Dreamscapes and Domains – New Orleans Notes, Ten Years Gone

ABOUT A week and a half ago, I was pushing memories around in my head. They’d come unbidden, stray phrases and images. I didn’t think I had a home for them just yet.katrina

I hadn’t planned to write anything formal about Katrina and the flood, but it was on my mind — taking up more than backspace. Last week all that circular thinking started surfacing as full sentences. And finally, in a block of focused days I had a piece. It ran yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, you can find it here.

One of the things about my post-Katrina New Orleans and the absence of my blood-ties is that it’s left me thinking about the people who used to live around the folks I once visited as part of that summer ritual. I think about this as I wander New Orleans trying to locate sites that no longer exist on any map. I remember generations of families who had remained on one block passing on not just an address but a hibiscus and iris garden, a porch with a ceiling painted blue like a spring sky. Even an attic ghost. On this side of the family line, I am the last person to hold those memories, to know what it was before: The stories and the voices — the intricately built sentences — I will carry in my head I know, but these are the features will always define New Orleans for me.

Just last week, I was speaking to my friend Mark Broyard, an artist who lives here in L.A. and has deep New Orleans roots.katrina series no. three As I note in the piece, after Katrina, he went back to help but also to bear witness. Photograph and collect debris that he would ultimately make into art. I remember the first time I saw the piece above, I didn’t have words. It hit someplace so deep, I cried.

(Broyard has other work in a group show, “Hard Edged” now up at the California African American Museum.)

With all of the trumpeting of “recovery” and “resilience,” my hope is that we will all remember — remember that there is so much more to do, to finish, to fix. To make whole. I’m realizing more and more that I’d like to find a place in that.

And as a guide, to keep in mind, that that new spot you’ve landed in — your new domain — that was once someone else’s garden, porch, ghost; it was once someone else’s dream.

Katrina Series Image courtesy Mark Broyard

“Jelly Rests His Case”

THURSDAY WAS a research and reconnaissance day, sweeping mostly through East and South L.A, with Gary Krist, author of the excellent “Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans.” One of the highlights was finally visiting New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s grave at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles. We were given a map as well as very precise directions to the plot/memorial. We trudged out under a somber sky and there he was, below a tree. I wished I’d brought along some sort of token offering, perhaps for next time.

“On 2pm on July 10 Jelly Roll Morton died in Los Angeles County Hospital, a victim of ‘cardiac decomposition’ due to ‘hyper-tensive heart disorder,’ according to the death certificate….On the morning of July 16, when the casket containing Morton’s body was carried inside, a church that could seat a thousand looked almost empty. Fewer than a hundred people assembled to mourn a man who had helped bring the sound of jazz to the world . . .The newspapers barely noted the passing of the first great composer in the American music the world embraced as jazz, but Down Beat devoted several pages to the man’s demise. One headline though, said it all: “Jelly Rests His Case.”

— from “Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton” by Howard Reich and William Gaines

And here’s a little bit of that “Spanish Tinge” that JRM loved so much. Thanks for the suggestion GK: