Musicians rally to save cultural mecca

“They call it Stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad,” East Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker sang in 1947. “Wednesday’s worse, and Thursday’s oh so sad.”

In that same year, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday performed “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”? And now ordinary Americans are answering back: We do!

Images of devastation around the city and the Gulf Coast make the heart sink, for so many reasons. Loss of life, first and foremost. But also cultural loss. Musicians and music lovers are rallying to save this unique, cultural mecca, coming together to raise millions of dollars in aid and speaking out politically.

American blues, jazz and country music were forged under harsh conditions in the Deep South. Yet, Louisiana music is the sound of resiliency, of peppery zydeco and funky swamp-pop. And that’s not just the sound of letting le bon temps roulez. It’s a celebration of living and surviving against the odds.

New Orleans — the City That Care Forgot — has also served as a bulkhead against the forces of homogeneity, an “Iko Iko” in response to the strip mall-ization of America.

A major power during the slave trade, New Orleans is the crossroads between Africa, Europe, Caribbean and indigenous America. A majority Black city, it gave birth to American classical music: jazz.

“It’s devastating,” says Detroit jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. “That’s the birthplace of the music of this country. That includes all the genres of Black music in this country. And it’s the only place in the country that preserved it the way it should be preserved.”

When artist and producer Kanye West called President Bush out for his personal responsibility in the criminal response to the crisis in New Orleans, West charged the media and the president with racism. “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a Black family and they say we are looting, you see a white family and they say they are looking for food. And, you know, it’s been five days because most of the people are Black. ... We already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way. And now they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us. George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he said during an NBC-televised benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims.

NBC censored West’s unscripted, righteous speech and ran as fast as the big corporation could from the 28-year-old’s “truth to power” oration.

West, a native of Chicago — a city that has close ties to the “Big Easy,” especially within the African American community — was vocalizing what millions of people of all races were already thinking: race and class matter. And, by all accounts, the music community won’t stand idly by while the Bush administration allows corporate looters to profit and does nothing to help the people.

“This is our community,” Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter told The Associated Press. “When I turn on CNN, I see a lot of Black people on the streets. I know it’s other people, too, but those projects have been hit hard.”

New Orleans is where jazz architect Armstrong was born and where Jelly Roll Morton became a legend. Fats Domino, who was rescued by boat this week from his flooded home, pioneered rock ’n’ roll.

Randy Newman may love L.A., but he’s from New Orleans, as evidenced by the famous “they’re trying to wash us away” flooding chorus from “Louisiana 1927.” Harry Connick Jr., Dr. John, Mahalia Jackson, Pete Fountain, Terence Blanchard and the Neville Brothers are just a few other talents the Big Easy has produced.

“New Orleans, from a musical standpoint, is the melting pot when we talk about America,” Wynton Marsalis, whose family of musicians is synonymous with their native city, said from his home in New York.

Class, as well as race, is a dominant theme in producing the New Orleans sound. “So many of the great musicians of New Orleans and so many people of the cultural heart of the city were poor people,” said Chuck Taggart, a native who produced last year’s historical CD set “Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Great Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans.”

One recent story goes that a writer went to the Treme district to hear trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Halfway through the set, a guy walked off the street, borrowed a horn, and cut Ruffins to pieces. When the writer complimented him, he assured the writer that he wasn’t even the best trumpeter in his family. “You should see my grandma,” he said.

Many are mobilizing to perform benefit concerts across the country.

Marsalis is planning a Sept. 19 fund-raiser at Lincoln Center in New York, where he is artistic director of the jazz center. “Our city is still alive. It’s generations of us who are still here, and we’ll get our city back together,” he vowed. “There are things that are tragic losses that will never be recovered, but I feel like the most valuable thing is the people, the spirit of the people, the will of the people, the mind and the hearts ... that’s not lost. That’s not even close to lost.”

Nekesa Mumbi Moody of AP, Dan DeLuca of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan Whitall of The Detroit News, and Terrie Albano contributed to this story.