I love jazz. I can put John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” or Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert in my CD player and instantly be transported to another plane. I remember watching a film of Miles Davis playing Sketches of Spain a couple of years ago. It was filmed in black and white. Miles had a supporting ensemble of largely white guys, all playing earnestly and with great proficiency. But it was as if he himself was in another dimension; as if Miles alone in this film was in Technicolor. He didn’t simply play the notes; there was something transcendent in his playing that lifted the music into a space of higher dimensionality. Jazz itself is transcendent: something of extraordinary beauty – moving, complex and joyous – that somehow came out of the abomination of slavery. It is a miraculous triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and the gift of African Americans to a world that sorely abused them.
It has been my pleasure to spend the last week in New Orleans, a city synonymous with jazz. It is a truly extraordinary place and I’d love to return in the future; my visit has merely whetted my appetite. I began on Bourbon Street which is where the tour guides tend to start, but I found it far too wild for my liking. However, as I began exploring more widely in the French Quarter I discovered a city rich in historic buildings, hanging baskets, charm, colour and of course jazz. I paused in Jackson Square, and enjoyed the gardens and the views of the Cathedral, gleaming white in the mid-day sun. I listened to the jazz bands playing in the square. Streets stretched away on either side, lined with colourful, decorated houses.
I also visited the extraordinary Cemetery No. 1, its above-ground burial places strangely beautiful – a reflection of the forces of nature and a reminder that “all flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field; the grass withers and the flower fades” (Isaiah 40:6). The dead are buried above ground in New Orleans, so that they are not returned to their families when it floods. Poor folk buy small tombs in multi-storey structures, that are rapidly recycled as the intense heat ensures rapid decomposition of remains. Nick Cage has built for himself a large pyramidal sarcophagus; but his fate after internment will be no different from that of paupers in the multi-storey tombs nearby. Death is of course linked to jazz – “When the Saints go Marching In” is a funeral song, a declaration of faith in an afterlife better than that offered on Earth to African American slaves working in the plantations in the Southern States.
Work brought me to New Orleans, but to me New Orleans means jazz. A visit to a jazz club was a must, and last night I made my way to Snug Harbor to hear a wonderful set by Cuban jazz band Maqueque led by Canadian saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett. I had originally hoped to hear the Ellis Marsalis Quintet this evening, but was too late booking a ticket and so took my chance on whoever was playing on Thursday night. “Whoever was playing” turned out to by Maqueque and they were really outstanding. In the wonderfully intimate atmosphere of Snug Harbor’s Music Room they thrilled their audience with superb musicianship, great energy and infectious rhythms. On my way back, I realised the area around Washington Square and Decatur Street had come alive. On the corner opposite Snug Harbor, a huge crowd thronged in the street to listen to a jazz band who were giving a performance outdoors. Music rolled out of clubs as I walked past them; a really remarkable atmosphere.