American Impressions, Chapter 33: Louisiana
Empire of the Senses
The great journalist A.J. Liebling called his native Louisiana “the westernmost of the Arab states.” He described its politics as having “an intensity and complexity that are matched, in my experience, only in the Republic of Lebanon. Louisiana is part of the Hellenistic-Mediterranean littoral—sensual, seductive, speculative, devious.” Liebling wrote those lines a few decades ago, when my native Lebanon was a little more civilized than it is now, when Louisiana was a little less civilized than it has become. But neither place has lost its sensuality and seductiveness, its spot on the Mediterranean littoral. And neither minds cultivating its deviousness.
Lebanon before the war was where the ruling classes of surrounding countries came to escape their own oppression, to indulge in the gambling and the whoring and the drinking they forbade back home, to see more than bellies dancing on stage and hear fewer criers tugging at their conscience from minarets five times a day. Beirut was their Big Easy, a delta of decadence and desires dredged up from the crescent-world around it just as New Orleans, the Crescent City, has always dredged up half the continent’s muck, moral and literal, by way of the Mississippi.
Louisiana is a land of color and smells, of tastes and sounds that mix and clash. Instead of East and West meeting and usually combusting on Lebanon’s Mediterranean shore, it is Cajuns and Creoles and whatever improvises as American these days that mix and clash along the banks of the Mississippi, although with fewer casualties. Here, they act out their aggression in their jazz and their gumbo and their harmless voodoo pranks, turning conflict into exuberance, at last to the untrained eye. No wonder I felt like I was on familiar, uneasy ground. I’d known the land by proxy.
I was now going to learn it raw. I wanted to leave myself at my senses’ mercy on Louisiana’s terms, to eat its food, listen to its sounds, bask in its swamps, and to look around. My friend Ellis Marsalis, who joined me twice before on this journey (in New York, where we’d both gone to college, and in Baltimore, where he now lives and owns a computer business), agreed to spend three days guiding me around New Orleans, where he was born and raised. He was also my shortcut into the contemporary world of jazz. His father is the New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., four of whose sons (Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason) are to jazz what J.S. Bach’s sons were to classical music in 18 th century Germany—allover.
Like most homes on Hickory Street—like most homes anywhere in New Orleans—the Marsalis home from the outside is a grid of grilles, locks and deadbolts, protection from frequent mayhem. Inside the home, a different sort of mayhem—this one comfortable and reassuring—reigns: three Marsalis grandkids are spending part of their summer vacation here, their sprints into each other or in evasions of each other keeping the candle-lit shrine to the Virgin Mary in the main hallway flickering constantly. Ellis Marsalis’ patience flickers, too, but his wife Delores’, never. In this as in every other way (Ellis the younger tells me) Mr. and Mrs. Marsalis are exact opposites.
During the days I spent in New Orleans the sound of jazz was mostly the sound of Ellis Marsalis giving me a preview of “A Jazzman’s Journey,” his upcoming biography, and an explanation of New Orleans jazz.
” New Orleans is an address,” he said. “It’s still the greatest learning town, I think, for jazz on the planet, but it’s also one of those places where you have to know how to put things together. It’s not laid out for you.” And these days, the address doesn’t matter that much anymore for the musician who wants to get somewhere. With the communications revolution virtually eliminating geography, there is no such thing as a New Orleans sound anymore. There is only the individual musician and what he can achieve with his CDs, which he can record anywhere, sell anywhere, play anywhere. Marsalis might as well have been describing his sons, who have New Orleans in their blood, but who rarely play there. At 65, Ellis is a throw-back in the best sense of the term.
He won’t say it, but Marslis’ dozen years of teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts from the mid-1970s to the mid-‘80s, where he taught his children, were a high point in the development of New Orleans jazz. Marsalis stressed—preached—the importance of tradition, of blacks reclaiming their musical heritage (whites by then had appropriated the black musical canon, and few blacks grew up listening to Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington).
What Marsalis taught at NOCCA, Wynton has spread like gospel across the country since his meteoric rise to gold records, Grammy awards and, in 1997, a Pulitzer Prize (a first for a jazz composition). Branford has had his own brand of success with his band, in television, movies, PBS documentaries and radio, taking scorn along the way from Wynton for occasionally going pop—selling out, in the Marsalis doctrine—as he did when he joined Sting in the mid-1980s. Delfeayo, a trombonist currently on a European tour, and Jason, a drummer who leads his own band and has toured with the pianist Marcus Roberts, are rising fast as well.
It is fashionable to attack the Marsalis musicians. The jazz pianist Keith Jarrett seems to have an especially serious problem with the existence of Wynton and Branford. “I’ve never heard Wynton play the blues convincingly,” he told The New York Times Magazine two years ago. “He’s jazzy the same way someone who drives a BMW is sporty.” When Branford was Jay Leno’s band leader on The Tonight Show, Jarrett obliquely criticized him by claiming that “John Coltrane could not have led a television band,” to which Branford said that Jarrett was “deserving of an ass-whipping, and I might consider it if I ever see him.” Nat Hentoff has criticized Wynton for lacking “joy” in his music. And most consistently, critics batter Wynton for lacking originality, for being so traditional that he is a genius of the rehash.
Ellis (the younger) knows the rebuttal drill like a mantra: “They . . . sure love to badger Wynton because Wynton doesn’t play their game, because he doesn’t kiss their -----, because he doesn’t capitulate,” he says. “I don’t agree with him on a lot of stuff, but he don’t take ----- from nobody.”
But nothing seems more disagreeable to Marsalis or his sons than the suggestion that his family was fated to artistic greatness. To hear him speak, the family’s evolution sounds no more remarkable than any family whose children did well for themselves. Four of the Marsalis brothers happen to have chosen music - largely, their father says, because their mother liked them to be involved in “constructive, artistic things.” Nothing extraordinary about it, nothing planned.
Marsalis now directs the Jazz Studies Program at the University of New Orleans and he plays with his quartet every Friday night at Snug Harbor, on the outskirts of the Quarter. His view of the New Orleans jazz scene is as unromantic as his take on his own family’s rise. “People talk about the jazz community. There is no jazz community. That’s a joke,” he says, and tourists, while rich enough to keep musicians employed, don’t discriminate very well, so the quality of the music is not high.
That night in the French Quarter, listening to Jason Marsalis, the drummer, and his band play a 70-minute set, we hear purity, lots of joy, and the dignity of modesty, which jazz clubs foster and concert halls don’t. But with the younger Ellis’ exception, we were an all-white audience, a replica of most audiences listening to most bands in the French Quarter. “Jazz is something Negroes invented,” Wynton has written, “and it said the most profound things not only about us and the way we look at things, but about what modern democratic life is really about.” Why, then, are blacks bee-bopping, rapping and listening to Sting so much more than they are to Wynton and “the old oak tree of men,” as he calls his jazz elders? “You can hurt yourself in this town,” Ellis the elder told us as Ellis the younger and I prepared to take in New Orleans’ eateries. The first place Ellis took me to was Camellia Grill, a restaurant on Carrolton Avenue, not far from his parents’ house. The manager was a young white man wearing a white shirt and a yellow paisley tie, in fashion 10 years ago. Thirty white people sat on 30 stools around two U-shaped counters. , served by three black waiters in white shirts and black bow-ties (Waldo, Charles and Michael, their tags said), and two black cooks. Ellis was the only black patron.
”You will almost never see black people eat in here,” he says, peppering and buttering and battering two mounds of grits into a sloppy mush of white and yellow, “because everybody knows what Camellia Grill is. It’s built like a plantation. When I was growing up I’d hear that white people came in here to feel good about themselves. In spite of that, I come in here because the food is good. It may be surrounded in bull, but good food is good food.”
And it is. There are certainly disappointing places to eat in New Orleans, but we didn’t have time to find any. Two evenings later we find ourselves at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter for more experimenting. I order what the menu touted as “The complete Creole dinner.” Before his crawfish etouffee, Ellis devours catfish chunks charred black. “All other fishes want to be catfish,” he says. “Tuna want to be catfish. Trout want to be catfish. Grouper. Whiting. But they ain’t gonna be.”
Wynton Marsalis once likened jazz to gumbo, and now chicken andouille jazz was served in my cup—a spicy blend of rice, chicken chunks, unidentified shreds of green and red choked in a liquid the color of the Mississippi. I’m no Trent Rowe, so I couldn’t describe the taste less conventionally than I could the sound of Ellis Marsalis improvising a tune on his piano. I can only say that my mother, for all her blend of French and Arab and Italian and, for all I know, Andalusian blood, and for all her culinary skills inherited from a dynasty of Lebanese cooks stretching back to Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre, had never made anything like this. Yet none of it was unfamiliar. Eating gumbo, like stepping on Louisiana ground for the first time, was again a Mediterranean flash-back, only the ingredients, like the surroundings, were out of order, in a kilter all their own.
The Creole combination platter—a half-plate of spicy brown beans and rice, a half-plate of shrimp in a tomato sauce rattlesnakes could drink as pop, and a mound of jambalaya—was less of an adventure only because it looked and almost tasted like a Mexican meal, but with more attitude. Still, Ellis is right when he says: “When I’m eating, all is right in the world.”
Later, we stop and talk to “Chris,” a Tarot cards and palm reader in a tank top that displays chocolate-black skin, a night-sky of starry tattoos. Nothing I hate more than having my fortune read, not because of the idiocy of the thing itself, but because a neighbor read my palms when I was 10 or 11 and said I’d never make it past 19. I lived my 19 th year in fear and he proved, obviously, wrong, although he was reading the fortune of a whole generation of young Lebanese men accurately enough.
I convince Ellis to sit across from Chris. He’s been agonizing over the misfortune of his computer business, and swooning, with the disciplined restraint of any Marsalis, over a Kenyan woman he knows in New Jersey. The cards are flipped. “Very strong desires,” Chris says. “You’re thinking about partnership or marriage? Be honest. But you’re also fearing disaster.” Well, yes, Ellis says, but that roughly describes 2 billion of Earth’s 5 billion people. The “fool” card is turned over. So is “ruin.” Not what Ellis wants to see. Chris says nothing about those. Instead, he says: “Nothing really came up about your work, but I get the sense that you’re trying to find some direction.” The other 3 billion people.
Then it’s my turn. I ask Chris about palm-reading. He says it’s all about personality. I ask him for an example. He looks at my right hand, asks me if I’m a salesman. Almost as funereal as my neighbor’s reading. I suggest we go back to the Tarot cards. He flips a few and begins Freuding me. “Intense feelings.” No kidding. “A roadblock in your relationship.” Well, more like a road that seems endlessly to keep me from my ought-to-have-been-wife by now, but OK. Then Chris loses it. “You don’t like what you do,” he says. To keep him from bombing entirely, I inform him that I have one of the seven best jobs on the planet. He rephrases. “You fear failure.” My eyes light up. Chris is emboldened. “You’re overcome with feelings of strife or failure.” I smile, conquered. He says the word “failure” many more times and earns his $30.
Ellis is incensed by the amount, although moments later, walking down the cacophony of Bourbon Street in a slow slalom of nuns soliciting charity under the light of his-and-hers stripper joints and drunkards scouting their next dive, he spends more than that on a cap with the insignia of New York’s Negro League baseball team. It is a typically lyrical Marsalis gesture, the evening’s final recall of “the old oak tree of men,” albeit from another forest.
Ellis took an early flight out of New Orleans to go meet his desires and disasters in Baltimore. I took a boat to what goes for a navigable swamp these days, Bayou Sauvage, which is actually a canal dug for a gas pipeline that hisses, submerged, from New Orleans to Atlanta. But against the onslaught of nature’s crawl of reptiles, marshes, cypress, willows and maples anywhere water laps at the tropics, the canal could remain artificial only so long.
Visitors to the swamp usually take the trip to spy alligators. The boat captain obliges, disconcertingly at times, revving his engine backward and forward to scare up a female alligator near her nest full of eggs and make her hiss at us. But there is a lot more to see, and not disturb. We glide on the water—brackish, dark, still—bumping against logs, cutting into duckweed, those green, moss-like flakes that cover the canal in places, thick as carpeting. We’re spied by herons, accompanied by courting dragonflies whose thousand kamikaze dives against the water surface make it look like rain without clouds, shadowed by Chinese Tallowtrees and Waxmyrtles trees. We listen to a swarm of invisible locusts sing what must be their wistful memories of the plague years. We hear the captain tell us about the time-defying resilience of alligators, garfish and turtles, and about the 36 varieties of Louisiana snakes, led in deadliness by the water moccasin, samples of which were certainly coiling beneath us, hoping for a hand-out to lick the surface, or better yet, a hand. Man-made canal or not, we are intruders in the swamp.
This heat of green, this natural improvisation on a Jurassic theme, this pantry of gumbo food, is no Mediterranean littoral. It compares to nothing. It is Louisiana before the Louis of music or monarchies, before Louisiana had a name or a reason to be on a map. It is the oldest world, a drop in the New.
LOUISIANA IN BRIEF
LOUISIANA IN BRIEF
Total area: 49,651 sq. miles (rank: 31)
Population (1997): 4,351,769 (rank: 22)
State capital: Baton Rouge
Economy: Chemicals, tourism, manufacturing, transportation.
Nickname & Motto: Pelican State; Union, justice, and confidence.
Entered union: April 30, 1812 (18 th).
Notable facts: He won’t go away: Despite having five conservative alternatives in the Congressional primary election to fill the seat of outgoing Speaker of the House Bob Livingston last May, one out of every five voters went for David Duke, the Republican and former Ku Klux Klan leader. A few years ago Duke had momentarily revoked some of his views on race to appeal to more mainstream Republicans. But with the publication, this year, of “My Awakening,” an autobiography, Duke has revoked his revocations and embraced an agenda of Aryan resurgence and voluntary homelands for minorities.
Louisiana in quotes: “It’s a complex thing, man, the difference between being from a place and being of a place. I’m ecstatic, I’m happy as a sissy in a bathhouse, to be from New Orleans. The food is great, the peasant aesthetic is wonderful. In the rest of America and in most of the world, everybody aspires to be a rich man. New Orleans is the only city in the world where you see the richest man tie a rag around his head and dance in the street. But I could never live in New Orleans again. The South hasn’t changed a lot, even though people keep saying it has. When you start getting into that ----, everybody gets mad at you: ‘You’re trying to stir up trouble down here. We don’t want no trouble down here.’ It sounds like 40 years ago.”—Branford Marsalis in a Playboy Interview, December 1993.
”Marsalis on Music,” by Wynton Marsalis (W.W. Norton, 1995), and “Sweet Swing Blues on the Road,” by Wynton Marsalis and Frank Stewart (W.W. Norton, 1994). “Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II,” by Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones (Da Capo Press, 1992) is available in paperback from Amazon, as is “New Orleans Cuisine & Dixieland Jazz, A Cajun/Creole Cookbook and Music CD,” edited by Dione Russell.
* New Orleans French Quarter: www.frenchquarter.com
* A few good recipes: www.louisianafoods.com/recipes
* Louisiana tourism: www.louisianatravel.com