“Where Dey At?”:
Bounce and the ‘Sanctified Swing’ in Post-Katrina New Orleans
by Mark Anthony Neal | NewBlackMan
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees in New Orleans, there were many high profiles efforts to raise awareness about the cultural legacy of New Orleans. Many of those efforts centered on the exaltation of New Orleans Jazz, with many events aimed at providing shelter and support for Jazz musicians dispersed by the tragedy. New Orleans Jazz seemed the most important resource to be protected in the months after Katrina, more so than the people who made the city such a vital and important, ever evolving cultural outpost. Lost in the focus on New Orleans Jazz—arguably one of the nation’s most important cultural exports—are other forms of musical expression that were and continue to be crucial to the survival and spirituality of New Orleans and its citizens, including those who have yet to return.
Though Jazz was a critical component of Black political discourse and intellectual development throughout the 20th century—jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln are some of the most resonate examples of creative intellectuals—New Orleans Jazz is often depicted as being tethered to some imagined past, in which race relations and the power dynamics embedded in them were far more simplistic.
Indeed recent films like The Princess and the Frog and The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons the television series Treme (despite it’s progressive political critiques) contribute to a nostalgic view that New Orleans Jazz as a dated, static musical form that offers an “authentic” alternative to more commercially viable forms of popular music like rap and R&B music. Much of this has to do with the relationship between New Orleans Jazz and the leisure and tourist industries that were so vital to the city’s economy. In this context, mainstreams desires to save New Orleans Jazz and to protect its musicians are less about strengthening the links between Jazz and Black cultural resistance—a resistance that historically fermented in New Orleans—but maintaining the economic vitality of what Johari Jabir calls the “theater of tourism” in which Black bodies are rarely thought of as citizens but laborers, servants and performers.
In the introduction to the book, In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina: New Paradigms and Social Visions, scholar Clyde Woods places New Orleans Jazz in a much broader context, as part of what Woods has famously described as a “Blues tradition of investigation.” As Woods notes in his essay, “Katrina’s World: Blues, Bourbon and the Return to the Source,” historically the city of New Orleans and the region was “latticed with resistance networks that linked enslaved and free blacks with maroon colonies established in the city’s cypress forests swamps.”
These traditions of resistance would manifest themselves after Emancipation and beyond in the form of “societies and benevolent associations; churches, second lines, pleasure and social clubs; brass bands, the Mardi Gras Indians” and of course New Orleans Jazz. Two practices also linked to resistance in New Orleans are Bounce music and what Jabir refers to as the “sanctified swing,” embodied in the genres of Rap music and Gospel respectively.