John Mitchinson reflects on his latest trip to the ‘Big Easy’

I’ve just spent 10 intensely hot and happy days in the city of New Orleans at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival – known locally as Jazz Fest: a riotous celebration of music and food featuring more than 650 acts across 14 stages. 

I’ve been to many festivals in my time, but none like Jazz Fest. Part of what makes it so special is the extravagant range and quality of the music on offer, but even more important is that so much of the music (and all the food) is produced by people who live in or near the city. 

Jazz Fest is just one important element in an annual calendar of cultural celebration which is unique in the Western world. No city celebrates itself quite as joyously or defiantly as New Orleans.

Some part of that defiance derives from the unique position and history of the city. People who fall in love with it – and I’m one – will tell you it isn’t like the rest of America (Tennessee Williams – another devotee – famously said that it was one of only three cities in America, along with New York and San Francisco. The rest, he said, was Cleveland). 

Founded by the French in 1718 as a port linking the mighty Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, the city of La Nouvelle-Orléans was ceded to the Spanish for the last three decades of the 18th Century, briefly reverting to French control in 1803 whereupon Napoleon sold it to the Anglo-Americans as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The old part of the town – now known as the French Quarter – remained Catholic and Francophone well into the 19th Century. 

By 1812, New Orleans had become ‘the great mart of all the wealth of the Western world’. It was also the world’s biggest market for slaves. Significantly – because the Spanish (unlike the Anglo-Americans) allowed their slaves to own property and purchase their freedom – by the early 19th Century, a fifth of the city’s population were free people of colour, and the area of Tremé, next to the French Quarter, became America’s first black neighbourhood. 

At the entrance to Tremé was the open ground known as Congo Square. It was there, as a visitor to the city observed in 1819, that “the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp and rock the city with their Congo dances”. It is out of this tradition of public performance, of drumming and dancing, of the mix of races, languages and cultures, of music as a simultaneous act of defiance and expression, that the great American art form of jazz would emerge in the New Orleans of the early 20th Century. 

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Bar-hopping in the French Quarter or drifting from stage to stage at Jazz Fest, you sense that music in this city has never stood still. Here, the barriers between traditional and modern jazz, funk and R&B, Cajun and zydeco, bounce and hip-hop are porous. Past and present co-exist. Different traditions feed off one another; musicians swap from band to band – what matters is being present and giving your all. Music in New Orleans resists commodification.

Not that it’s an easy city to live in. Crime is a constant problem – so too corruption, incompetent public services (symbolised by the legendary potholes), and the annual threat of devastation by hurricanes and rising sea levels. Yet there is something about the culture which enables a sinking city to float. New Orleans survived two of the worst environmental catastrophes of modern times – Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left 80% of the city underwater; and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of 2010, in which 200 million gallons of oil was pumped into the Gulf of Mexico. 

In his glowing portrait of the city, Nine Lives, New Yorker journalist Dan Baum hints at how it manages to face down the worst: “In the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyper-efficient United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience”. One of the best t-shirts I saw at Jazz Fest bore the line: ‘So far behind we’re ahead’. 

That’s what I love about it. The virus of late capitalism often appears incurable, but New Orleans might just contain an antidote. Life is built around public celebration and ritual – carnival krewes, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, social aid and pleasure clubs, brass bands, crawfish boils and second line parades – not gated communities and pointless wealth.

In 1922, the novelist Sherwood Anderson (another lover of the city) wrote: “When the fact is made secondary to the desire to live, to love, and to understand life, it may be that we will have in more American cities a charm of place such as one finds in the older parts of New Orleans now.”

In short: less Cleveland; more New Orleans!

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI

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