New Orleans: Serious About Its Identity As a Music Town?

But of course: New Orleans is a music town, one of the greatest on earth, and in many respects the heart and soul of American music.

It’s the birthplace of jazz, and it would be darn near impossible to gauge how great an impact the city and its indigenous arts culture have had on other forms of musical Americana, including R&B, blues, funk and soul.

And yet because of pesky political obstacles or a lack of imagination, the city’s fathers have never quite been able to capitalize on NOLA’s music/arts culture, which encompasses everything from still-vital brass bands to Mardi Gras Indian groups, great modern jazzers, traditional jazzers, amazing funk/rock groups, inspired singer-songwriters, and soul singers — artists like the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth Brass Band (in photo), New Orleans Nightcrawlers, the Wild Magnolias, Ellis Marsalis, Astral Project, Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Galactic, Paul Sanchez, Alex McMurray and Irma Thomas, just to name a few.

By capitalizing, I mean spending the time and energy, and devoting the appropriate funding and resources to help leverage New Orleans’ amazing music scene — from Frenchman Street to the Uptown clubs — as an essential element driving visitors from all over the world to the city.

No, I don’t mean handouts, although expanding the available arts grants would be entirely appropriate. I’m talking about consistently creating opportunities for musicians to demonstrate their art, and pushing even harder to get that message out to potential tourists from the U.S. as well as those in Canada, Europe, South America, and elsewhere.

Other American cities have accomplished that task more effectively, and two of those cities are in the South – Austin, which has effectively branded itself as “the live music capital of the world” and  Memphis, where blues haven Beale Street does big business.

What would it take for NOLA to become known worldwide as “the home of American music” or “the heart and soul of American music” or something similar, and for hundreds of thousands of additional music-loving tourists to come to the city year-round, not just for the wonders of Jazz Fest?

These were among the topics discussed in a mayoral forum held Monday at Loyola University. Five of the candidates vying to succeed (the largely incompetent) Ray Nagin for the city’s top job met to share ideas during  a gathering sponsored by Music Swings Votes, an organization comprising local music industry professionals.

“The music and cultural community want to be sure that we are recognized by the next mayoral administration, taken seriously, and that we can actually get the mayor to achieve some agreed-upon goals,” said OffBeat magazine publisher Jan Ramsey, an organizer of Music Swings Votes, according to a piece written by Times-Picayune music writer Keith Spera. “We want to emphasize that this is important and they need to include it in their platform and their administration.”

I don’t live in New Orleans, so I’m not familiar enough with the local issues — including those having to do with racial politics — to weigh in on which candidate is best qualified to lead a city still reeling from hurricane devastation. But I will say that Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (photo, left) has consistently worked to elevate the music and music industry of New Orleans and the entire state, which also boasts regional musical treasures zydeco and cajun.

During a Jazz Fest press reception several years ago, I spoke with Landrieu about his efforts to promote Louisiana music. I’ll link to that piece here as soon as I can track it down.

“The music community stepped up to remind everybody that New Orleans is the soul of America. … I want to trumpet it, no pun intended, to the rest of the world,” Landrieu told the crowd, which included New Orleans-born trumpet great Terence Blanchard.

Boosting the public profile of the city’s music/arts culture would be of huge benefit to all of the city’s people, not  just for the musicians and other artists. A dramatic increase in tourism would help everyone in New Orleans survive, and again thrive, to regain its footing as a major American city.

Here’s hoping that the city’s next mayor possesses the inspiration and determination to make that happen.