Friday, July 12, 2019

The Great Hunkering Down



In the year 999, European Christians  were preparing for the Apocalypse. They were convinced the end of the world was near and they should get ready for the Rapture. It never happened. In hindsight, they called it “the great Non-Event.”

In the year 2000, American folks were preparing for Y2K, some massive failure of computer systems that would bring down the country. It never happened. 

Here in New Orleans, after dreaming of, preparing, working hard on my first Jazz Course in New Orleans, I was faced with the possibility of cancelling after the first of the scheduled 10 days. 45 people who joined me in the dream and had come here from as far away as Spain, South Africa, Singapore and San Francisco, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia and Vancouver were faced with the prospect of having our hopes and dreams crushed by something as simple as bad weather. 

The course began with a dramatic flash flood with 8 inches of rain and my co-organizer, Saint Allen Dejan (my title) driving me and my fellow Pentatonics band teachers through streets turned into rivers. People who started to walk the few hundred yards from their dorms were told to seek shelter in a building close to the Performing Arts Center, but not yet there. Suddenly photos like the above where flashing on the group What’s Ap. Scary!

And yet 15 minutes after the scheduled starting time, all but 8 arrived and 30 minutes later, we all were there. Minus the one New Orleans native who had to deal with a flooded house and damaged car. So off we went into our two welcome songs, including one from Ghana that translated as “Thank you for the trouble you took to get here.” Never were those words so true!

By the end of the day, the rain had let up, but the predictions for worse weather to come were dire. Allen told me that the University had decided to close the campus for three days, leaving us with no space to hold class. There was talk about the dangerously and unseasonably high Mississippi River overflowing and possibly breaking a levee that could cost as disaster of Katrina or worse proportions. Things were looking grim. 

That night, my colleagues and I checked the weather obsessively and began exploring options like trying to get the whole course to rent cars and drive to Houston, where a fellow Orff teacher who survived Hurricane Harvey offered shelter. I started to fantasize about  galvanizing the Houston Orff Chapter to find us a church basement and some Orff instruments and continue the course there. Plan B was to rent a car and have us leave the area for three days and go on a spontaneous road trip to return on Sunday when the University might re-open and the weather improve. Plan C was to get out of Dodge while it was possible. The next morning, at the end of constant debate, we had all changed our plane ticket to fly out. An unmitigated disaster for the course financially, personally and educationally. 

But the day itself was calm with no rain, so we went ahead and went to meet the class in the common room of one of the dorms. But I had left some things in the University Band room, so we just casually tried to see if we could get in and lo and behold, the doors were open. So we moved the class back there.. I expected the same massive freak-out we had gone through, but didn’t feel it in the group. We did the opening activity as scheduled, Allen gave an update on the weather and the possible evacuation plans and such and by the end of that, people seemed comfortable staying. I invited my colleague Tom Pierre to lead a gospel song with the perfect title: “The Storm Is Passing Over.” The words could not have been more appropriate: 

“Take courage, my Soul. And let me journey on.
Though the night is dark, and I am far from home.”

Didn’t we raise the rafters with our voice, led by his soulful teaching!!! From there to my version of “Rain Rain Go Away”: and at the break, all but one of my band colleagues, whose family was nervous for him, changed out airline tickets back. Our other Saint, SF Orff Course registrar Rachel, went out to buy water and granola bars for the “great hunkering down” and we finished the day playing a hot Ghana xylophone piece and beginning our first blues improvisations. It never rained a drop the whole day and the sun was out.

That night, around 30 of us went to Frenchman St. and were initiated into the New Orleans club scene. A concert by the Jason Marsalis Trio at Snug Harbor and then just walking down the street poking our head into club-after-club, from a brass band to a Django-like group, to a rock/Soul group and beyond. All the music that came from the fertile seed of the African abduction and grew to such glory on these shores, (in spite of the hatred, brutality, ignorance of the dominant white culture, all of which continues to this day) Driving home at 11:30, there were a few tiny drops of rain. 

Awoke this morning expecting that now the sh*t would hit the fan and though overcast, no rain. Oops, as I wrote that sentence, a little deluge came down. Oh, and now stopped, two minutes later. Not that I’m taking this too lightly. The Weather Channel still says that Tropical storm Barry could drop as much as 25 inches of rain in some areas. But I’m hoping that New Orleans isn’t one of them (while feeling concern and compassion for folks living in the worst of it). I’d love to look back and call this “a great non-event” but the jury is still out.

Meanwhile, this will certainly be a memorable Jazz Course!

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