Friday, September 14, 2012

`Exactly Like Everyplace Else'

In 1966, Whitney Balliett, the jazz writer for The New Yorker, set out to investigate the “irresistible all-American myth of New Orleans as a wild, dark pantheon, roamed by gods like Buddy Bolden, the first celebrated jazz musician, who achieved immortality by going mad during a parade in 1907.” Balliett was making his first visit to New Orleans and the result was one of the longest pieces he wrote for the magazine, “Mecca, La.” (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000). De jure segregation was out but blacks and whites were still unaccustomed to sharing a cab ride. Balliett sticks close to his immediate experience, what he sees and hears, and resists sociological speculation. Like any good writer, he wants to learn from his experience. He’s there to hear the music and talk to the people who make it. In a rare scene-setter, Balliett writes: 

“The French Quarter, with its decaying, shuttered houses, its spooky wrought-iron balconies, its secret alleys, and its ancient smell, has the peculiar density and air of resignation common to all old cities.”

We’re driving to New Orleans today, ostensibly to deliver an antique table to my sister-in-law, who lives in Atlanta, but mostly we’re going for the music, food and atmosphere. This is my first visit to anywhere in Louisiana, the most storied of states and the one most exotic to a Northerner. My preconceived image is compounded of A.J. Liebling, Walker Percy and half a century of listening to Armstrong, Morton, Bechet and Fats Domino, among others.  I’m skeptical of all my assumptions and look forward to testing them against what we see and hear. Liebling observes in The Earl of Louisiana (1960):

“I realized that New Orleans might be exotic in some respects but that in others it was exactly like everyplace else.”

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