I gave a talk on New Orleans music and culture last week to a group of visiting CEOs from San Diego and I was surprised to find they were compelled by a common gentrification narrative. The spike in housing costs (and other expenses) since Katrina will soon displace a century's worth of musical continuity. Harry Connick, Jr., Branford Marsalis, and Habitat For Humanity led the city to establish Musicians Village, which subsidizes some 70 or so musicians. Yet the engine for New Orleans’ continual rejuvenation of American music has always been the mentor-apprentice relationships in historical African-American neighborhoods: in musical families, in brass bands, in high school marching bands. You can read about the process in interviews in Talk That Music Talk. Connick (mentored by James Booker) and Marsalis (family band) represent two examples of this tradition, but even transplanted musicians find a supportive community across racial lines.
Gentrification is a bulldozer, not a generator of culture. So why was this group of CEOs compelled by our city’s story? Perhaps because New Orleans is the last non-generic city in America. Our musical culture is understood as irreplaceable and non-reproducible, in contrast to the nation’s gentrified upscale neighborhoods. Will our musical culture survive? I am not optimistic.