonious sense of oneness. From there we all joined the Second Line parade behind a brass jazz band playing 'When The Saints Go Marching Home'. We danced, walked --then shuffled along in the blinding, searing, hot sunshine. Now this was authentic New Orleans.!
I am forever grateful for having the opportunity to experience New Orleans, and I will always remember the highlight of my jazz experience -- seeing superb trumpeter Irvin Mayfield in concert, conducting his jazz orchestra. Mayfield has an extraordinary musical talent that oozes from every pore. He is brimming with attitude, and it’s no wonder he has been officially given the title of New Orleans Ambassador of Culture.
When Mayfield was interviewed September 3rd on Larry King’s fundraising program for New Orleans, despite being steeped in worry about his father and one of his brothers with whom he had lost contact, he played his newest post-Katrina creation, Wing Song. At the end of his performance he said that the only way for New Orleans to recover from this horrific tragedy was for musicians to get back to playing, teachers to get back to teaching, and children to get back home and grow up properly. He also said that tragedy gives people a mandate to define themselves -- what they are going to do, and who they are as human beings.
“Jazz says, yes, it’s hard right now, but it’s gonna get better. You don’t just stick things together, you have to do it with style.”
With this kind of positive leadership and the response shown not only from America, but from diverse countries across the world, we are sure to witness the gradual rebirth of New Orleans, one note at a time,back into the city that gave joy to all.