During a brief period of four years, two events took place that could define how world history will view America during the early part of the 21st century. The first was 9/11 and the other, Hurricane Katrina. But perhaps most surprising from a global point of view, was how powerless America appeared to be in helping its own citizens who were left destitute during the aftermath of Katrina.
How could the United States, the nation who has been there to support others globally in a time of need, appear so uncaring and insensitive towards its very own people? The question, "What has happened to America?" rang out throughout the world during those dark hours and continues to echo as a new president and administration come into office.
Perhaps one of the most empathetic and compassionate memoirs in reverence to the people of New Orleans came from the brilliant composer and trumpeter, Terence Blanchard. His recording, A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007), speaks loudly, though without words, reflecting the pain and frustration of people that were forgotten during their greatest time of need.
All About Jazz spoke to Blanchard with interviews that took place on Nov. 30 and Dec. 7 of 2007. Though it has now been a little over a year since the interviews took place, the importance and weight of these words still resonate more today than ever before.
All About Jazz: Is the pain and passion in the recording, "A Tale of God's Will" (Requiem for Katrina) for the people of New Orleans?
Terrence Blanchard: It's a passion for the people of New Orleans and it's a cry of frustration for all our hopes and dreams. It's a sense that we have had enough and we are not going to take it anymore. What else can happen? We have been embarrassed as a nation and I could go on and on and on.
AAJ: There also seems to be a telling peacefulness with a suggested common understanding that we do understand, that we still have each other, in a certain gospel sense.
TB: Well, that's exactly it, that's exactly it. Because at the end of the day, when people ask me why it's called A Tale of God's Will, I say look: when we all came back to New Orleans for the first time and saw the level of devastation, our hearts were broken. We all asked ourselves how this could have happened. Why did this have to happen and who is responsible? You end up going through the whole scenario and you don't get answers to most of the questions. And the only thing you can rest with is your faith and a sense of family because here is the deal about Katrina: Katrina didn't give a shit about how much money you made or who you were. We were all put into the same boat in a matter of hours, all of us.
There was an amazing moment during the Higher Ground benefit that took place at the Lincoln Center (Jazz at Lincoln Center's Higher ground Hurricane Relief benefit, Sept. 17, 2007, an all-star jazz event). There were all these musicians from New Orleans who were performing, but very few heard any of the night's performances. And that's because we were all backstage wondering how we and our families were doing. Where are you living now? Are you going back? And that was the mantra that was heard and we only went to the stage when it was time for us to play. So the sense of community in what you are talking about had already begun.
AAJ: One of the most touching moments in Spike Lee's movie, "When the Levee's Broke" was when you walked with your mother as she went back into her home for the first time after Katrina. I hope so much that she is doing OK.
TB: Thanks for asking. She is back in her house and doing fine. But it was a hard scene to do, it was real life and it was difficult to walk through that. When you get to the point of having to take care of your parents, you become your parents so to speak and you don't want to allow anything to hurt them. So it was really rough being in that situation.
AAJ: On Oct. 12, 2007, it was reported that of the $1.1 billion that was needed in order to start rebuilding New Orleans, only $216 million was available. That was after two years and is less than what is spent in Iraq in one day.
TB: Of course, and that's a large part of the frustration that we have. There is an arrogance that the average American person is stupid and cannot decipher what is going on. That we are lacking in intelligence and cannot comprehend. It's like the "emperor has no clothes" kind of thing. I mean, do you really think that we cannot put two and two together? We are spending over $900 billion in Iraq and you can't even give a fraction of that to build the infrastructure of this city?
AAJ: The aftermath of Katrina is one of the most embarrassing moments in our history and again continues to reflect how we treat African-Americans in this country.
TB: I don't mean to cut you off but let me tell you a story. I recently went to South Africa for the second time. The first was in Johannesburg and the second was in Cape Town. And while I was in Cape Town, I ran into a guy that I originally met in Johannesburg. His name is Benji and Benji is a big jazz fan. As he was walking with his wife, I said, "How are you doing Benji?" And he said, "Man, life is great! I flew on the plane to come to Cape Town. I'm here with my wife and I'm walking around going to the jazz festival and talking to all these jazz musicians."
And while he is talking to me, I'm noticing all his joy and happiness so I said to him, "Benji, with everything you guys have gone through how can you be this happy?" He then explained that when he was a little kid, he would run to a park but his father would grab him and tell him that he could not go to this park and that would make him cry. They would also smuggle in jazz magazines because they couldn't get the CDs and would read the reviews to try and imagine what the music sounded like. He would also look at the sky and watch the planes fly overhead and always wondered what it was like to fly and that's why he was so excited about flying on this plane. So I asked him where his joy came from, and do you know what he said to me? He said, "It comes from our leader, Mandela. He told the entire country that though what we went through was horrible and unthinkable, we must get over it because we have to move on."
That rings so hard because I am saying to myself: this is a great example of what leadership can do for a country. And that had nothing to do with signing a check, nothing to do with bureaucracy and it had nothing to do with getting something passed through Congress. It was a mere attitude that was displayed at the top and had a trickle affect all the way down.
AAJ: I want to read you this quote. "So many of the people here in the Astrodome, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." That's from Barbara Bush. What went through your mind when you first heard that while knowing that the people in the Astrodome had not received food, water or medical attention for five days?
TB: Al Sharpton made a very astute comment and observation on that. This is the president's mother making those comments and that's the mindset that she still has even after her husband has left public life. This is not before he is in public office. This is years after and she still thinks and talks that way. And it's the type of arrogance that we are still dealing with in this country and that's why we had the situation we had after Katrina.
There wasn't any medical attention, water, or food, but during the fires in San Diego (October 2007), they were handing out suntan lotion. That contrast is stark and unforgiving. In my mind, forget about politics because the country knew it was a life-and-death issue but amazingly, not our United States leadership. And when I talk about leadership, I'm not only talking about the president. I'm also talking about the mayor, and the governor and everybody else down the line. And the political leaders who talk about "In God We Trust." They too will meet their maker one day.
AAJ: There are those that are unsympathetic toward the victims of Katrina because their perception is that people should have left when they were warned in advance. But they obviously don't realize the level of poverty in the south and this is in our own country. As an example, there are over 100,000 people in New Orleans that don't own their own vehicles. I just don't think that most people have any idea and the film "When the Levees Broke" helped bring this to life.
TB: Well that's the thing about Katrina that woke everybody up. It's like: OK, now our little secret is out in the open. When people visit New Orleans they visit the French Quarter, they go uptown and though we still have crime in those areas, for the most part it's like every other city in America. But in the film, the cameras were focused in many different portions of the city and you couldn't hide the poverty anymore.
AAJ: Most American citizens don't realize that because the people of New Orleans could not get help from our own federal government, community leaders such as Harry Belafonte tried to acquire help from the leaders of other countries, such as in South America. I'm not even sure that a person who is not African-American could possibly understand the pain and frustration that must be associated with that.
TB: When Harry Belafonte took that step, the media machine went into action. Consequently, one of the things that is really doing a disservice to our country is how we spin the media. When (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez wanted to send people and equipment to New Orleans to help, there are those that wanted to make it a political issue. Now at that particular point in time, I didn't really give a damn about Chavez's political motives. Do you know what I mean? I could care less because the (U.S.) wasn't helping, so somebody needed to.