Louis Edwards, a New Orleans novelist and an associate producer of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, said, “No other city is so equipped to deal with this.” A French Quarter resident, Mr. Edwards was taking refuge last week at his mother’s house in Lake Charles, La.
“Think of the jazz funeral,” he said. “In New Orleans we respond to the concept of following tragedy with joy. That’s a powerful philosophy to have as the underpinning of your culture.”
— NY Times, September 8, 2005
I’ve been spending a lot of time this week staring at a blank MS Word document; the blinking cursor taunting me: “What witty and carefree thing are you going to write this week for the Jazz Jam, hmmm?”
I’ve been having writer’s block, because somehow I didn’t feel right to be writing about jazz with the situation in New Orleans; it felt disrespectful.
Then, as I sat here pondering what to do, I remembered what happened to me at dinnertime last Saturday night. Here in Knoxville at least, the NPR program “A Prairie Home Companion” runs at 6PM Saturday, right after “All Things Considered.” There I was chopping vegetables, and Garrison Kellior introduced the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to the crowd at the Minnesota State Fair, and man, they played their hearts out. I guess they were on the road when Katrina hit. So there I was trying to hold it together, soaking in both the beauty of the music and the poignancy of the moment. Then they started playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and I just lost it. I was never so happy to be chopping onions in my life, loving that blessed burning in my eyes so I could just let loose, the tears running down my cheeks, nose running, the whole nine yards…
I was sitting here with Mr. Accusatory Cursor when I remembered this, and the thought hit me:
“Who the hell are you to cop a writer’s block when these guys are out there playing like there’s no tomorrow?”
And that’s why I (and hopefully you, too) love jazz and blues so much; like all great artists, these musicians open themselves to the world in all its beauty and pain, in the hope that Truth will find them a worthy and useful tool to speak to the rest of us. May we all answer that call, each in our own way, with the same integrity.
“We’re going to get those musicians back, the brass bands, the jazz funerals, everything.” — Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans jazz trumpeter, quoted in the NY Times, September 8, 2005
Next week, I promise we’ll get back to news, reviews, and all the latest on the music scene. But tonight I want to just pay tribute to all the artists (of whatever medium) that somehow distill beauty and truth out of tragedy and pain, prophets who leave us all immeasurably richer for their suffering and devotion.