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?