Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say

I’ve always gotten a strong feeling from walking through cemeteries, but I never realized why until I looked into two very different cemeteries in New Orleans.
    My visit 15 years ago started at New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis I. Its tall wrought iron and stone monuments are packed tightly on a grid of narrow graveled paths, and extend block after block. Right away, you can see how it suits the urban traditions of the tradespeople and city elders buried there. On my tour, we found the marble tomb of Homer Plessy, the shoemaker who became famous in 1896 during the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was a civic-minded Creole tradesman who belonged to two community associations. Those groups supported him in his historic legal fight against segregation.
    These associations were another New Orleans tradition. They arranged picnics and dances, but their most important role was a sort of funeral insurance, to provide a suitable wake and funeral for members. At least one brass band and uniformed mourners would accompany the family on the "last mile" with the body. After standing by Plessy during his lifetime, they walked beside him on his last ride in 1925 on the way to St Louis I.
    Things looked a lot different across town in Holt cemetery near the city park. Begun as a potters field, Holt is the final home of the city's poorest residents. You entered from a community college parking lot, into what at that time looked like an overgrown field. A hand-painted sign says "Holt cemetery".
    Holt wasn't in any guidebook, but I knew that it was where Charles "Buddy" Bolden, the first "king" of jazz, was buried thanks in part to a note at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s fine novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Bolden was famous for his cornet playing and his charm with the women. A five-year-old Louis Armstrong heard King Bolden play and remembered the sound for the rest of his life. (Recently Treme honored him with an episode title, “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.”) But Bolden’s career was cut short in 1906 by mental illness, and when he died in an institution many years later, all but forgotten, he was buried in Holt without ceremony or marker.
    On my visit years ago, I found no sign of his grave. Instead I found a landscape of remembrance very different from St. Louis I, or any other I recognized. Graves in Holt are marked by plastic knickknacks and chinaware, like someone's picnic spot. These personalized markers spring from a rural African-American tradition and are as rich in their way as the marble in St Louis I. At many graves, loved ones have placed cups, saucers, bottles, rugs, bits of plaster. In that tradition, these items create a place where spirits of the departed can take rest and solace for their voyage.
    But like their fellow citizens in St. Louis I, the departed in Holt need a funeral to send them on their way, and many poor families valued burial insurance more highly than health or accident insurance. Again, community associations provided it. Their brass bands nurtured Buddy Bolden's (and Armstrong’s) musical growth and shaped his repertoire. But when he died, there was no band to give him a proper goodbye.
    On Bolden’s 119th birthday, New Orleans made amends and gave Buddy Bolden a proper send-off. Delgado Community College organized the tribute, Stewart Enterprises donated a stone marker, and the Olympia Brass Band led a second-line parade of hundreds of New Orleanians and several television crews. A generation who never knew Bolden turned out to honor his memory because it said something about who they are and where they come from.
    Now, his great-granddaughter said afterward, “he may be at peace.”
    After years away, I stopped by Holt last weekend and visited Bolden’s fine marker, which seemed to honor also the other homemade markers surrounding it – the orange plastic flower, the child’s toys.
    The stone called Bolden “legendary cornet player/ New Orleans jazz pioneer/ And first 'King of Jazz' and included Jelly Roll Morton's description of him: “The blowingest man since Gabriel.”
    This Halloween let’s keep our ears peeled for those spirits.

This is adapted from an article that first appeared in
International Cemetery & Funeral Management magazine. That’s right.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cuban Missile Crisis: When the Cold War Rolled Down the Sunshine State Parkway

Fifty years ago this week, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought a Cold War nuclear threat to millions of American homes. To mark the anniversary, the National Archives issued a new mobile app that lets you listen to JFK's briefings about the aerial photographs that found Soviet warheads in Cuba. But for 13-year-old Tim Warburton, the Crisis appeared as a traffic phalanx rolling down a Florida highway. 
    His parents had divorced and his father, restaurauteur Barclay Warburton III, was restoring himself by refurbishing a yacht, the Black Pearl, in a Florida boatyard. He brought his son for months to help. That October, the ride back to his father’s place after school in Boca Raton seared on Tim’s brain the sight of a southbound convoy of U.S. armed vehicles and personnel.
    "I remember the Sunshine State Parkway completely packed in the southbound lanes with military trucks, men, missiles," he says. "It was unbelievable."
    The U.S. administration was scrambling to respond to a threat. By October 26, Kennedy was prepared to invade Cuba to remove the Soviet missiles. The next evening the high tensions led to a clandestine huddle of emissaries from Kennedy and Krushchev at a Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC (now the Walgreen’s where I buy razor blades). The following day, both parties stepped back from the brink.
    The harrowing episode left many people searching for another path, including Frank Braynard, then on the staff of the American Merchant Marine Institute. Braynard, who loved the great sailing ships that had all but disappeared from the ports, and Nils Hansell, an I.B.M. employee and kindred, met in Braynard’s office at 11 Broadway and hatched a plan named Operation Sail. The name evoked romance and intrigue of an intelligence effort, an absurd contrast with outmoded sea transport, and the hope for an effort to foster international goodwill.
    They wrote to anyone who might help. Officials began to champion the idea. From Albany, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued letters to foreign dignitaries inviting them to join Operation Sail 1964, "a project to bring the great school sail ships of the world" to New York. Hansell's I.B.M. connections led to an invitation from the White House staff. In 1963 Kennedy signed on. "Sailing has given me some of the most pleasant and exciting moments of my life," Kennedy wrote. "Thus I am looking forward to Operation Sail. The sight of so many ships gathered from the corners of the world should remind us that strength, discipline and venturesome men still can find their way safely across uncertain and stormy seas."
    Kennedy would never see that spectacle, but two years after witnessing the defense machinery pass their boatyard, the Warburtons father and son sailed the Black Pearl to New York. In July 1964 New York hosted the first Operation Sail where dozens of sailing ships from around the world came together alongside the futurescape of the World's Fair. Warburton remembers the Fair and the AT&T videophone exhibited there.
    Operation Sail gave him memories of great square-riggers gathered at the Verrazano Bridge and Burl Ives, a family friend, singing sea chanties up the Hudson. One clear, painful memory involves a side competition among the ships: a rowing contest of dinghies. "We had a terrible boat," he laughs. "I was an oarsman, and we were last. By a long distance."
    But the tall ships had a powerful effect on the father. "That was his conversion," Tim told me for a book on Operation Sail. The 1964 event marked the end of the Black Pearl's days as the yacht of a playboy and the start of its mission as a sail-training vessel for young people.
    The sight of these ships gathering in the wake of the Missile Crisis (and the shadow of Lyndon Johnson's doomsday '64 election campaign ad, Daisy) hit home. Barclay Warburton saw the sailing ships' arrival as a way for a new generation to meet each other across borders and learn how others live. Warburton dedicated much of his life to creating the American Sail Training Association, a group that pursued that mission. Another Operation Sail brought the ships to New York and other U.S. ports this summer (including the Indonesian vessel Dewaruci, on its last epic seven-seas journey), where the vessels of a bygone era paraded once again, ghostly reminders of other showdowns.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Occupy, Looking Back a Year Later

On the anniversary of the Occupy movement, a look back at how it appeared in three cities up the East Coast in the fall of 2011.