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September 4, 2005

Dirge for Crescent City

Written by
cindy mcleod

Yesterday I received news from my friend Mike that our friend, musician Dale Spalding, was alive and living in a trailer on a beach in Galveston. Among the lucky, he was a New Orleans resident who got out in time to avoid the ravages of Katrina, escaping with his truck, harmonicas, acoustic guitars and a bag of clothes, he was fortunate to have had the means to leave. Having recently moved to N.O. from Los Angeles, Dale was working with The Iguanas (among others) in his new home base, and thrilled to be in the city of his dreams.

I met Mike and Dale over a decade ago, the first time I visited New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival. To be in the heart of that great city that birthed jazz gave me more of a sense of myself than any other journey I�ve taken. I was in awe as I strolled down Bourbon Street, stopping in to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, sitting in with the Dixieland bands at Friexl’s, stopping in to listen to Marcia Ball, it was like going to university and studying a lifetime of music in those few city blocks. I’ll never forget those precious musical memories carved in the heart of Crescent City, at Tipitina’s with Dr. John and the Neville Brothers, at Snug Harbour with Nicholas Payton, at the House of Blues with The Band, with Clifton Chenier and his Zydeco band, at the Convention Centre with Nancy Wilson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joe Henderson, and too many more to mention.

My days were spent listening to a plethora of street musicians who played for donations on the streets of the French Quarter, many of them finer than many musicians making a ‘real’ paycheque. I attended several of the free workshops offered during the festival, one in particular is easily remembered because it was at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts, where as I approached it seemed as though there were notes falling out of the windows to the streets below, the walls of that venerable school breathing with the rhythms of the up and coming young jazz artists. I sat under a big Magnolia tree in the afternoon sun, marveling as I listened to the high school band play with Joe Henderson. I soon discovered that the youngest Marsalis brother, Jason, was the drummer in this fine group of youths, and his father, the patriarch of the first family of jazz, Ellis Marsalis, was there to support his son. He and Henderson played for us for over an hour after the workshop, the only thing missing that glorious afternoon was a Mint Julep. I made daily trips to the festival at the fairgrounds, where the music ran 12 hours a day, Gospel, Blues, R&B, Traditional Jazz, Contemporary jazz, African, Latin, Zydeco, the voices of the many cultures that built this great city celebrated on eight stages without pause. The range and variety was staggering, I was often torn where to listen next, at one point I was pulled between Gladys Knight and the Pips and Cassandra Wilson, who were performing synchronously on different stages.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in my life was walking through Storyville to visit the Black History Museum, which hosted a Smithsonian Institute show on Duke Ellington, covering this great mans’ life from birth to death. It had an enormous impact on me, and after the many hours I spent immersing myself in the profundity of The Duke’s contributions, I found myself sitting on a park bench beside a sculpture of greatest jazz man of all, Louis Armstrong. I wept tears of joy, the abundant blessings I had to embrace the spirit of New Orleans, to touch and become immersed in the essence of what makes me a musician today. It was better than a hundred years of university.

When Mike and I spoke yesterday, we wondered aloud what has happened to the music as we watch the horrors unfold of the devastation of this great city, the ensuing violence and the broken spirits that attack one another in desperation. Where are the dirges that accompany the tragedy of death? Where is the soundtrack that defined American culture and birthed a nation? You�ve shown the world that the will to survive is embodied in the music. It is eerie in its absence, the emptiness that silences your streets has also silenced your voices. May God be with you, our brethren, as your spirit shines through the heartbreak and tragedy, and the world come to your aid to rebuild this great treasure you call home. May you find peace and serenity anew, and may you awaken very, very soon to once again hear the bustling sounds of your beautiful city going about its daily business as it once did, and may the music, your heartbeat, the universal language, the soul that defines America, re-emerge to soothe your broken hearts and guide you back to your rightful place of glory. When your voices are lifted once again in song, we will know that you are on the path to the greatness that you once were, restoring the grandeur you once gave to us all. We will join you, hand in hand, heart to heart, in joyful refrain.

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