New York Diarist: Strength in Swing

Posted on November 7th, 2005 in Profiles & Interviews | Tags: katrina, new orleans, the new republic

Immediately following the landing of Hurricane Katrina, I received hundreds of phone calls from all over the world. They offered sympathy and resources. I don’t get those phone calls now. The ones I receive now are rife with disgust at bureaucratic fumbling, with rage at an unspecified they who are in charge of everything from predicting which levees would break to choosing which people will return. They made it happen. They were responsible. In this case, they means Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, Secretary Chertoff, and President Bush. But this ongoing tragedy is of such magnitude that a they big enough to have had that much control has yet to be found. It is fruitless to demonize those who may be to blame, to pretend that, if the almighty they had only done their jobs, then this intolerable level of destruction would not have happened. In the case of New Orleans, it was also we who watched as money to fix the levees was removed from the federal budget, in spite of the warnings of dire consequences from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; we who ignored the local and national press, which predicted doomsday; we who settled for Category Three-worthy defenses to save us from a Category Four or Five attack; we who were complacent about New Orleans and about Washington.

As we look at what happened in the Crescent City, we are brought closer to this simple truth: The ingredients for social disaster are present in cities all over the United States. You see, we are too busy to worry about poverty, public education, homelessness, drug addiction, the arts, even the political process. “I’m too busy to follow what goes on in Congress.” “Don’t they have organizations for these types of things?” “I gave to them last year.” “Oh, I’m sure that they will take care of it.” I believe the United States will help to rebuild New Orleans, because New Orleans helped to build the United States; but the way we rebuild it can show the world that American greatness is more than stock markets and military might. I know that we are capable of building more than malls and theme parks, of acting like a community. I know this from the art of jazz.

Jazz came out of New Orleans in the 1910s, and defined an age in the 1920s, and became the pop music of America in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the rest of the country started to catch up to jazz’s old message of equality. Jazz has always been concerned with who we are as Americans, from the projects to the penthouses. Now, we are an impatient nation; we demand quick solutions. If we can’t fix the problem, then we fix the surface and move on. (Too busy to learn to sing? Then lip-synch it. No time for the gym? Get a plastic surgeon.) Many of us are ready for the Katrina story to be over, when it is just beginning. So, if we are to hold on to our best intentions, I suggest that we recover the wisdom in the jazz principle of swing.

Swing is a philosophy of steadfastness. It instructs us to maintain an equilibrium when external forces are conspiring to tear it apart. At the heart of swing, two extremely different instruments—the drum and the bass—must be played with absolutely the same intentions. The cymbal that is struck on every beat by the drummer is in the high register, and the bass notes, also articulated on every beat, are in the way low. In order to swing, these extremes must get together, and then they must stay together. If you think getting together is hard, then you probably know that staying together is practically impossible. Anyone can swing for a few measures—but swinging is a matter of endurance. It tests the limits of your ability to work with another person to create a mutual feeling.

That is what is required of the citizens of this country now: sustained engagement with the issues that have been raised by this tragedy. There are cultural issues (in the history of New Orleans lies much of the originality of American culture, but what investment is our nation making in the arts, in cultivating our understanding of who we are?); issues of government incompetence (every day we suffer listlessly some human slight at the hands of a bureaucratic machine that has lost touch with the people it was designed to serve); and the issue of race, perhaps the most explosive issue in American life. Class is a profound problem, of course, but race gives class a particular pungency in America. The race issue has always been used to polarize the lower classes. Many of the calls I receive from New Orleanians decry an increase in racism. Friends of mine from high school tell me that they have never seen such vitriol, and these are white comrades talking about their friends and family, not victims of the rap game. But New Orleans, for all its racial problems, used to represent, even poetically, the putting together of black and white identities. The city became famous for its combination of elegance (the French Opera House, fine clothes, masked balls, high-class architecture, and great food) and a free-spirited wildness (duels, prostitution, corrupt politics, gambling, vice, and fun). Elegance and abandon for the rich, and much more freedom for the poor. Slaves had the right to play their own music, and to sell their creations, and even to attend shows at the French Opera House. The combination of these seemingly opposed forces, when met with freedom, is what gives life much of its sweetness. (The blues is a sad song with a happy groove.) When stricter segregation laws defined Creoles as blacks, the quality of jazz was enhanced, because Creole and black musicians were forced to acknowledge each other’s skills.

Now, through the displacement of 300,000 families, we are forced as a nation literally to come closer and deal with one another in an unprecedented way. The development of jazz showed what Americans can do when we come together. There is no greatness without discomfort. Will we now recognize that we are on this land together? Have we given up on the proposition that every generation of Americans will improve on the glories of the one before? Why are systems now failing to help the people they should help? We must not acquiesce in incompetence or bigotry or greed. In New Orleans, we have real big roaches, and we have a saying: “When you turn the lights on, the roaches scatter.” We must keep the lights on.

by Wynton Marsalis
Source: The New Republic