All that Jazz

In the Paris of the 1920s and '30s, Chez Bricktop was one hot jazz club. As depicted in a delightful, bittersweet new musical, Bricktop (playing at Metro Stage in the D.C. area), the club was frequented by those who needed to be seen. There, European royalty met the monarchs of American music. "King" Sidney Bechet, the great New Orleans clarinetist, might sit only tables away from the Duke of Windsor -- a scene rendered impossible in the United States, thanks to Jim Crow.

It was racism as much as anything else that first brought jazz to Paris, making Bricktop all the more special, owned as it was by the indefatigable href="">Ada "Bricktop" Smith, the African-American entertainer and entrepreneur who championed the careers of blues singer href="">Alberta Hunter and cabaret songbird href="">Mabel Mercer, and is credited with having given Duke Ellington an early break in New York. (The three greats are played beautifully by Peggy Blow as Smith, C. Kelly Wright as Mercer, and Roz White Gonsalves as Hunter.) Black artists found in Paris the respect for their work that they could not find at home.

You would think things were different today, but I'm not so sure. Black artists and genres -- hip hop, modern R&B -- may dominate the popular music scene. But I'm thinking of art of a deeply sophisticated kind -- the music that is to our culture what classical is to the Europeans'. And we still, it seems, can't give jazz its due. Despite what some have claimed, this is music invented, created, and sustained by black people. In most American cities, one finds publicly subsidized concert halls dedicated to the playing of European classical music, and no counterparts allotted to presentation of America's own music of the gods. The only reason I can think of for that -- the only reason that makes any sense, alas -- is racism.

A few nights ago, I had a dream that took me inside Preservation Hall, a favorite tourist spot in New Orleans -- a small, dusty room whose barely raised stage is faced by two columns of hard, backless benches. The floorboards are worn and splintery and, these days, a faintly musty smell permeates. The house cat claims the last bench on the left. He does not seem to care for the affection of strangers; he's there for the music, or maybe a mouse or two. In my dream, the hall was dark and empty. No one sat at the upright piano on the stage, and a stand-up bass had been left, well, standing against the back wall. A little boy, African-American, dressed in clothes typical, perhaps, of the 1930s, walked between two rows of benches. The only human in the place, he seemed alone in all the world.

Imagine if Austria, Salzburg, home to Mozart and Bach, had endured some great disaster. Would it be left to languish? Actually, in World War II, the allies destroyed some 46 percent of the city. And then, via the Marshall Plan, we Americans helped rebuild it. Today, Salzburg remains a top tourist stop for music enthusiasts. Give me a reason other than race that prevents America from rebuilding its own Salzburg, and bringing home the people who created its culture.

"War is such bullshit," says Peggy Blow's Bricktop character in the eponymous musical. "It sure does kill a good time." She is talking about the war that laid Salzburg low, the war that forced her -- and Mabel Mercer and Alberta Hunter and a number of other black musicians -- out of Paris. It was a war with a racial theme, and Bricktop had the good sense to get out when the Nazis marched through the City of Light in 1939. She bounced around countries from Italy to Mexico until Jim Crow ended in the United States. Then, she came home.

You can blame Katrina for ruining New Orleans' bon temps, or you can blame the war of choice that consumed the executive branch while New Orleans drowned. But it's hard to blame anything but flat-out racism for our nation's failure to rebuild one of its great cities, and one of the oldest living cities on this continent, at that -- the one that gave a nation the great music that has perhaps done more to curry the world's favor than any of our other cultural exports. Even worse is all that has been done that keeps more than 200,000 New Orleanians from coming home. The government created a program, "The Road Home," that purportedly offers Louisiana residents up to $150,000 per family to rebuild but has turned out to be a joke. href="">According to Martin Savidge of NBC News, of the 105,375 people who have applied for assistance in returning to the state, only 506 have received money.

The national mainstream media, it should be said, have actually done a pretty decent job of keeping New Orleans in the news. Brian Williams broadcast from New Orleans earlier this month, and has kept a torch burning for the city's return. The problem is the government, and the rank-and-file Americans who elect the politicians (at least, in theory). When I returned to the city, a year after the floods, I spent some time with Cyril Neville, perhaps the most activist of the members of one of the city's foremost musical dynasties. He conveyed New Orleanians' belief that his city is not regarded by the rest of America as part of America. I'm inclined to agree.

One of the reasons is its unique culture: its French-tinged English and mystical rites. But the other reason is race, pure and simple. It's just not a place that matters to most white people -- not so much, anyway. As a white person, I'll venture to say that we've come to view Katrina's devastation of New Orleans as a black people's story, and we're not them. Sad, yes, but whattaya gonna do? Stuff happens.

This is the way of things with "black" history. The struggle of black people for liberation is regarded as a black story. Martin Luther King is regarded as a black hero, not a national hero. This past Martin Luther King Day, I happened to be in Memphis, the town in which King was assassinated during a visit in support of the city's striking garbage workers. The Lorainne Motel, on whose href="">balcony King was killed, still stands, now in the form of the National Civil Rights Museum. It was a cold, rainy day, and still the lines stretched for a quarter-mile or more. Moms and dads with their kids, great-grandmas with their elderly children, cousins, friends, aunts and uncles. Nearly all were black. It was as if King's work had never done a thing for the rest of us.

After I toured the museum, I took a walk over to the factory of Gibson Guitars, whose top celebrity endorser is B.B. King, titan of the blues -- the art form from which so much of American music flows, not least of all, jazz. Inside the factory, in the city where King breathed his last breath, the instrument-makers were working. And they weren't getting time-and-a-half. In the Memphis factory where B.B. King's famous guitar, Lucille, was born, Martin Luther King Day is just another working day. And that just ain't right.

Adele M. Stan is the author of the weblog, href="">AddieStan, and the book,
Debating Sexual Correctness.

Washingtonians can see Bricktop through Feburary 25, 2007, at Metro
Stage. Book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and Calvin A. Ramsey; original music by S. Renee Clark; based on a concept by Ramsey; directed by Jones. Performances include Gary E. Vincent, href="">William Hubbard, Anthony Manough, and Robin Massengale. Guitarist David B. Cole plays Django Reinhardt.

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