Why New Orleans Matters
Every place has its history. But what is it about New Orleans that makes it more than just the sum of the events that have happened there? What is it about the spirit of the people who live there that could produce a music, a cuisine, an architecture, a total environment, the mere mention of which can bring a smile to the face of someone who has never even set foot there?
What is the meaning of a place like that, and what is lost if it is lost?
The winds of Hurricane Katrina, and the national disaster that followed, brought with them a moment of shared cultural awareness: Thousands were killed and many more displaced; promises were made, forgotten, and renewed; the city of New Orleans was engulfed by floodwaters of biblical proportions—all in a wrenching drama that captured international attention. Yet the passing of that moment has left too many questions.
What will become of New Orleans in the months and years to come? What of its people, who fled the city on a rising tide of panic, trading all they knew and loved for a dim hope of shelter and rest? And, ultimately, what do those people and their city mean to America and the world?
In Why New Orleans Matters, award-winning author and New Orleans resident Tom Piazza illuminates the storied culture and uncertain future of this great and most neglected of American cities. With wisdom and affection, he explores the hidden contours of familiar traditions like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and evokes the sensory rapture of the city that gave us jazz music and Creole cooking. He writes, too, of the city's deep undercurrents of corruption, racism, and injustice, and of how its people endure and transcend those conditions. And, perhaps most important, he asks us all to consider the spirit of this place and all the things it has shared with the world—grace and beauty, resilience and soul. "That spirit is in terrible jeopardy right now," he writes. "If it dies, something precious and profound will go out of the world forever."
Why New Orleans Matters is a gift from one of our most talented writers to the beloved and important city he calls home—and to a nation to whom that city's survival has been entrusted.
1923 and 1924, with a very young Louis Armstrong on cornet playing next to his mentor Oliver, are the high-water mark of early recorded New Orleans jazz. The Oliver band brought the classic New Orleans approach—in which the trumpet or cornet plays variations on the melody, the trombone plays shorter answering and harmony phrases, and the clarinet provides a filigreed descant—to its first and greatest flowering: four different horns (Oliver and Armstrong both played simultaneous melodic
pulling together at the same time. What kind of place could have produced such a vision of the world, such elation and such lyricism mixed together, such individuality in the service of a communal effect? And those are just the ones actually recorded in New Orleans; there were countless other musicians who, like Oliver and Morton (who performed and recorded in Chicago and Indiana) made up a kind of unprecedented musical diaspora. The 1926–28 recordings by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven
Orleans documentary film Always for Pleasure, and at greater length alongside fellow Crescent City pianists Allen Toussaint and Tuts Washington in Stevenson Palfi’s documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. But how could you leave out Percy Mayfield, Lloyd Price, James Booker, Ernie “Mother-In-Law” K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, the Meters and the Neville Brothers and Dr. John. . . . And so many more unknown outside of New Orleans except by dyed-in-the-wool
laugh and take a little drink, because they know better than anyone that life is short and hard and often bitter but it is at least life. Those are the people who have been uprooted from the only houses, neighborhoods, customs, landscape, and friendships they have ever known, and they will be experiencing the terrible practical deprivation and spiritual pain of the memories they carry, the age-old pain of exile and homelessness. They and the community they embody have given love and beauty to
Tulane University campus, way uptown, you can see the old gymnasium where King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band, with a young Louis Armstrong on cornet, played for dances. If you are adventuresome, and you know where to go, you can find the houses of Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden and Papa Jack Laine and the rest of the earliest generation of jazz musicians. In the French Quarter you can cut out of Jackson Square, ringed by the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment buildings in North America,