My Darlin' New Orleans 

A prayer for the incomparable city of New Orleans.

"Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" So asked Louis Armstrong long ago, and it seems we may all find out. It's looking more and more like the city won't be back to anything close to normal for several years at the very least, and God forbid, it could be lost forever. Sadly, at this writing, the loveliest and most musical of American cities looks like a lawless, toxic, snake-and-fire-ant-ridden southern extension of Lake Pontchartrain, Mad Max meets Escape from New York meets Waterworld.

Long ago, in his biography of seminal jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton, my great-uncle Alan Lomax equated the city's contribution to American music with Florence's involvement in the arts of the Renaissance. But it was another city in Italy that seems closer to the mark now. "We've lost our city," said Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans. "I fear it's potentially like Pompeii."

Apocalyptic words indeed. If so, what a ride it had. New Orleans has always had a doom-laden existence -- in the old days, the city was decimated by frequent malaria, cholera, and yellow fever outbreaks, and the violent-crime rate has always been staggering. Then, the environmental perils: gator-infested swamps on one side, the mightiest of American rivers sweeping past on another, a huge lake literally looming overhead, a frequently storm-tossed gulf lapping at its toes. As the English physician Henry Bradshaw Fearon wrote in 1818, "Yet to all men whose desire only is to live a short life but a merry one, I have no hesitation in recommending New Orleans."

And from the time Buddy Bolden blasted Dixieland jazz into existence out of his golden horn right through to the late Soulja Slim's suicidally boastful raps, the city's musicians have always played as if each day was the city's last. "Seize the day" came through with every salacious sax solo, red-hot piano run, funky-ass bass riff, and above all else, the percolating, funky-butt second-line rhythms. (What's more, all too many of the musicians lived short, merry lives offstage as well. You could fill whole mixtapes with fifty-year-old New Orleans songs about heroin -- or "hair-on," as it is often pronounced there -- alone, and you could stock several amazing bands solely with former and current inmates at Angola Prison Farm.)

New Orleans was and is the nexus, the vortex where African, Spanish, French, German, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Italian, and Caribbean sounds blended into the first truly American music -- blues and jazz. Later, funk would arise from the drumming in the city's many parades, which itself echoed the drums once pounded in Congo Square by slaves' hands. Congo Square was unique in America -- the only place where slaves were allowed to play their drums, and you could hear that unbroken line back to Africa in most of the city's music even today.

My first trip to New Orleans affected me deeply for life, musically and otherwise. My dad and stepmother brought me along to the New Orleans Jazz Fest in about 1977, and the city truly bewitched me. The banana trees; the vines scrambling all over the gabled, ornate little shotgun shacks and grand Victorian mansions; the antiquated streetcars; the wrought-iron decorations in the French Quarter; the Cities of the Dead-style cemeteries; the weird Greek mythology and French Catholic street names; the stories of pirates and the overwhelming voodoo vibe; flaming, liquor-soaked bananas for dessert; the automated bare legs swinging back and forth out of that strip club on Bourbon Street ... and the people here danced in the streets when their loved ones died!

All of this fried my little brain, as did "The Blues Cruise," wherein I got to see BB King, Roosevelt Sykes, and Muddy Waters perform a night concert on a huge ship on the Mississippi. In later years, among many other shows I would see the Neville Brothers at the 1984 World's Fair, and bluesy funkster Walter "Wolfman" Washington at Benny's Lounge on Valence Street deep in the Uptown ghetto -- so shady was that hood, the cabbie insisted on dropping me and my buddy off right at the door. That show started about two in the morning and lasted until five or six.

My last trip to New Orleans was in 1998. Just as we entered the city's radio orbit, I tuned into WWOZ and heard the following message, which must have sounded like spy-vs.-spy code to those ignorant of New Orleans music's arcane slang: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have terrible news: The Tan Canary has flew home." (Translation: The incomparable soul singer Johnny Adams had died.)

A couple of days later, we joined four thousand others at the jazz funeral in the now-drowned Mid-City neighborhood with a who's who of Crescent City music luminaries: Allen Toussaint, Marva Wright, the Neville Brothers, George Porter, and many others. Dr. John was also there, resplendent in white suit and hat and mahogany cane. "Ooh, Mac, you look shahp as a tack," said a Creole drum majorette in that Yankee-style accent they have down there; she herself was no slouch in her beribboned derby hat and gold lamé vest. Legendary R&B fixture Ernie K-Doe, visibly drunk even at that early hour, rolled up with his wife in their gaudily painted van, not to be outdone by anybody: They wore matching black-and-gold tuxedos, each topped with gold-glitter and sequined headdresses.

The Olympia Brass Band played the funeral march, which was a mess. TV crews kept getting underfoot -- in fact, one tall, muscular trumpet player yelled he was gonna put his foot up a cameraman's ass if they didn't get out of the way. To the strains of a death march, we made it only about half a block toward the cemetery before a sudden, angry September storm blew in off the gulf, and we all scattered.

I never once left that city without profound regret.

New Orleans is -- I'm steadfastly sticking to present tense here -- where food and music, sex and death, African and European, and beauty and danger all fuse, truly one of the world's great cities. Let's do whatever it takes to keep it alive for another 287 years.


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