Speech for The Century Association’s Monthly Meeting of Members
December 2nd 2010
New York City
My great uncle was born in 1890. He was an artisan who cut the names and last statements of the deceased into their resting stones. I lived with him for the entirety of my 6th year and visited on many weekends. He taught me so many valuable lessons passed down from ‘old folks sometime long ago’ in stories, songs and folkways. My experiences with him saved me from falling into the generation gap. I return in my mind always to his shotgun house on Gov. Nicholls St. in New Orleans with its lack of hot water, 1930’s appliances, and big super-cooling house fan.
I can still hear the morning news radio with his personalized and pungent commentary on every story; can still smell his morning coffee, feel the hand mower he made me use to cut his lawn. ‘The War’ for him meant WW1, and all of the great technological achievements of the 20th century were ‘miracles.’ His fascination with these new things was tempered by a sense that there was still a lot to develop in the human condition. He loved to say things like, “We can put a man on the moon but can’t fix one block of asphalt.” He was not in any accepted sense of the word ‘cultured’. But my great uncle had a general sense of Americana that included everything from the Gettysburg Address to the Ballad of John Henry to stories of Marie Laveau the voodoo queen to countless Creole songs. Yes, he knew many things, but he never so much as mentioned Buddy Bolden and Jazz. You see, he was Creole and Creoles didn’t put too much stock in Buddy Bolden’s kind. And through that inbred underestimation, he missed or misunderstood the most significant thing to happen in New Orleans (besides the Robert Charles riots and the closing of Storyville) in his time. In a way, when I first realized this, I felt like the English bluesmen who came to America in the 1960’s and saw that many of us were completely ignorant of the blues, in large part due to a traditional undervaluing of our darker brothers and sisters. But my great uncle was an everyday working class man, and though he had a keen sense of what was going on in the world (at least it seemed from what he told the radio), he was not looking to be a crusader for peace or education, or looking to save the soul of the American people. He was living and being himself. And some kind of way, he clearly understood and could articulate that ‘who he was’ was in the stories he told and the songs he sung and in his humor. He would say,” that’s just the way I do it.” Well he died in 1982 and I wish he was alive today so I could tell him about Buddy Bolden and Jazz and what he missed… And he would’ve loved it, if the story was well told. He used to say, “I’m gon tell you this one with my own tongue” which meant absolutely no reading.
My uncle Alphonse, lived art with no pretensions to being any more sophisticated than the next stonecutter. He knew that art goes hand in hand with survival because ‘what people do’ becomes art. And the ceremonial practice of ‘what people do’ becomes essential to maintaining and enriching a way of life. We are always in a crisis and its always time for a renaissance.
When grown men and women debate and fail to find common ground on anything except the necessity for graft; when laws replace ethics and every law is for sale; when the educated abuse the uneducated at every turn; when the old no longer know their own young and all that is and was seems to have never been; when the volume becomes unbearable and we are detached from all rituals from birth to death to rituals of courtship to rituals of worship; when we lift our voices to sing after profound national tragedy and no collective song emerges; no hint of the fiddler’s reel of Davy Crockett or of the plaintive wail of a western ballad, or the deep moan of the Negro spiritual or the joyous jump of a swinging band; no tinge of Whitmanesque breadth, Faulknerian irony, Ellingtonian largeness of spirit. We are lost and have no idea how to be found. Like Europeans of the 14th century searching in vain for causes of the Black Death when it was crawling all around them, we look to everything but the source. It’s time to return to the center, to home. Home is about stripping down, being naked. For a people, that home is the collective memory, the stories and ways that make us who we are; the symbols that speak to our soul. When these stories and myths are no longer a part of the national consciousness, the national discussion—-people are in trouble. It’s time for Buddy Bolden. He taught us how to speak our mother tongue. He showed us it was alright to be yourself. His music was designed to respect and inspire other folks’ individuality and creativity even as it highlighted his own. And Buddy always told the truth when he opened up his horn:
“I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say, pick it up slow and take it away. I thought I heard him say. If Buddy tells you then you been told. Cause what he says don’t ever get old. His horn stays hot its never cold. Please Mr. Bolden play.”
They say that before Buddy Bolden played his famous cornet call. He would say, “It’s time to call my children home.”