Why New Orleans Mattersby Tom Piazza
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Award-winning novelist and cultural critic writer Tom Piazza is a longtime resident of New Orleans, and a celebrator of the music and culture of that city. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, from a temporary outpost in Missouri, he began work immediately after the storm on this impassioned book-length essay on the storied past, imperiled present, and uncertain future of this great and most neglected of American cities. At its heart, it is a valentine to the people of New Orleans, and a plea on for their spiritual survival. "That spirit is in terrible jeopardy right now," he writes. "If it dies, something precious and profound will go out of the world forever. Maybe not entirely; maybe New Orleans people, black and white, will get together in exile every year and commemorate their holidays and their spirit, Mardi Gras and jazzfest, red beans on Monday and barbecue and beer at Vaughan's on Friday evening, maybe zydeco night at Rock n' bowl on Thursday, and keep it alive in exile as the descendents of the Israelites have kept their faith and their covenant alive. That is up to them. But in the near term, the place, the sacred ground, that gave birth to all that beautiful and deep spirit hangs in the balance."
In the tradition of Pete Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters, Peter Guralnick's Searching for Robert Johnson, and E. B. White's Here Is New York, Why New Orleans Matters is a gift from one of our most talented writers to the beloved and important city he calls home-and to a nation to whom that city's survival has been entrusted.
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Why New Orleans Matters
By Tom Piazza
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Tom Piazza
All right reserved.
Long before I visited New Orleans I would visit it in my imagination. I would strain to see it through the small windows of the photos in the books that I took out from the library when I was barely into my teens -- A Pictorial History of Jazz, Shining Trumpets, Jazzmen -- graying black-and-white pictures of men with musical instruments, seated for formal band portraits or playing on a bandstand somewhere, or even marching through the streets. The streets were lined with wooden frame houses, apparently unpainted, and little shops and bars whose roofs stretched out over the sidewalks and seemed to lean a little to one side, casting deep shadows, with names like Luthjen's, Big 25, Mama Lou's.
In the formal portraits the men were dressed in their band uniforms, looking proudly straight at the camera. They seemed to know that they were worth something. They often held their instruments with a little flair, at a certain angle, never as if an afterthought or an appendage, but somehow as the point of their presence there.
Often the photos were scratchy, the only copy of an image fixed near the beginning of the twentieth century -- but they contained such power. Today, of course, images are reproduced digitally ad infinitum, and we are drowning in them; they have in many ways lost their value, even become part of the problem -- a logjam, a glut of disconnected information. But these older images were powerful and unique, often showing fold marks or tears; they had been smuggled out of the past as if containing an important message that the past wanted us to know. Whoever had held onto them had wanted them to endure.
It was the same with the early recordings of New Orleans jazz. They sounded different from the other records I listened to in the sixties -- not the actual music, although that was different enough, but the sound quality. The sound was a primitive monaural, more contained, and often there was a sonic drizzle of scratchy surface noise through which the music reached out. You had to reach back to it, make an effort, to get its message, and that was part of the experience. It demanded an investment on your part; you had to, in a sense, complete the picture.
But once you had learned how to reach out and get the message, it got easier and more natural, and you began to want to spend more time over there, where the message was. The beauty and mystery and intelligence that waited for you, like an unknown continent to explore. The Louis Armstrong Hot Fives, Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band -- and, later, Fats Domino, and Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas and Dr. John, and so many others.
Music was my entry point into the world of the spirit that New Orleans embodies. But there are so many other possible entry points, too -- culinary, social, historical, literary, and architectural -- all of them connected. For years, because of what I heard in the music, I wanted to visit that place. Eventually, after many visits, I ended up moving there. Today I travel a lot, and when I tell people that I live in New Orleans their expression changes slightly; something in their facial muscles relaxes, something brightens in their eyes, and they smile.
When I finally did visit for the first time, almost twenty years ago, years before I moved there, I began to see that the music I loved was just one facet of a kind of unified field of culture, of being. You sensed it as soon as you entered the city. The air smelled different; it felt different, heavier, on your arms, more like a liquid than like air. After New York City, where I lived and which I also loved, with its sharp right angles and hard surfaces and fast tempo and endless pavement and soaring vertical walls, a giant video game of the mind at the expense of the body, New Orleans was like finding yourself in some electrically charged soup. People said hello when they passed you on the street, and after a few days you started saying hello back to them. The fragrant bushes were an endless olfactory ambush in the evenings -- sweet olive and ligustrum and Confederate jasmine. You could get stunningly great food even in tiny and sometimes dingy corner bars, as well as in an endless array of neighborhood restaurants, like Domilise's, or Mandina's, or Willie Mae's, or Uglesich's, often tucked back in a residential block somewhere, each of which seemed to have its own particular culinary groove going.
Then there was music, which could arrive anywhere, at any time. Your car would be held up at an intersection for no apparent reason, and you would be wondering what in God's name the problem might be, and then you would hear the trumpets off in the distance, then the rest of the horns, the tubas and the drums, amid the shouts and laughter of the celebrants as they passed (or the mourners, if it was a jazz funeral), and you would pull your car over and lock it and follow the parade for as long as it took you to remember that you were supposed to be someplace twenty minutes ago.
New Orleans wasn't something I was able to brush off lightly, and I went back every chance I got. I left New York in 1991 to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and when I was finished with Iowa I decided to move to New Orleans. It was cheaper than New York, and I wanted to be writing fiction rather than scrambling just to make rent money, and I had always wanted to live there anyway. I moved to New Orleans in 1994 and soon knew that it was home, for keeps, no matter where I might travel.
Excerpted from Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza Copyright © 2006 by Tom Piazza. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Tom Piazza is the author of the novels City of Refuge and My Cold War, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, the essay collection Devil Sent the Rain, and many other works. He was a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.
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You weren't there. This man was and I was 60 miles to the north. You weren't there.
This book was part of my summer reading. I disliked it completely, and wonder where his information even comes from. It is also short and not much of a read at all.
I found Tom Piazza's book Why New Orleans Matters to be a disappointing read. Reading it, I felt as if it was written in haste - written with the goal of being the first published post-Katrina book rather than a well thought out and stirring account of New Orleans' colorful past, devastated present and hopeful future. Key issues were either glazed over or slighted. I wanted to read about the issues and nuances that make this city worth resurrecting and not about the violent attacks and mismanagment during hurricane Katrina. The two angles are counter-productive.