Jazz great laments politics of New Orleans revival
NEW ORLEANS – Wynton Marsalis is an impatient man, so for the jazz trumpeter who’s become a global ambassador for New Orleans culture, the politics of reconstruction in his battered city are frustrating.
Through 7-1/2 months of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, issues like bloated reconstruction contracts and loose minimum wage requirements have only added to the frustration, Marsalis said in an interview on Monday.
“I didn’t expect it to be cleaned up in a few months. It’s a long-term project after a major natural disaster,” he said.
“But I don’t like the way the people have been treated — not being given information, not being put first and foremost on the agenda. All of the money that the country gave to the New Orleanians didn’t get to them.”
Marsalis, the most famous member of the city’s musical first family, is no stranger to the political machinations of the post-Katrina rebuilding process, having served on Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
The blue-ribbon panel issued sweeping recommendations for reviving the city after 80 percent of it was flooded. Preserving music and culture was a major part of the plan to fix the local economy and rebuild devastated neighborhoods.
Marsalis, 44, was in his hometown to launch a series of master classes, clinics and performances in his capacity as artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will perform the premiere of the tribute composition “Congo Square” in New Orleans on Sunday. Marsalis co-wrote it with Yacub Addy, leader of the African group Odadaa!
He said he is optimistic about an eventual New Orleans revival, but is bothered by government reconstruction work being subcontracted several times to firms that avoid paying minimum wages.
“That kind of stuff is underhanded to me — it allows contractors and subcontractors to make a pile of money off of the misfortunes of people,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that has become the American way.”
He equated the situation to such high-profile U.S. financial debacles as the junk bond and savings and loan scandals and the more recent collapse of Enron Corp.
At a U.S. Senate field hearing last week, Louisiana politicians sharply criticized contracting practices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, which are leading the temporary housing and rebuilding processes.
“It’s disheartening for the people in the country,” said Marsalis, who twice won Grammy Awards in jazz and classical music in the same year.
“But what’s heartening is the response that people had. That’s why I say our systems don’t reflect who we are. Our systems are letting us down. We need to revamp those systems.”
New Orleans, where jazz was born, has a population now of about 200,000 people, or less than half the pre-storm number. Some neighborhoods remain uninhabitable.
The city will emerge profoundly changed, and Marsalis is working to preserve its rich musical heritage. He said he wishes the city’s recovery was quicker.
“That’s one of my great shortcomings. I’m very impatient,” he said.
“Congo Square” pays tribute to the New Orleans gathering place where blacks in the early 1800s could sing, play drums and dance in their African traditions. The square is said to have been an incubator for much of American music, as European musical sensibilities were fused with African ones.
Marsalis said New Orleans’ importance to American cultural history is not well known throughout the country.
“There’s starting to be a certain consciousness that, ‘Hey we have something here, and instead of treating it like some unwanted step-child, let’s bring it into the family.’”
By Jeffrey Jones