Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Nights of White Linen, Days Filled With Trumpeters, and Streets full of Potholes



New Orleans is a city with particular priorities. It's got crumbling levees constructed on sand. The roads have enough potholes to make you feel like you're getting a full-body shiatsu massage if you ride your bike on them.

But, at the same time, it is a city that ardently cares about aesthetics and music.

For instance, while riding on these pothole laden streets one day, I noticed three men working on a public building. They were restoring an old drainpipe with a brand new one made of shiny copper. You know, the kind of copper they use to make gourmet pots and pans.

And while the public transportation here is less than stellar, there are free music festivals year-round, if you can get to them.

So, when a city like this holds a gallery walk night entitled "White Linen Night," the same weekend as "Satchmo Fest", you may very well have to watch your step when you stroll along the streets to enjoy either of them, but you can definitely find some serious partying, free of charge.

White Linen Night
Year-round every Saturday, the galleries in the the Arts District and French Quarter host an Art Walk, during which they open their doors and provide refreshments in the evening for gallery hoppers. White Linen Night is the Art Walk event held each August, designated as the informal kick-off of the summer season of the Art Walk Saturdays.

I had been to something like this before in other cities, but nothing on this scale. Over twenty galleries on Julia Street participate, as do others on nearby side streets or in the French Quarter. Streets are closed to traffic and bars are set up along the lane dividers on each block. Local restaurants have stands, and, of course, there is live music. And just in case that's not enough celebration, there's an official party at the Contemporary Arts Center later in the evening.

And, when they say "white linen", these Southerners are literal (much to my blue-cotton-dress- wearing chagrin. What can I say? White is not that flattering). The streets were chock full of men and women, young and old, donning their whites. The phenomenon was both charming in its tradition and mildly creepy in its uniformity, kind of like a sorority or fraternity.

And the art, well, it's art, right? Some of it cliched tourist stuff--impressionistic scenes of New Orleans, some of it modern and perplexing, some of it beautiful, some of it stimulating, some of it pretentious, some of it all the above.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see the work of a true local painter, Kathy Rodriguez, friend of my building-mates Matt and Amanda. Kathy was born and raised in the New Orleans area, has studied art at the graduate level and now teaches art. Most of her work at this exhibit consisted of quirky but slightly dark portraits of birds, displayed in antique-style guilt frames. She explains to me that the animals were an inspiration of her upbringing in a bird-laden city, where they were rather unwelcome by their human neighbors. I was refreshed by the fact that not all local painters are hung up on cityscapes of New Orleans.

While I enjoyed gazing at all of the canvases I saw that night,
both cheesy and authentic, I gravitated toward exhibits with a more tangible utility. There was a cool exhibit sponsored by GlobalGreen comprised of furniture and other items created from salvaged building materials. Bedframes, desks, and display pieces were constructed from salvaged trellises, siding, and other house remnants which are plentiful here in this post-Katrina era.

At 12:00am the parties were just beginning. But the next day was the last day of Satchmo Fest, held in honor of Louis Armstrong's birthday. New Orleans truly is one of those places where one of the toughest decisions one makes on a regular basis is which free music/art/food event to go to in lieu of another. In the end I decided to take off at midnight, in order to try to save myself for Louis, since I had skipped out on this evening's events for White Linen. It is, afterall, the man's birthday.

Satchmo Fest
So when I woke up the next day I asked myself, "To trumpet, or not to trumpet?" My answer was in the affirmative.
The Festival has been held for ten years and is centered around the Old Mint Building, where the federal government used to coin currency, a particular issue in the region during the Reconstruction Era just after the Civil War. Today it serves as a museum with both standing and rotating exhibits.

Today, the Mint serves as the festival grounds. On three sides of the building are separate stages serving up different venues of music. The fourth side of the building is dedicated to food, where numerous local restaurant sell small dishes. Neighboring bars and clubs also participate, some showing free movies or documentaries about Satchmo. The food comes at a price, but the festival's events are all free of charge.

I cruise around the smaller stages first and listen to a world-music type band, with trumpet, played by a former local, and another more modern jazz band on the third side. On the Red Beans and Ricely Yours stage, I see good ol' reliable local Kermit Ruffins, standing with eleven other trumpeters between the ages of 17 and 70. One of them looks Asian and I swear to you he does a great impression of Louis singing.
They end their set by playing a birthday tribute to Satchmo and free pieces of birthday cake are handed out by volunteers. Streamers are shot into the crowd, and there is a tangible aura of celebration. Residents from surrounding houses look on from their balconies.

I end the day with a piece of Louis' birthday cake. He seemed like a fun guy and probably would have liked such a party.

Walking back to my bike, I'm pretty impressed at the level of security of the entire weekend. The police presence at both White Linen Night and Satchmo Fest was apparent, and no fights or riots broke out in either of these congregations of people, each numbering in the tens of thousands. Clearly, the city beefs up the security at the high profile cultural events like these that make the city famous.

And then I ride home on my bike, with a free shiatsu massage...

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