Yes, Now We Know Exactly What It Means to Miss New Orleans

Larry Blumenfeld
·11-min read
Jack Vartoogian
Jack Vartoogian

Pianist Allen Toussaint was already holed up in New York City on September 21, 2005—driven from New Orleans by the flood resulting from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina—when he sat down at the piano of Manhattan’s Avatar Studios to record “Yes We Can Can.”

Toussaint—the composer, arranger, and producer of hits spanning generations and genres, who died in 2015—wrote that song in 1970 for singer Lee Dorsey, as a message of hope and a call for communal action to heal societal ills. (The Pointer Sisters scored big with it a few years later). He had never recorded it himself, a fact he wasn’t likely thinking about. Just then, he simply wanted to return home, and to help his hometown heal.

The version Toussaint sang and played that day in 2005, tender and yet with a funky urgency, became the opening track of Our New Orleans, a lovingly if hastily assembled collection of then-new tracks from celebrated Crescent City musicians such as Dr. John and Irma Thomas, and lesser-known local heroes like pianists Eddie Bo and Davell Crawford. At the time of the album’s original release, in December of that year, little expressed the meaning and resonance of New Orleans musical traditions in the wake of devastation as completely as these recordings, recorded in studios in four cities by musicians mostly still in forced exile while their city was in ruins, its celebrated culture in unprecedented peril.

The night before Toussaint and Thomas arrived at Avatar for their recordings, both had performed at Madison Square Garden at “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy,” a pair of simultaneous benefit concerts for New Orleans (the other was at Radio City Music Hall). Our New Orleans was a fundraiser, too: According to David Bither, now president of Nonesuch Records, the label’s parent company—Warner Records, part of the Warner Music Group—donated all production costs; aside from the musicians, most participants also donated their services. Nearly all the proceeds—more than $1.5 million so far—went to Musicians’ Village, developed by New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, initially to build new homes, and later for the establishment in 2011 of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, named for the late pianist and educator, who was the patriarch of one of the city’s many storied musical families.

My attention was drawn back to this album by the January 29 release of a remastered and expanded double-LP edition (the first vinyl iteration), the last side of which contains five previously unreleased tracks. Now, in addition to the original album’s spare, sincere version of “Do You Know What It Means (to Miss New Orleans)”—performed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose famous dusty venue was then vacant and dark, and sung with disarming directness by trumpeter John Brunious—we get two more. One is an achingly tender and deeply bluesy solo rendition played and sung by pianist Davell Crawford. Another is lush, played by a 14-piece jazz orchestra in a sweet and smart arrangement by the late Wardell Quezergue, who New Orleans musicians called “the Creole Beethoven.” Here, as a new final coda, the song arrives as an instrumental, the longing of its lyric no less genuine as voiced wordlessly by the alto saxophone of Donald Harrison, as clear a modern jazz master as New Orleans has produced.

Another instrumental among the new tracks, “Crescent City Serenade,” was composed by clarinetist Michael White as the title track of a 1991 album, where it sounds like a wistful reverie. Here, as recorded on October 15, 2005, in Houston, where White lived for a time in an evacuation center, having lost not just his home but a veritable New Orleans jazz-history museum (transcriptions of music from Jelly Roll Morton and other jazz pioneers; vintage clarinets; banjo strings and reeds tossed off by early 20th-century musical heroes), the tune gets slowed down. White’s notes, now bent more severely into something like pleas, signal “a feeling I couldn’t yet express in words,” he told me.

The music of Our New Orleans, born of estrangement and anxiety, arrives again at a fresh and unexpected moment of displacement, alienation, and longing—a moment when such sentiments are no longer tied to just one place. These songs, which spoke so eloquently about pain, loss and uncertainty in 2005, are now not just remastered but framed anew by unexpected and shared circumstance. Nearly a year into a pandemic whose death toll approaches a half-million, as we still struggle to make sense of political and social turbulence that has yet to find resolution, while we cling to a vaccine’s promise but still wear masks and maintain social distance, we are all searching to express feelings we still can’t adequately express in words.

We are all estranged, including from the music and culture that typically binds us. At the same time, the music of the Crescent City, and of pretty much everywhere else, is newly imperiled by a pandemic that has darkened clubs and concert halls (and in New Orleans, driven brass bands from the streets) with no immediate end in sight. Ellis Marsalis, whose name adorns that Upper Ninth Ward music center, died in April, at 85, from complications of COVID-19.

In 2006, six months after the flood, I was at Donna’s, a now-defunct club on the northern fringe of the French Quarter. Shannon Powell sat at his drum kit, welcoming trumpeters and trombonists, singers and saxophonists to the stage for one traditional tune after another. Most of these musicians had driven in from evacuation centers or temporary homes in, say, Atlanta or Houston. They had to play together. Weeks later, I was among the hundreds following the Hot 8 Brass Band past carcasses of former homes during a second-line parade, a tradition at least a century old, derived from jazz funeral processions. It felt like—it was—both a necessary group embrace and a protest march declaring a right to return. In desolate streets, moving together in rhythm, I grasped their feeling of fullness and sense of purpose.

Throughout my career as a culture reporter and jazz critic, disorienting moments of crisis have been clarified—even answered—through rituals of music, shared in real time, in physical spaces either buzzing with energy or near-sacred for their calm. Those experiences and the music itself have answered urgent needs, calmed frayed nerves, voiced outrage, summoned spirits, and leaned into hope. Until now. Our New Orleans is a reminder of what must be shared as well as, just now, what can’t be shared—at least not directly or correctly.

It’s also a reminder of the ways in which political leadership or absence thereof exacerbates and even causes calamity and suffering. The lyrics of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” here performed with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, describe the callousness and insensitivity of the Coolidge administration. Yet the line “they’re trying to wash us away,” took on new meaning in 2005, after then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert said in a widely publicized interview, “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed,” and, later, when details grew clearer that the levee breaches were more the result of willful neglect on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers than simply a natural disaster.

In a “Letter to New Orleans” included in the liner notes to this reissue (and originally published via the Nonesuch label’s online journal), Robert Hurwitz, now the label’s chairman emeritus, recalled coming to New Orleans to present a check for $1 million to Habitat for Humanity on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. “We found President Bush preceding or following us at every turn,” Hurwitz wrote. “It provided the perfect photo op for the President to face the TV cameras and have his picture taken. But the success of the Musicians’ Village has nothing to do with the efforts of George W. Bush, FEMA, or anyone in the federal government.”

As we muddle through another so-called natural disaster brought to unnatural dimension by another president more interested in publicity than policy, such cynicism resonates as much as the music. And our hopes turn to a yet different leader, one who served for eight years under Barack Obama, whose slogan, “Yes We Can,” was just one beat away (a crucial one, the composer likely would have said) from Allen Toussaint’s declaration that opens Our New Orleans. (And still, we may wonder from our socially distant bunkers, can we?)

In another liner note from the original album, historian and radio host Nick Spitzer recalls Toussaint telling him, in 2005, “My Steinway, my records, my arrangements, my studio—it’s all gone. I had eight feet of water in my house near Bayou St. John. But the spirit didn’t drown. I still have my music. Give me a hammer. I’m ready to do my part.” Joe Henry, who produced that track and others here, recalls scrambling to get the tape rolling when Toussaint sat down at the piano and, unplanned, turned the rollicking “Tipitina,” a classic of New Orleans pianism written by Professor Longhair, into something stately, meditative, downcast, but no less swinging. “More than the music, I remember standing next to my friend at an important moment, a traumatic moment,” Henry told me, “and thinking Allen had something he needed to say through music, and I was there just to help get the job done of getting that heard.”

This music brings that moment, that need for connection, back. It also reminds us: Musicians everywhere are now cut off from their audiences. They need to get heard. How can we help them? “The worst episode of my life began in 2005,” Michael White told me. “Yet as tragic and traumatic as all that was, this pandemic is of a different dimension. It is everywhere. It is inescapable. And we don’t know when it ends.” White lost one home back then. Now, he has lost another—his home on stages, performing for audiences.

It was chilling in 2005 on this album to hear Dr. John sing, in his singular drawl, the lyric to a song he and Doc Pomus wrote decades ago (and a line almost certainly appropriated from an A. E. Housman poem): “I’m a stranger and afraid.” Estranged as we’ve been for nearly a year now, Dr. John no longer with us, it is chilling in a different way.

It’s Mardi Gras, a time for conspicuous revelry, parades, floats, marching bands and those gorgeous feathered-and-beaded Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs and their corps, bearers of a Black culture known as “masking” that is perhaps the least well understood and most essential of indigenous New Orleans traditions. (The irrepressible rhythms and declarative chants of which get represented on “Our New Orleans” by one track from Big Chief Bo Dollis and his Wild Magnolias.)

This year, there are no parades. New Orleans bars are closed on Fat Tuesday. Some residents have turned their homes into stationary versions of the festive floats that should be rolling down avenues amid marching bands and bead-throwing. On Feb. 9, the city’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, stood at a podium in front of City Hall; behind her were seven Big Chiefs in street clothes, masking now the way we all do. The mayor asked them to “trade one mask for another,” and to sit out their ritual of moving throughout the city and enacting a tradition that lies somewhere between war game and communal festival.

Not even a flood’s devastation stopped the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in Spring 2006. Yet the pandemic forced its cancellation last year and its postponement, to October, this year. The festival’s nonprofit foundation created a Music Relief Fund in 2020 which, to date, has distributed more than $1 million to musicians across Louisiana. To continue raising awareness and funds, the foundation created a short online film. At its start, Troy Andrews—better known as Trombone Shorty, born and raised in the storied Tremé neighborhood and one of his hometown’s most successful and endearing musical ambassadors—raises his horn and begins to blow from a rooftop, with no listeners in sight. For me, the moment recalled Troy and his older brother, trumpeter James Andrews, performing in a darkened Jackson Square seventeen days after the 2005 flood, under klieg lights for an NBC broadcast. (“I blew my horn and it bounced right back to me,” he told me then. “The city was empty.”)

His city—our cities—aren’t empty now. They’re just pretty much shut down. There’s a social media campaign attached to the Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s new outreach efforts, asking for posts in response to the question, “Have you ever been saved by a song?” Our answer is and will be, yes.

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