Has Katrina Failed to Blow the Wool from over our Eyes? Why I Disagree with the New Jazz Orthodoxy

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Our peculiar lack of historical consciousness is the apt companion to the lack of vision inherent in the discourse around 'rebuilding' New Orleans.
By Salim Washington

The recent disaster in the Gulf region is not only historic, but mythical; it provides a window into our political, economic and social life and also our ideas and fantasies about who and how we are. Not surprisingly, in a nation which is infamously self-congratulatory and completely sentimental about its own history, this disaster and its consequent reactions are framed in a narrative that chooses to emphasize individual heroic efforts over systemic racism and class-based oppression; fiscal and managerial mishaps over the institutional ravages insured by modern day capitalism; the laudatory tweakings of a bourgeois, liberal democracy over the imperialistic domination its affluent lifestyle is based upon; and evidence of a fictive melting pot culture over the widening alienation and vicious behavior between various "Americas.

In his recent article published in Time, "Saving America's Soul Kitchen: How to bring this country together? Listen to the message of New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis, our de facto national voice of jazz, addresses the nation, rightly admonishing us to consider the cultural worth of New Orleans through its cuisine, architecture and music (well actually, he seems interested in only one strand of New Orleans music). And while he urges us to see the mythic scale of the current crisis, his choice to view New Orleans' place in the nation's soul only through the lens of culture continues a long tradition of comfort with creating myths that hide much more than they reveal about our national character. He laments that Americans "have never understood how our core beliefs are manifest in culture—and how culture should guide [our] political and economic realities. Culture/politics/economics are part of a whole in life and must be considered together if our lived experience is to progress towards our highest ideals.

What Marsalis fails to acknowledge is that many in America care no more about saving America's "soul kitchen than it does for the liberation of Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemimah. While Marsalis in his celebration of the cultural triumphs of the "Big Easy fails to mention injustice and inequality, white America and black America (to cite only two groups) differ in their perception about the salience of race and class in this crisis.

One way to insulate oneself against the blindness necessary to be able to disagree on something so palpably obvious is to realize that many Americans, especially the black poor, have been in a perpetual state of crisis, a state that is dramatically highlighted by the grand scale of what is only the most recent massive dispossession. The color-blind ideology implicit in his [New Orleans-centric] version of "the birth of jazz story ignores the bitterness and fractiousness that existed between the so-called races of New Orleans musicians and the ways that it has affected the music.

For instance, Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe, the great Jelly Roll Morton, showed great resentment to his demotion to de facto blackness. In contrast, Sidney Bechet, who also grew up as Creole and spoke French in his household, identified as black. In his autobiography, Treat it Gentle, Bechet identifies himself and jazz music as being African. His myth of origin story about jazz differs from Mr. Marsalis' considerably in this regard. Bechet's myth has jazz, African music made American through the crucible of slavery, told in a remarkable romance that includes, slave owners, slaves, maroon communities, psycho-sexual expressions with respect to race, dismemberment and loss, disenfranchisement and other topics of historical and cultural significance.

Maybe his generally being overlooked as a pioneering early jazz soloist (honors universally awarded to Louis Armstrong) and the even more egregious oversight as [one of] the first great saxophonists in the tradition (honors that "properly belong to Coleman Hawkins) is related to his politics. How might our views of the music's meanings and aesthetics be different if Bechet's example was as canonical as those of Pops or Jelly Roll?


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