We walk to Preservation Hall to see a jazz performance. There are seven musicians: a trombone player, a trumpet player, a clarinet player, a saxophone player, a pianist, a cellist, and a drummer. They start off with an improvisation, called “Canal Street Blues.” Throughout the song, each musician has his or her own solo. The trumpet player blares out the melody, leading the band. The clarinet player belts out shrill notes, tinkering with the soprano voice. The saxophone produces a deep, rich sound, etching the tune into my memory with its resonance. The drummer booms the beat so loudly that I hear my insides vibrate. The pianist plays a little tune full of accidental notes and chromaticism. Each instrument is so distinct, but the musicians’ improvisations are also somehow so in sync with each other that when they play together, the instruments sound beautifully cohesive.
I think of Buddy Bolden and his band in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, a poignant story about a jazz musician struggling with psychosis. For Bolden, jazz has shaped his life. Syncopation allows him to create dissonance and unease. Improvisation gives him the freedom to explore untravelled paths. Playing with five different musicians, each on a different instrument, encourages both individuality and a sense of community. There’s a similar sort of mentality here, where I can take a stroll by myself in the French Quarter and find myself in conversations with strangers or trailing behind a marching band with a beaded Mardi Gras necklace around my neck.
Music here in New Orleans doesn’t have a definite beginning or ending. If you walk through the streets of the French Quarter, performers take turns playing their violins or electric guitars or cellos, as if each telling part of an unfinished story. Every passerby tunes into a different part of the song, depending on when they stop by. One part of the song might be more sad, while another might be more hopeful. The city’s fabric of history, similarly, can also be seen from a myriad of angles, depending on the facets you choose to focus on. There are the dark days of enslaved life at the Whitney Plantation, the exciting birth of the new era of jazz music, and the inspiring streets of where some of the country’s greatest authors wrote their groundbreaking stories.
In the past week, we caught a glimpse of the dark parts of the city’s history through the lens of slavery. At the Whitney Plantation, our tour guide, Ali, talks to us about the lives of the enslaved people. He shows us plaques and plaques of names of the people who have died on these very grounds, most of whom didn’t make it past ten years from the day they set foot here. Standing in the sweltering heat near a sugarcane plant, he tells us that although this plantation closed down and enslavement here was abolished, “the system never really changes. It just takes on different costumes. Today, we have oil drilling, coal-mining, etc.” No matter the number of different parades Buddy Bolden is invited to play in or new Mardi Gras masks made every year, something deeply troubling remains in this place. It’s deeply fragmented. Neighborhoods here have races clustered in certain areas. There are many streets that the locals don’t walk on, since those are considered ‘unsafe.’ The past is unresolved, and the scars left behind haven’t quite healed properly.
However, the Second-Line Parade on a lazy Sunday afternoon reminds us that not all hope is lost. A Second-Line Parade, one of the city’s defining traditions, is just like a musical block party. It’s a parade consisting of a brass band in the front (the “first line”) and anyone else (the “second line”) who wants to get out on the streets to join this celebration of life. They weave through the streets, making a 5-mile loop through the area. The one we join is in an African American community a few streets beyond the French Quarter. The day is blisteringly hot, but the performers are unfazed. The lines of trumpet and trombone players toot their horns, following the signals of the leader. Behind them are multiple trucks of floats, filled with women in pink dresses adorned with headdresses. One of them wears a headdress that spans the entire width of the float, flaunting the elegant design of gems, feathers, and beads to the tune of the song. I can just imagine Buddy Bolden’s band marching through Iberville Street. Adults and children from some sixty miles away all come to see him play. Similarly, people from everywhere come to join our celebration, forming a crowd behind the performers. The streets here allow us to congregate and preserve African American culture. Fractured as the city is, there is still hope. The spirit of the parade invigorates all of us; laissez les bons temps rouler!
New Orleans is bittersweet these days. That’s what makes it so interesting; it’s impossible to label the place as strictly ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ since there’s an overwhelming feeling of both. It is a city for tourists to flock to so they can both learn about slavery in the Deep South and, on a separate occasion, celebrate traditions while dancing to parade music. I’m not quite sure what to make of it sometimes, but the fact that it’s such an enigma sets it apart from elsewhere. It’s a story that is open to infinite interpretations, captured by the ever-changing, dissonant, and spontaneous jazz music that Buddy Bolden left behind.