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Robert O'Meally,
Director of Center for Jazz Studies

How did you first learn of the Katrina disaster a year ago, and what kinds of thoughts did you remember having in the immediate wake of the catastrophe?
My brother and sister-in-law live just outside New Orleans, and I think one of them called and said the storm was not just another storm -- that they were going to leave the city.

My first thought: get the people I love out! My second thought: I knew this was coming, and now we have to wait and see how the people who were responsible for knowing it was coming, respond. I felt despair as I remembered the inefficiency of policy-makers and decision-makers in New Orleans.

I was not surprised because of reports I'd read in National Geographic about a year before. I'd also been talking with a good friend who is a city planner and businessman in New Orleans named Kenny Ferdinand. He'd bought property all over New Orleans -- made sure it was on high ground because he'd studied the water levels and said that "when the storm comes, everybody else's house is going to be blown away." I called him early on, and all his properties were okay -- the only damage they suffered was from vandalism.

Over the years, I've been a frequent visitor to New Orleans. I've talked with businessmen, artists, shop owners -- a real cross-section. And I've long had the impression of a mismanaged place -- one of the most mismanaged places I've ever been to. It's also cruelly hierarchical. The school system is a disaster. The gap between haves and have nots is greater than any in this country. Shop owners tend to be very well off, while the people who work for them have nothing -- no minimum wage, no health benefits, no retirement plans, none of that. New Orleans is one of those places where local people, not Mexicans, are hired because locals are willing to work for half of minimum wage. You feel as though the reconstruction measures of the 19th century have yet to take place. It's the Old South.

In my view, the true scandal of place hasn't yet been revealed. The city's richest residents fled the storm immediately. They have homes all over: Europe, Florida, New England.

That said, the gap between rich and poor is only one part of the picture. New Orleans may be an antique city but it also has an incredibly sophisticated culture -- it's an astonishing combination.

Kids who were in freefall in school and were functionally illiterate (one third of the city is illiterate) were somehow playing music at the cutting edge. They've inherited the traditions of Louis Armstrong up to Winston Marsalis. It almost seemed like a miracle that in the midst of this poverty you have this cultural crystallization and richness.

The city was best known for the All Fool's Day of Mardi Gras -- practically the whole country went there on spring break. At those times it was possible to experience the wondrousness and magnificence of New Orleans culture -- though it also had a seedy side, which many people didn't know about.

The Jazz Studies Center held a three-day conference earlier this year on New Orleans' future. What were the highlights?

The single-most important presentation was by Lionel McIntyre of our faculty -- he's a native New Orleanian and a city planner by trade. He gave a talk in which he displayed maps of the city and talked about what it was about those neighborhoods that nurtured artistic creativity. He spoke about neighborhoods as having a soundscape -- you could walk around the Ninth Ward and hear James Black giving a drum lesson to Red Tyler, one of Marsalises practicing, Fats Waller working out on the piano -- never mind all the jazz players who play on Bourbon Street and on funeral procession days. These everyday neighborhood sounds signaled that you were living in a wonderful and fertile place despite the extreme poverty.

Lionel also described the network of clubs and teachers -- the invisible culture of the city -- that made New Orleans so special: not simply a place of frivolity but also a place with a deep commitment to artistic expression as part of its community ritual. I found his testimony very moving.

We also had several testimonies by musicians. The New Orleans blues/jazz singer Juanita Brooks opened the proceedings with "What a Friend I Have in Jesus" -- moving all of us to tears. After all the devastation, I think many of us were seeking a connection with a higher purpose.

She also sang "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" -- enriched with a slow blues note.

Juanita was one of the participants who said she doubted that she could ever live in New Orleans again. She said that the kind of thing Lionel had talked about was gone, really gone: her entire neighborhood had disappeared.

When Juanita said she couldn't go back, I knew what she meant. When I paid a visit to the city last November, I stood there and looked around 360 degrees. Everything I saw was permanently ruined.

My friend Kenny Ferdinand took me around for several hours. He took me to his mother's home, where the water had risen as high as the ceiling, and then to his brother's home -- his brother is a surgeon and had an upper middle class home. But it was the same situation, completely ruined. I hadn't realized the extent of the devastation until then.

Another participant, the clarinet player Michael White, told us he'd lost his life-long collection of instruments, including a reed signed by Johnny Dodds. He said he could never live that close to water again.

So there were these statements of urgency and despair, but there were also those of us who said: "Oh, yes, you can, we're going to do it -- we're going to make it." Most conference participants agreed with Lionel McIntyre's point that we can't afford to lose the city's culture. For a start, look at all the business that comes through the delta!

This fighting spirit prevailed -- this and the conviction that we must  somehow reclaim the culture. We all agreed that the city must be rebuilt with a sense of integrity, informed by love for its people and the need to preserve the culture they've created. We can't let New Orleans become Disneyworld or Times Square. We can't let neighborhoods and matrices of culture be torn to pieces or paved over and sold on Bourbon Street.

In addition to the conference itself, I invited C. Daniel Dawson to put together a photography exhibition on New Orleans in Buell Hall. He had just a short time to put it together, but the result -- "Eye of the Storm: Photographs of the Storm, Before and After," featuring six photographers -- was spectacular, a home run.

We were lucky that from the moment we first conceived of this conference Alan Brinkley, without blinking an eye, pledged to help out with funding. He provided intellectual leadership just when we needed it most. I can't thank him enough.

Where are we one year later? If you could advise New Orleans policy-makers, what steps would you recommend?
One year later, it's a depressing scene. We don't see dramatic visionary leadership at the federal level. We don't see generous brilliancy of vision at state level. There's a kind of feistiness at city level -- but no means for getting things done. The money going in is getting poured down the drain. Lionel for instance told us that he refuses to participate in any of the reconstruction efforts he's seen because they're so superficial and so rife with mismanagement.

Faulkner once said that after the last ding-dong of doom, we'll hear single voice of someone talking. Well, the ding-dong of doom is louder than anything in New Orleans. But as scholars we can at least keep talking. We can take careful note of what's happening and write about it -- the trouble is, right now no one powerful is listening. The people who are listening are well meaning but can't do much to help.

Universities like Columbia have an important role to play in cultivating an ongoing dialogue about what a city is, and about what policy makers can do to rebuild a city.

The Center for Jazz Studies has a particular responsibility to broadcast the news and make sure scholars are discussing it. We have a research study group that meets twice a year. Both of this year's meetings were devoted to New Orleans. The jazz scholars who participate are strongly committed to working on the reconstruction. Those who are teaching courses this year plan to cover New Orleans. We're also putting together a Web site based on last year's conference, to encourage an ongoing dialogue.

What makes Columbia's jazz studies program unique is that while we'll teach you to play the sax (no easy feat!), we also teach jazz as part of a cultural matrix -- what are the politics of all this, the economic questions, the legal implications. Our faculty are more equipped to discuss jazz in this way than faculty you'd find in music conservatories.

George Lewis is one of most important composers anywhere -- nobody outplays him or Chris Washburne on the horn. Both are writing books on the cutting edge that should be ready by next spring. (George has a chapter in our recent book, Uptown Conversation. Chris has published a couple of books in the past few years.)

John Szwed, who is currently the Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia (he holds a chair in anthropology at Yale), has co-authored one of best books on New Orleans' complex creole culture and what will become of it: Blues for New Orleans. John, along with Farah Griffin, was part of the planning for our conference right from the beginning. He, Farah and I cooked up the idea of using jazz as the lens for comprehending the whole New Orleans predicament.

Lionel, the city planner in our group, has written an article on sound in the city, the topic he spoke about at our conference.

Photographer Daniel Dawson is teaching at Columbia this fall.

In addition to my work as a scholar, I am a board member for the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. We've been looking for the kids from the Ninth Ward who got displaced by the storm. We want to make sure they get everything they need this summer. We've also strengthened our commitment to the Armstrong summer camp.

I am also an advisor to Wynton Marsalis on his work for the Lincoln Center. Marsalis is participating in the New Orleans reconstruction. Indirectly, we scholars can talk to people we know who are in a position to influence change.

Scholars are also in a position to show that the New Orleans situation applies not just to that city but also to other parts of the United States. Reverend James Forbes has raised similar issues when asking how to rebuild Harlem without stepping on its great cultural legacy. When you commit to revitalizing a city neighborhood, what kind of message does that send to the poor people whose ancestors made it what it is? It's an extremely difficult problem.

Right here at Columbia, we face a comparable situation as we look at the proposed expansion into Manhattanville: how do we act like real partners in a deal that has to do with cultural nurturing? Here we have a magnificent opportunity to partner with a great neighborhood -- but how do we get it right? It's a critical question for my generation of scholars at Columbia.

Back to One Year Since Katrina


AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.

Published: Aug 25, 2006
Last modified: Jun 05, 2007