Jazz, recovery and Katrina: students investigate New Orleans

Like the rest of us, students who hear about distant human suffering from war, natural disaster, public health crisis or other destructive conditions often feel remote and powerless. In school, a conscientious history or English teacher may spare half a lesson to acknowledge sobering headlines, whether the war in Syria, Hurricane Sandy or other issue, but then the subtle pressure builds to revert to the New Deal or Oliver Twist. A diligent teacher, however, willing to depart from mandated curriculum and engage a critical issue squarely, can offer students an opportunity to strongly take on the challenging issues of the day. And if done well, the teaching can surface the same key themes explored in any rigorous history or literature course, but with an immediacy and compelling relevance textbook study lacks.

I would like to teach a unit on how the city of New Orleans has responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in these last nine years. This would not be a textbook-based study. It would be an attempt to enter the heart of New Orleans and use historical and journalistic research to explore the resonant political, social, economic and cultural issues that emerged from Katrina. But the implications would go beyond New Orleans, for the city is microcosm of a troubled urban America, exhibiting as dramatically as any literary work the ills and triumphs that frame United States history. New Orleans would itself become a multi-dimensional protagonist and the aim of the unit would be to bring the city to life.

I would begin by investigating how today’s cultural milieu is rooted in its French colonial past and development of a cultural creole unlike anything else ever seen in the United States. Music of course emblemizes the rich cultural melange beginning with slaves drumming on Sundays in the place known as Congo Square. Students would trace a line from the colonial musical roots through to jazz and bring it up to date by evaluating the range of music before Katrina. We’d follow by analyzing what happened to the music scene post-Katrina when so many musicians were displaced and instruments destroyed. The analysis would require rigorous investigation. While music history can be found in books, to study music since Katrina would require acute journalistic skills, whether going through magazine archives or calling a musician’s cooperative that has helped performers whose livelihood was damaged by the storm. I’d have students read my own small contribution to knowledge about the current music situation, a magazine profile of the Soul Rebels, a funky brass band whose members were separated by Katrina, but who with determination stayed together despite two of the eight members indefinitely needing to commute from Houston each week to perform gigs.

The unit would be built around two essential questions: how extensive and equitable has the recovery been and how does music strengthen the city? The questions require students to go beyond merely documenting what has happened to evaluating the resulting impact. The issue of equitability echoes concerns about disparities in America writ large. This is a tall order admittedly. We would have to locate comparative economic and demographic data. We would also look at how economic patterns correspond to racial demographics. What, for example, is the racial composition of neighborhoods where homes have and have not been rebuilt? We would look at which businesses have been restored or started up since Katrina. While it is widely known that the French Quarter is ironically doing even better than before Katrina, how representative is the success of this economic showpiece of progress in other zones of the city? What’s going on where the tourists never go? With the internet students would have access to city documents and magazine research that would illuminate these questions. They’d call and e-mail the city government directly too, becoming inquisitive news hounds.

By interviewing people involved in the struggle to rejuvenate the city, students would begin to form a human connection to the New Orleans community. To let them see into the lives of community members I would intersperse our study with episodes of the HBO show Treme, an incisive portrayal of a cross-section of New Orleans characters. There is the aspiring trumpeter whose ailing father determinedly rebuilds his destroyed home without help from government authorities. There is the slacker DJ searching for the musical act that will score him big. There is the lawyer trying to document the abuse and negligence of a hopelessly corrupt and self-protective police department. There is the corner bar owner scraping to maintain a business that provides a social haven for the neighborhood. And suffusing the various storylines is the extraordinary array of music, not just jazz, but varieties and blends of blues, zydeco, folk, metal, and hip hop with scenes shot at many local venues and featuring performances by nationally renowned musicians, local favorites and unknown street players. The show captures how New Orleans truly pulses through its music.

Fictional narratives can help humanize the study, but I would finally want my students to make a direct connection with people in the city. The most natural would be to connect with other high schools students. And so the framing activity of the unit would be to contact a public high school and pair students who could dialogue about their lives. My San Francisco crew would share what it is like to grow up in the Bay Area and ask the New Orleans kids about what it has been like to grow up in the wake of Katrina. 16 year olds were seven years old at the time of the storm. What happened to their families, their neighborhoods, their schools? Who among them are musicians? What is that state of the marching band at their school (just about every high school in New Orleans pre-Katrina had a marching band, the training corps for future jazz musicians).

Ultimately, if we can raise the money, we’d get ourselves to the city, visit our school counterparts, watch a second line street parade, meet people we encountered in our journalistic investigations. I would also arrange volunteer work. The most valuable might be helping Habitat for Humanity rebuild homes, an essential effort when in certain neighborhoods still to this day a mere fraction of the homes destroyed by Katrina have been rebuilt.

It has always been the case in our school system that learning proceeds primarily from a book or from a screen. There is little chance to directly see and touch what is being studied. The New Orleans unit is a small effort to promote academic study on a critical concern with intimacy and visceral relevance. It’s the difference between reading a description of Louis Armstrong and discussing song repertoire with a busker blowing his horn on Frenchman St.