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It took a Category 5 hurricane to do it, but Katrina managed to blow jazz back onto the American radar screen. Those TV montages of physical devastation and desperate souls were accompanied by strains of New Orleans jazz, those benefit concerts filled with saxes and trumpets; the reporters arriving to cover it all flew into Louis Armstrong Airport. Save for the media-friendly efforts of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and PBS poster boy Ken Burns, jazz rarely gets such play.

Much as we Americans like to pay lip service to jazz as "our national music," with the Crescent City its seminal home, we tend to favor jazz's quality as aural decoration over its contents as oral history; we stock up on classic reissues of past masters but rarely consider the music's meaning in our current lives.

The many high-profile jazz-based Katrina benefits—including a five-hour Lincoln Center affair hosted by Marsalis, with Burns among its stars—brought more than just jazz's sound into our lives. Placed in stark relief was whether jazz—which Burns' 19-hour PBS series famously cast as a signal of American values and virtues on the order of the Constitution—still carries currency when it comes to the issues Katrina raised: cultural identity, race, poverty, and basic decency.

Jazz has always had a complex role in our national image: Louis Armstrong caused a stir in 1957 when he rebuffed President Eisenhower and canceled a U.S. State Department tour to the Soviet Union because of riots in Little Rock, Ark., over school integration. "The way they are treating my people in the South," Armstrong told newspaper reporters, "the government can go to hell." Armstrong's very words were on the lips of quite a few Americans (and not just Kanye West), especially African-Americans in New Orleans' Ninth Ward—not too far from Armstrong's birthplace—where the worst of the devastation occurred when the Industrial Canal levee was breached.

The jazz community has now been freshly sparked into practical activity, raising money and manpower, but also into deeper consciousness-raising regarding the truths dredged up in Katrina's wake and the potential for irretrievable cultural loss. Political activism among jazz's ranks—think Charles Mingus' 1959 "Fables of Faubus" (denouncing racist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus), or Max Roach's 1960 "Freedom Now! Suite"—has been largely in response to racial injustice, but it also has concerned the tough moral and metaphorical questions about American identity—and it is more acutely focused than in decades.

Through both his trumpet and his role as artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis, our most recognizable living jazz musician, has spoken loudly and repeatedly about New Orleans' (his hometown) role in establishing (and fixing) the American identity. These statements have often been taken as mere bromides: Jazz as a civics lesson about democracy in action; the blues as source material for all things American. But Marsalis' themes took on newfound resonance in his nuanced essay for Time magazine.

"We should not allow the mythic significance of this moment to pass without proper consideration," he wrote. "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." In an interview with BBC-TV, Marsalis went further, describing the black faces on CNN looking for lost mothers and fathers as calling up a historical memory of Southern slave families torn apart.

And at Marsalis' "Higher Ground" benefit, the tone was more pointedly political than is customary at Lincoln Center. "When the hurricane struck, it did not turn the region into a third-world country," actor Danny Glover said from the stage. "It revealed one." Singer Harry Belafonte, at his side, declared, "Katrina was not unforeseeable. It was the result of a political structure that subcontracts its responsibility to private contractors and abdicates its responsibility altogether."

"This is how I feel about my country," Jon Hendricks announced before singing a bossa nova with the refrain "Somebody tell me the truth."

New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield played the hymn "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" at that benefit in dedication to his father, who, he said, "is still missing down there." Mayfield has yet to locate his father. At home, he leads several bands, including the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Two years ago he was appointed cultural ambassador for the city, a position that involves working closely with Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

"I'll tell you, in terms of the response to this hurricane, the local government gets a big F," he said. "The federal government gets an F. The country gets a big fat F. When the levee was breached the culture was breached, and not that many people seemed to care."

Mayfield is incensed too at mainstream coverage of the storm's aftermath. "Looters? Anyone who grew up in New Orleans like I did knows that drugs run rampant here. How are you going to relocate those folks? Who do you think was shooting at planes?"

Another New Orleans-bred trumpeter, Terence Blanchard, found success in New York in the 1990s but eventually returned to the Crescent City. His Garden District home is intact, he says, but he and his family have temporarily relocated to Los Angeles. Blanchard was watching C-SPAN's coverage of former FEMA director Michael Brown's testimony when he spoke to me over the phone from Los Angeles. "It's insulting," he said, "that someone can have such a lack of compassion for a situation and try to explain it away in such an arrogant manner and expect me not to know the difference—expect me not to understand the political game that's going on. It's too early to process all this right now, but I think you'll see in coming years that jazz musicians will create works that will speak directly to what's gone on here."

It's not only New Orleans natives and African-American musicians who are speaking up. Bassist Charlie Haden's politics often spill into his art. I caught up with Haden at New York's Blue Note, where he was fronting his Liberation Music Orchestra, an ensemble he convenes whenever a Republican president is in office; the group's new CD, "Not in Our Name," features a minor-key rendition of "America the Beautiful."

"I guess it took something like this hurricane to blow the mask off the Bush administration," said Haden, "and to fully expose its cruelty and ugliness and cynical indifference. Playing with this group is my way of demonstrating, and expressing things a lot of us are thinking and feeling through music. And this sort of expression is suddenly, sadly, more appropriate than it has been in decades."

Nor is it just the lack of prompt and caring response to Katrina that the jazz community is concerned with, but the future of the wellspring of their art form. Musicians and supporters worry that reconstruction plans will amount to a whitewash or Disney-fication of one of the seats of African-American culture. More than one jazz musician spoke to me of his outrage and disgust when House Speaker Dennis Hastert questioned the logic of rebuilding New Orleans, saying, "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed." We now know that New Orleans will be rebuilt: But what will be saved and what will be bulldozed? And who will make those calls?

"See, what Bush wants," said poet Amiri Baraka, after performing at a free jazz benefit in Manhattan's Lower East Side, "is to make New Orleans like his mother—shriveled and colorless."

"Are we going to rebuild the Ninth Ward?" asked singer Cassandra Wilson backstage at a Central Park benefit, after performing with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. "That's the question in the new battle for New Orleans, which is just beginning to take shape."

"A battle is afoot, no doubt," said Ned Sublette, a scholar and musicologist who spent last year at Tulane as a Rockefeller fellow researching New Orleans' cultural roots. "And if the plans for the future of the city don't include its humblest residents, I fear that the communities that created jazz in the first place will be dispersed—and the country will have lost a good bit of its soul. These communities—the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, the various Carnival organizations, the Mardi Gras Indians—have been developing continuously in one place for 300 years. Already there's a growing diaspora—to Lafayette and Baton Rouge, La., to Houston, even to Utah. We're not just watching history disappear; history is watching us disappear."

Jazz has been declared dead many times in the past few decades: It wasn't and isn't. Even out of commercial culture's spotlight, the music thrives—and mostly in places far from New Orleans, like New York. But we'd best take care in rebuilding New Orleans and in righting Bush's wrongs in general lest we cut out jazz's heart, along with a chunk of our own. The musicians know that. They're speaking up loudly. Will we put down our iPods filled with vintage reissue jazz long enough to listen?

Originally published on October 12, 2005, in Salon.com where an online version remains. Copyright © 2005 Salon Media Group, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


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