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The Griot of New Orleans

Jazz musician Terence Blanchard tells the story of his hometown ten years after Hurricane Katrina

Greg Miles

Terence Blanchard has just finished telling me about the fried oyster that made him cry when we turn onto Frenchmen Street in The Marigny, right next to the French Quarter. The street is a two-block strip of bars, live jazz clubs, top-notch restaurants and local chains, many specializing in alcohol-sponging midnight fare. Blanchard, a native son and now a world-renowned jazz trumpeter and film composer, loves it here. It’s a place where he still comes to play—in the clubs, and, every now and then, on the street itself. 

“Frenchmen Street is what Bourbon Street used to be,” said the 53-year-old musician, his voice deep and reflective. “But then Bourbon Street started to become a caricature of itself, and the guys who were really about music didn’t need to be there anymore.”

On the way to Frenchmen Street, we drove past Louis Armstrong Park, where, within the park itself, Congo Square still resides. It was formerly known as Place de Nègres—Place of Negroes. On their one legal day of rest, Sunday, slaves would gather to sing, play drums, and celebrate. The bop-bop-bop-bop of the drums became bop-de-bop, bop-de-bop-bop-bop, and so on. Jazz—New Orleans’ chief export—was born there, and has since survived many a hurricane and flood.

There was another African custom passed down to Blanchard: The griot. Pronounced “gree-ohh,” it’s a West African word that doesn’t have a direct English translation, but encapsulates the work that Blanchard has done in his career—particularly since Hurricane Katrina, which struck a decade ago this week. Historically, griots are at once troubadours, poets, storytellers, musicians, and historians. In Western Africa, they’re primarily entertainers, playing a 21-stringed harp-like instrument called the kora. Trumpets didn’t originate in America, obviously, but they’re about as close as New Orleans gets to koras. And Blanchard, with his horn, his compositions, and his deeds, has kept busy for the last ten years telling the world about New Orleans’s pain and resilience while doing his damnedest to preserve the traditions that formed him. “That whole notion of being a griot, it’s no bullshit,” said Blanchard’s wife and business manager, Robin Burgess.

Blanchard had moved back to the city in 1995 from New York City to be closer to his two children from a previous marriage, both of whom lived in New Orleans with their mother. But even he had a hard time finding his way home in a city that became increasingly unrecognizable after Hurricane Katrina. When you’re from New Orleans, you can literally be inside the city limits and not truly be home until your ears or taste buds tell you that you are.

Not long after Katrina, Blanchard returned home and had dinner with his wife at a local spot, Brightsen’s. “I ordered a spinach salad,” he told me. “I’m not paying attention; I’m talking shit, like I’m talking to you right now. Just talking trash. And then I bite into that fucking oyster, and everything comes to a screeching halt. A tear starts to come down the side of my face. I realized that I’m home.”

Blanchard pauses. “And I know that’s a very melodramatic fucking thing, and I’m ashamed to admit that I had the experience. But the thing about it was, it was a signal. Everything I’d been hearing about how ‘This may go away,’ ‘This may never be the same,’” he said.  “I was in the middle of a conversation, right? I forgot what I was talking about. It sounds stupid, because it was just a spinach salad with a little goddamned fried oyster on the top, but man, it’s at the core of who we are.”

Blanchard walks amongst the masses on a busy Friday night on Frenchman Street.
Amy K. Nelson

New Orleans’ two most famous attractions, before and after Katrina, have been its food and its music. The food draws people to the city. But the music, as much as it has brought a massive crowd to Frenchmen this Friday night in August, is the city’s heart. Ever since African American music descended from Congo Square, jazz is how the Crescent City has told the rest of the world about itself. 

Mayor Mitch Landrieu agreed. “It was the musicians who right away understood that they were the soul of New Orleans,” he told me. “Even though, on average, most of the musicians don’t have any money in their pocket, they did everything they could to make sure that not only did the music live, because they knew the music represented the city, and really nobody was more of an ambassador for us than Terence.” Landrieu, who was serving as the lieutenant governor of Louisiana at the time of the storm, had been in charge of culture, recreation, and tourism. He recalled the first Essence Jazz Fest after Katrina. “Just by showing up and doing what he does, [Blanchard] represents the best that New Orleans has to offer, and has been from our perspective not only a dear friend, but a great ambassador as well.” And what are griots if not the spirit of the city itself? 

Back in June, I went to Blues Alley—nestled in among the high-end shops and restaurants in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood—to watch Terence Blanchard perform. He was wearing his signature electric-blue eyeglass frames with a matching shirt and ripped jeans as he took the stage alongside five members of E-Collective, the group he assembled to explore another musical direction, one more funk-laden, electronic, and upbeat. But the social messages imbued in his jazz since even before 1990’s “Sing Soweto” were present and accounted for. Not that it was his original intention. Sometimes even the storyteller needs a push. This time, it came from within his own house.

On his latest album, Breathless, released earlier this year with the E-Collective, Blanchard’s teenage daughters inspired both the title and the imagery of one of its songs, “Cosmic Warrior.” The funk in the album punctures your consciousness. While Blanchard was recording it, he said, “Mike Brown gets shot. Eric Garner is killed, and it’s just one after another, after another, after another.” While a student at Dillard University, Blanchard’s own son was handcuffed in class in a case of mistaken identity, all because he happened to be the nearest black man who wore dreadlocks. “Throughout my life I’ve never been able to ignore social topics in my music,” Blanchard said, “and I’ve always thought that art should be a reflection of the society from which it’s created in.”

Blanchard is from a place where even death is celebrated with music, something incongruous with how we’re told to mourn in this country—politely, while displaying a socially appropriate amount of sadness. But here the African traditions seep through again: in exaggerated dancing and strutting, colorful regalia, and joyful jazz. The famed “second line” parades and jazz funerals in New Orleans are a big part of the city’s cultural signature. Even A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), one of Blanchard’s more melancholy albums, begins with the celebratory “Ghost of Congo Square,” in which the album’s title is chanted repeatedly—“This is a tale of God’s will!”—punctuating Blanchard’s reveling trumpet, which mixes both ancestral and modern rhythms. It was conceived in the wake of Blanchard’s score for Spike Lee’s epic Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke. Writing the album took its toll. 

“Hurricane Katrina was so profound. It has such a profound effect that I really couldn’t write,” Blanchard told me. After the film—the twelfth Lee film Blanchard had scored—the composer decided it was time to write about Katrina. But there was a problem. “I couldn’t come up with nothing,” he said. “And I was so hurt and so angry at the same time that the music was just—it just wasn’t coming together.” Eventually, Burgess, his wife, pushed him to a breakthrough: She suggested he expand on the haunting, powerful themes from Lee’s 2006 hit film Inside Man, many of which were also used for When the Levees Broke. A Tale of God’s Will was released in 2007; Blanchard won one of his four Grammys for it the following year. It remains the definitive artistic statement about Hurricane Katrina and its wrath.

“That was the only album that I’ve ever done where I felt like I had to play that music and tour it,” he said, “but it was hard playing it every night; it was weird. Because every time you get to ‘Funeral Dirge’”—the sorrowful anchor of the album—“I was in tears, because the thing I kept thinking about was those dead bodies in the streets of New Orleans—places that I’ve frequented. It’s like if we were to walk out of here right now and you’d see two or three or four dead bodies just lying around here.”

Terence Blanchard stands outside his childhood home in Ponchartrain Park, which was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Amy K. Nelson

The last song on A Tale of God’s Will is “Dear Mom,” an ode to Blanchard’s mother, Wilhemina. Before Hurricane Katrina landed in New Orleans, Wilhemina decided to stay with her sister, who planned to head to Mississippi, instead of driving to Atlanta with her son and his family. Blanchard insisted she join them, but she said, “No, no, no, no.” Then the hurricane hit. Water overtook the levees he’d always been told would be strong enough, and the neighborhood was flooded. All you could see were rooftops and the elevated train tracks nearby. 

After reaching Atlanta, Blanchard did what most of us did: turn on the news and watch the ruination of New Orleans from afar. For him, the devastation wasn’t real until he saw it onscreen. “New Orleans always floods, so you say that to us and it doesn’t really mean much. Until they showed me a picture of the Circle Foods store, which is at Claiborne and St. Bernard.” That’s in the Seventh Ward, about twelve blocks inland from the Mississippi River. “For anybody who knows the city, it’s in the middle of the city, which is the closest thing to being landlocked we will ever have.”

Blanchard got nervous. Then he got scared. Where was Wilhemina? “I started calling my mom, and she never answered her cell phone,” he said. “For two weeks, dude, my mom didn’t answer her cell phone.”

She picked up eventually. “You know, but here’s the things about it: I didn’t know whether to strangle my mom or just look at her and laugh, because it’s funny now, it’s funny now. But when I finally got my mom I go ‘Mom! Where have you been? I’ve been trying to call you. For two weeks!’ And that ought to show you how much she touched her phone, because the battery lasted for two weeks. She said, ‘I heard that thing buzzing in my purse, I didn’t know what it was.’”

His mother survived the storm and the flood, but her home in New Orleans’s middle-class Pontchartrain Park neighborhood—the one Blanchard grew up in—didn’t. In a wrenching scene in When the Levees Broke, Blanchard brings a tearful Wilhemina to the house. Mere blocks from the Industrial Canal, the structure remained intact, but its interior was destroyed. Due to legal battles and unsafe conditions inside the home, it would be nearly ten years after the storm before Wilhemina was able to move back in.

“What really pissed me off were all the discussions about whether we should rebuild New Orleans,” he said, singling out the laissez-faire speculation about the Lower Ninth Ward shortly after Katrina. “What pissed me off about that neighborhood, which was probably one of the neighborhoods hit the hardest? It’s a low-income neighborhood, but most of those people owned those homes.”

He tells me this as we drive into Ponchartrain Park toward the house he grew up in. It is ranch-style, like most in the neighborhood, with new fixtures in front. The door looks especially new. The Blanchard family home is barely recognizable from what I saw of it in Lee’s documentary. He points to the roof, reminding me that he was photographed sitting there for the cover of A Tale of God’s Will. A light is on inside, but it’s a little late for a visit. We just stand out in the street so he can illustrate how much has changed in the old neighborhood where he played football with his friends; he points out the telephone poles that marked the end zones. Did you know that one of the world’s foremost jazz trumpeters busted his lip as a kid on this very driveway? The scar becomes visible when I hold up my phone and shine a light on it. 

What was truly bizarre, he said, was the water line on the homes straight down the neighborhood, from house to house. But strangest was the silence. It reminded him of the same quiet he heard when he brought his mother back to the house after Katrina: no people, no birds, not even insects making noise. “Right now, you’re hearing crickets. That wasn’t happening. Right now, you can hear movement on the highway over there. That wasn’t happening.” Blanchard added that he saw a deer leg lying near the FEMA trailer across the street. “We never saw deer back here,” he said. Let alone the predators that ate them.

Now, the animal parts and wreckage are gone and the crickets are back. The homes are repaired; some out-of-place newer ones built on stilts are here, too. Some homes never came back. Some people didn’t either. “Any other time when I was growing up and we were standing right here, I’d pull up right here and somebody would be like, ‘Yo, T! What’s happening?’ Because they’d be out, doing stuff.” We still don’t know how many were killed by Katrina and its horrific aftermath. But the block Blanchard used to know has also passed away. “I miss this, man,” he tells me as we head back to his car.

Blanchard entertains friends at his home during a Saturday brunch one week before the Katrina anniversary.
Amy K. Nelson

I have brunch with Blanchard and Burgess on a Saturday afternoon at their New Orleans home. Among their distinguished friends at the table were a top editor at the Times-Picayune and a federal judge. Two actors I’ve long respected, Lynn Whitfield and CCH Pounder, also sat nearby while we ate giant shrimp, turkey sausage, and scrambled eggs. But amidst the mimosas and the laughter, there was no talking shop, no bragging. The guests talked about their city, about Katrina, and the work needed to keep the city’s culture as vibrant as it had been before the flood.

One of the Blanchard family friends at the table is the New Orleans city attorney, Sharonda Williams. “My biggest recollection of music in the immediate aftermath around the storm was more just the movement to make sure that musicians could come back, and the use of music as a fundraising tool to get resources for the city,” Williams told me later. Blanchard remembered it well. “At the moment, there were some guys—Shannon Powell was one of them—who were like heroes in my mind because they were playing gigs in New Orleans right after the hurricane,” he said. “In the immediate aftermath, there was this profound sense of loss and a profound need to express, so music was coming from everywhere. Everybody had something that they wanted to say. Or needed to—not wanted to, it’s not that they wanted to. Everybody had a need to express themselves.”

Several other artists, however, were either killed or permanently displaced by Katrina. The mayor recalled how Blanchard and other artists had helped out. “One of the things I did [as lieutenant governor] immediately was raise about $3 million in something called the Cultural Economy Fund that was designed to have no red tape to get to artists and musicians—instrumental artists, musical artists, visual artists—the tools that they needed to stand back up,” Landrieu told me. “And of course, this went mostly to African American artists because that’s who really got hurt.”

Blanchard and his wife tried to involve themselves in a number of projects following the storm and its aftermath, and in her telling, it wasn’t easy. Folks were used to doing things a certain way, and they met with some pushback. Blanchard recalled seeing the orchestra in elementary school, and wanted that for young kids growing up in a changed New Orleans. “We pushed through,” Burgess said. “He said, ‘I could have been so much better had I had these other experiences,’ or ‘It was great when I had these experiences, but now they’re gone. I’ve gotta get them back.’” 

Blanchard was working at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, then located at UCLA’s campus, when the hurricane hit—and both he and Burgess saw an opportunity. In April of 2007, nearly two years after Katrina, Burgess and Blanchard helped to temporarily relocate the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz to Loyola University New Orleans to benefit young local musicians. Named its artistic director, Blanchard, who had been a student in Loyola University’s summer camps as a boy, oversaw jazz classes for high schoolers and master classes for college students, as well as field trips with a group called Young Audiences that exposed them to the same art that had moved him as a child. “Those kids learned that there was a validity in how they wanted to express themselves, and it was beautiful,” Burgess said. “Absolutely beautiful.”

One person at the table, the federal judge, does finally pop a collar and sing someone’s praises: That of our host. After I deposit my dishes in the kitchen and return to the dining area, the judge addresses me directly, loud enough for all to hear. He wants me to understand how much Terence and Robin have meant to New Orleans, he says, and most importantly, he wants me to understand how those gathered were making sure that black music stayed as strong a tradition in the city as it had been pre-Katrina. Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen to him. Around the table, I saw a few nods of agreement and silent amens.

After performing with Jason Marsalis’s quintet at a New Orleans nightclub, trumpeter Andrew Baham shows Blanchard his trumpet.
Amy K. Nelson

There’s a quip often attributed to Tennessee Williams: “America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” As a son of Cleveland, I thought of the quote when Blanchard told me about working on the 2011 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that featured an all-black cast.

“When you read his play, it actually describes what we’re experiencing,” Blanchard said while we waited for our late-night meal at Dat Dog on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres Street. We’d just come in from hearing a brass band play Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” go-go style. Jazz from the street below reached us on the balcony above. “He talks about hearing music from his apartment, and how the music was floating around the neighborhood, you know? And that’s why I was telling those guys from the [Broadway] production, ‘You need to come to New Orleans and experience the French Quarter,’” where the play is set. “Because in a weird way, what Tennessee Williams describes still exists.” 

Blanchard, who is working on the score for Lee’s next film, Chiraq, is careful to note the difference between the music that New Orleans artists export, and the music they play within city limits. Blanchard insists that what you hear when he—or the Marsalis brothers, or the Rebirth Brass Band, or Trombone Shorty, or Shannon Powell—plays in your town is a different thing that what you hear here. “I’ve known people—seriously, bruh—people who came here for vacation and never left. Because people come here to lose their minds,” he said. The best description of New Orleans he’d ever heard in his life, Blanchard said, came from a woman who’d joined him and his wife on the porch for hours one day at his old house on St. Charles Street. “New Orleans is a city of moments,” she told him. Now that I’ve experienced a few of those moments on Frenchmen Street, he asks me where else in America that this could exist. I can’t answer him.

I mean, damn, just what I’ve seen him experience tonight: running into an old classmate serving home-cooked meals for the late-night Frenchmen Street stragglers; encountering his daughter’s former music teacher right before his gig; the tuba peeking above the crowd assembled across the street from Dat Dog to see a band play outside a now-closed venue that, before Katrina, they might have been headlining.

Earlier that night, about a block away from where we were now eating our hot dogs, we’d made it to the Snug Harbor nightclub just in time to catch the end of drummer Jason Marsalis’s set. The youngest son of Ellis Marsalis, Jason was playing his father’s music with four other musicians—sax, piano, bass, and, of course, trumpet—on the stage directly below us. The sweat from the night’s work showed through the shoulders of Jason’s gray, collared shirt.

Blanchard grew up with Jason’s older brothers Branford and Wynton, and he recalls Jason going crazy with excitement when one of his brothers put headphones on his ears as a toddler. Blanchard’s head bobs and his body sways in the tall stool where he’s seated; his white sneaker taps softly in time with the beat. The first song, inspired by Count Basie, was fast-paced. The last tune was slower, and gave room for each musician to solo. 

Afterward, Blanchard stays upstairs near the dressing room to greet the band, a few of whom he knows personally. Andrew Baham, the trumpet player, has his horn in hand, and Blanchard examines it, asking everything from its make and model to the size of its bell. “It sounded rich, man,” Blanchard says. He’s in his element here, and it’s a master class in generosity: encouraging an up-and-comer in his art, all while laughing and carrying on like it’s nothing. You can imagine a similar scene at the Monk Institute—or even on the streets of New Orleans, should the griot come across a young trumpet player straining to hit the right notes.

Music and other forms of art are not extraneous to the black experience, and they are not created for pure leisure. That maimed city, more than any other in the United States, has understood this; as the enslaved ancestors at Congo Square proved, art is essential to maintaining the spirit when the body fails.

Both Blanchard and his city, though changed irrevocably by Katrina, won’t stop being what they are. I can tell you that, sure. But it’s more convincing when you hear it from him. Sounds better, too.