Yesterday I went to a memorial service for my friend and business colleague George Brumat. Known for his crusty, no-nonsense ways, his love of local music and musicians, and his devotion to Snug Harbor, the club he owned for almost 25 years, George was a businessman after my heart. We would be lucky indeed if another one like George surfaced among the music club owners in New Orleans.
Hoping to see friends who loved George and to pay tribute to his memory, it never occurred to me that going to his memorial at the UNO Performing Arts Center would be a once-in-a-lifetime showcase of some of the greatest jazz talents of New Orleans. Everyone from Astral Project, Phil DeGruy, Dr. Michael White, Detroit Brooks, Germaine Bazzle, Leah Chase, Davell Crawford, Irvin Mayfield, Tim Laughlin, Tom McDermott, Victor Adkins, David Torkanowsky, Bill Huntington, Roland Guerin, Charmaine Neville, Ellis Marsalis, Gerald French, Jesse Boyd, Troy Davis, Jesse McBride, Topsy Chapman, and so many more great musicians played in tribute to George’s memory.
Brumat’s friend and business associate Mike Barton gave a moving eulogy, highlighting George’s love for music, his big heart and the almost mystical connection between George’s spirit and jazz. I think everyone there felt that connection yesterday. I was particularly moved by Dr. Michael White’s haunting and plaintive clarinet solo (it literally gave me goose bumps), and by Davell Crawford’s rendition of “Everything Must Change,” one of my favorite songs, and so apropos vis a vis the occasion.
We were truly honored to have been able to have known George and privileged to be able to hear this remarkable “concert” performed by local musicians in his honor.
Hearing this great music and the wonderful testaments to Brumat made me think about how we in New Orleans are so blessed to have our music. We are so very lucky to have these musical artists among us. We are fortunate to have this music that coalesces our close-knit community, our musical family. That’s what music can do.
Music is a precious thing. It revives us, brings us together, heals us, takes us to another plane—spiritual, erotic, sad, joyous, hopeful, rebellious, amorous—the whole spectrum of human emotion. We can intellectualize it, groove to it, swoon over it, dance to it. It makes us reflective; it challenges us to change things. We are born with it and we go to our graves with our relatives and friends second-lining. Music is a part of the fabric of New Orleans. And where would Cajun and Creole culture be without its music?
I wish there were some way that we could convince the other people—the ones who make zoning decisions, who run the police department, who don’t want live music in their neighborhoods (if not in the French Quarter on a commercial street like North Rampart or Esplanade, then where?).
Mary Howell, the local attorney who is a live music advocate like myself, says that people who oppose live music development have three major concerns: parking, litter and noise. If those three things could be addressed, then we might have a good shot at creating city laws that allow live music, rather than prohibit its development. I mentioned in previous columns that North Rampart Street needs a savior. Well, I believe that the people of New Orleans need to step up and recognize that unless they demand it, music will just be another part of the cultural fabric of life in New Orleans that will continue to be relegated to the back of the bus.
There’s an “Arts District” in the Warehouse District. There aren’t many music clubs there (Howlin’ Wolf, Republic). There used to be a music district on Bourbon Street that’s now not extant because city politicians and residents of the Quarter and a small group of businesses determined that “music” should remain on Bourbon Street and no where else in the French Quarter. Look what that “music” has become: for the most part, cover bands, (loud) recorded music and crap designed to lure in the lowest common denominator of visitor to consume as much alcohol as possible. (Mind, I have absolutely nothing against consuming alcohol, but I do have a problem with Bourbon Street becoming a lot less musically and culturally than it used to be. Its demise as a music street diminished the entire city of New Orleans).
Locals avoid Bourbon Street for the most part because 1) the parking sucks; 2) it’s too expensive for local drinking budgets; and 3) who wants to hear cover bands when you can go down to Frenchmen Street to hear great live music. Frenchmen Street is our new “music district” for local people who love music and for visitors seeking authenticity. Anyone who can’t see that is living in la-la land.
Getting back to Mary Howell’s theory: We know the Quarter is now clean; we do need noise restrictions (and thoughtful and consistent enforcement) that benefit both the musicians and clubs and residents (not just the residents). This isn’t the suburbs. If you want a quiet little main street, then go live in Thibodaux. Not having music on the same street as Congo Square is just plain ridiculous.
Then there’s decent parking, so here’s one last suggestion: instead of building and developing hundreds of condos adjacent to the Quarter, why doesn’t some savvy (and I guess politically-connected) developer build a parking garage close to the Quarter, maybe on Basin Street? Why wouldn’t an urban dweller want more parking in the ’hood? It sure might help bring locals back.
God, I love New Orleans. But I hate its citizens’ lack of vision, Byzantine politics and third world tolerance of gross incompetence and downright greed. We have such an opportunity to get over the fiefdoms, the turf wars, and really do something positive for the city’s culture and citizens. What are we waiting for?