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By Fred Setterberg

SAN FRANCISCO, 28 September 2005 — For the past two weeks, I’ve been in a fury about the loss of New Orleans, but only last night, listening to a radio benefit concert at Lincoln Center featuring the Marsalis and Jordan families — and evoking the dynastic quality of musical descent that speaks to the sinking heart of city’s cultural treasure—did I finally experience the sorrow.  Standing at my kitchen counter, grinding spices to fry catfish according to a hybrid interpretation of a Moosewood vegetarian cookbook recipe, I thought about a visit to New Orleans and I burst into tears. 

I had ambled through the Quarter, down Dumaine Street, up Bourbon, along Chartres, heading no place in particular following a day’s work in the city.  In Jackson Square, I rested on the cement steps to finish a bottle of beer I had carried out of a dark, noisy joint near Patout’s.  The moon arched above the statue of General Jackson saddled upon his horse, his hat doffed in one hand to hail the light.  A boy with a trumpet stood at the foot of the invader’s statue.  He bleated and blahed his way through Miles Davis’s All Blues.

I slipped back into the alleyways and zigzagged for another half-hour until I found myself standing in front of Preservation Hall.

Now I have never been a fan of traditional jazz.  Worse, I have always imagined that the music featured inside Preservation Hall would be a shuck, like Disneyland Dixieland—an artifice, unfelt, an impersonation for the tourists.  The line in front of Preservation Hall was very long, but a good tenor sax player was wandering up and down the street, playing for free, and so I took my place at the end of the line, as much to rest and listen to the sax man as gain entry.  When we were finally ushered into the building, I saw that a lack of artifice was Preservation Hall’s greatest asset.  The hall looked about twice the size of my hotel room, dimly lit like the gloomy altar of some country church where a few candles sputtered bravely.  Six musicians sat upon wooden chairs atop a small stage raised about eighteen inches from the floor.  A half-dozen wooden bench pews filed back from the stage; everybody else —maybe seventy-five people — crowded together in the darkness, shoulder to shoulder.

I didn’t recognize the band’s first tune, but when the trumpet player took the lead, he shaved the melody close, in the style of King Oliver.  After the clarinet solo, he stood up once again and sang out to the audience.  His woman had left him, giving him the blues:  it was the same old story that has served as the basis for much of America’s popular culture over the past 100 years.

Traditional jazz has never seemed risky enough to me.  But as the band inside Preservation Hall continued to bang out one number after another, the piano, bass, drums, banjo, clarinet, and trumpet swelling into a sea of collective fakery with sufficient spirit and peculiarity to challenge all the conventional harmonies, I caught for an inspired instant how truly daring the music must have felt at its inception.  Even now,  the friction of creation showed sparks—the pain of squeezing something unheard before from a motley collection of instruments only recently transported to these shores.  The band rambled on, and I realized there was nothing at all quaint about this music; it had always been full of risk, unstable, and liable to combust.

The bass player at Preservation Hall seemed determined to prove the point.  He launched into a flurry of notes that were both too rapid and dissonant for New Orleans vintage jazz, playing more like Charles Mingus than Pops Foster.  He scurried up the instrument’s neck from the bridge to the scroll, shattering the tune.  The other players grunted encouragement.  Together they were demonstrating how music—culture—argues, blends, dissolves, mutates, and then takes the next step.  The odd bird who hears something different plucks his strings too quickly or queerly or flat out plunks the wrong note, but he does it over and over until it sounds right and the people around him begin to listen.  He finds his own groove and fashions new music from the old.

And that’s exactly what American music—American culture—has always managed to do.  As the bass player was now showing, our nation’s truest anthem contains the funeral dirge of the New Orleans street band combined with the whorehouse piano and the last slave’s work song and the bickering melodies of two hundred disparate points of origin, from Marseilles to Dakar, from Manaus to Guangzhou, now stretched out over the American plains like the hide of some mythical beast: the confluence of influences that nobody will ever be able to pick apart note-for-note. Perhaps this is the irreplaceable loss in New Orleans:  the erasure of proximity that allows for the accretion of influence over time.  Perhaps this is what many of us hope may somehow rise again:  New Orleans as simultaneously past and prologue, the foundation for all things opposed and American.

Of course, when the city’s great music was just being born it was then a fashionable complaint to jeer that America had "no culture"— a notion that still raises its silly head even among sophisticated people who today may confuse vox populi with a loathsome noise.  In truth, we have more culture than one people will ever be able to digest.  And that helps explain why the melting pot sometimes bubbles up—and when we least expect it, explodes.

Fred Setterberg is the author of The Roads Taken:  Travels Through America’s Literary Landscapes.  Next year, Heyday Books will publish Under the Dragon, an account of multicultural California co-written with Lonny Shavelson.

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