News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: New Orleans the Phoenix

Monday, September 12, 2005

New Orleans the Phoenix

The following piece is a wonderful picture by jazz great Wynton Marsalis on what New Orleans means for American culture and what its loss might mean for the future. For those who understand that America's culutral heritage owes much to the strivings of blacks in the face of the holocaust of slavery, the notes he sounds are indeed those of optimism and spiritual renewal.

The Russian poet Jospeh Brodsky once said that American culture has contributed two things to world culture: jazz and film. Considering the decay of the film genres into pablum and fantasy, perhaps it is only jazz that will hold up a mirror to reflect the real American aesthetic for future generations. Like Jazz itself, rising from the ashes of near spiritual extinction, New Orleans will rise phoenix-like to provide the musical backdrop for what America has been and how it might be in the future:

Saving America's soul kitchen
By Wynton Marsalis, Time, September 11, 2005

The job of turning our national disaster into sound-bite-size commercials with somber string music will be left to TV. The story will be sanitized as our nation's politicians congratulate themselves on a job well done. Americans of all stripes will demonstrate saintly concern for one another. It's what we do in a crisis.

This tragedy, however, should make us take an account of ourselves. We should not allow the mythic significance of this moment to pass without proper consideration. Let us assess the size of this cataclysm in cultural terms, not in dollars and cents or politics. Americans are far less successful at doing that because we have never understood how our core beliefs are manifest in culture--and how culture should guide political and economic realities. That's what the city of New Orleans can now teach the nation again as we are all forced by circumstance to literally come closer to one another. I say teach us again, because New Orleans is a true American melting pot: the soul of America. A place freer than the rest of the country, where elegance met an indefinable wildness to encourage the flowering of creative intelligence. Whites, Creoles and Negroes were strained, steamed and stewed in a thick, sticky, below-sea-level bowl of musky gumbo. These people produced an original cuisine, an original architecture, vibrant communal ceremonies and an original art form: jazz.

Their music exploded irrepressibly from the forced integration of these castes to sweep the world as the definitive American art form. New Orleans, the Crescent City, the Big Easy--home of Mardi Gras, the second-line parade, the po' boy sandwich, the shotgun house--is so many people's favorite city. But not favorite enough to embrace the integrated superiority of its culture as a national objective. Not favorite enough to digest the gift of supersized soul internationally embodied by the great Louis Armstrong. Over time, New Orleans became known as the national center for frat-party-type decadence and (yeah, boy) great food. The genuine greatness of Armstrong is reduced to his good nature; his artistic triumphs are unknown to all but a handful. So it's time to consider, as we rebuild this great American city, exactly what this bayou metropolis symbolizes for the U.S.

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