- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2005

Popular music in New Orleans was born out of intense suffering. Nineteenth-century slaves gathered downtown on Sundays, their one free day of each week, in a place they called Congo Square, to perform and delight in each other’s music. There, the slaves danced and chanted to polyrhythmic drumbeats and complex string arrangements of their own design.Merging improvisation and innovation with musical traditions, the slaves remade African music in America and perhaps, if only for a fleeting few moments, forgot their desperate plight.

Indeed, out of such hopelessness, the slaves of New Orleans fashioned a joyful noise — a sound that led directly to the birth of jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.

After the end of slavery, New Orleans remained a brutally segregated city. While Buddy Bolden pioneered jazz in 1895 at Storyville, and his followers Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong in the 1920s reinvented and popularized the music with their stunning virtuosity, “white’s only” Dixieland bands took much of the credit for “inventing” jazz.

From the late 1940s until he died in 1980, piano wizard Professor Longhair provided the template for rhythm and blues that Fats Domino, James Booker, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, the Meters and the Neville Brothers took to dizzying, funky heights. During many of those years, Professor Longhair was forced to sweep up at a local record store for spare change to make ends meet.

Amid festering racial tensions, Little Richard recorded his seminal early rock ‘n’ roll hits in New Orleans in 1955 — such numbers as “Tutti Fruitti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Born in New Orleans in 1911, Mahalia Jackson, a daughter of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, introduced the world to sublime gospel music infused with soul. When Miss Jackson died in 1972, she was known as the greatest gospel singer ever to live.

Today, standing in tribute to the accomplishments of the tightly knit New Orleans musical community, the area formerly known as Congo Square is called Louis Armstrong Park. It is a memorial to the artists who transformed the New Orleans sound and exported it throughout the world.

Handsome and dignified, Armstrong Park is not far off Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. Like much of the current cityscape, it now lies submerged beneath poisonous waters, loaded with Hurricane Katrina’s disease, death and decay.

But grim as events of the past two weeks are, New Orleans’ rich as roux musical tradition is refusing to be drowned by the massive loss of life, property and community. The music simply refuses to be lost in the flood.

As in the great New Orleans tradition of the jazz funeral, where mourners slowly march to the dirge-like sounds of a brass band, bury their dead and then boogie back home in raucous celebration of the life of their dearly departed, so, too, the musicians of the city will rebuild and provide much-needed inspiration for the reknitting of a broken and scattered community.

Already there are signs of New Orleans musical life. WWOZ (90.7 FM), the famed listener-supported New Orleans radio station and musical heartbeat of the city, is broadcasting over the Internet “in exile,” on their Web site, www.wwoz.org. The station has also set up a list of “New Orleans musicians who are safe,” which brings the good news that a great many who make up the New Orleans musical community are, indeed, alive.

And what a list of life it is: Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville brothers, the Funky Meters, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Eddie Bo, Snooks Eaglin, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, the Marsalis family and the Radiators, to name just a few. Some, like Mr. Domino, almost perished as their homes were washed away.

The WWOZ site also confirms that the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, which has provided medical services to needy musicians, is back up and running in Lafayette, La., and that housing assistance and fundraising efforts are under way.

Nonetheless, in the last two weeks New Orleans has seen little but sadness heaped upon sadness. It is hard to imagine that there will be music streaming forth from the Crescent City again anytime soon. It may not be possible to rebuild New Orleans the way it was, or even at all. But if the musicians of New Orleans have anything to say about it, and they will, bets are that a joyful noise will ultimately cut right through the muck.

New Orleans musicians have been a source of great civic pride and entertainment for the city and the world. The city is the New Orleans musicians’ muse, the place where they could perform in historic clubs any night of the week. Without the city, the rich musical traditions that first coalesced in Congo Square are in jeopardy of disappearing forever. Let’s hope that one day the indomitable citizens of New Orleans and their musical community can return and start parading once again through dry streets.

H. Andrew Schwartz is a contributing editor to OffBeat,New Orleans’ music magazine, and is a graduate of Tulane University.

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