Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gelber Reflects on the "New" Cities

Happy Mardi Gras Everyone! I just got back from New Orleans, where I spent 5 weeks immersing myself in the music and culture there. Part of the purpose of my trip was to help answer a question: Do I want to move there from New York?

New York and New Orleans have a lot in common. Both are great old American port cities. Important for their commerce and cultures, not just to America but to the world. Both cities share many of the same immigrant and ethnic influences: Irish, Italian, Jewish, Caribbean, and African American, and in more recent years Hispanic and Asian as well. I have read that the closest American accent to the New Orleans accent can be found in Brooklyn. (One big ethnic difference is the French influence in New Orleans). Both cities suffered existential catastrophes in the last decade. Catastrophes that have brought about changes in the culture and landscape of each city.

However, despite all the commonalities, in many ways New York and New Orleans are polar opposites. New York is huge and New Orleans is small. Where New York values commerce, New Orleans values tradition. Where New York values money, New Orleans values fun. New York reaches for the sun. New Orleans sinks into the swamp. Both cities celebrate diversity, but where New York is a melting pot, New Orleans is more a layer cake. New York is a dynamic place constantly evolving or replacing its traditions. New Orleans holds onto its traditions. Occasionally adding on more layers.

One frustrating reality of living in New York for a length of time is to fall in love with aspects which then disappear. This is the inevitable consequence of a place that is always in flux. I miss CBGBs. I preferred the bike messengers to the bike lanes. I don't know if I miss the crime, but I certainly miss the freedom. I miss the grit, and I'm constantly annoyed by hipsters with trust funds who try to pass themselves off as artists. When I discovered New Orleans it was like a paradise. The grit, the starving artists, the culture! As a jazz musician, I'm prepared to make a bold statement that New York is no longer the central city of jazz. Jazz was born in New Orleans, it's adolescence in Chicago and Kansas City, it's adulthood in New York, but it has gone back to New Orleans to retire. (Hopefully not to die!).

But living in New Orleans for the last month and a half, I've gained new respect for New York. Katrina has brought a lot of change to New Orleans, but still compared to New York it is a very staid place. As much as I miss the New York I moved to 13 years ago, I realize that there is always opportunity in a place as dynamic as New York. An opportunity which I had come to take for granted.

So as much as I want to have a relationship with New Orleans, I cannot give up my relationship with New York. One fellow traveler I met in New Orleans put it: "New Orleans makes a better mistress than a wife." While the analogy is in dubious taste, I think it might be apt. At least for me. At least at this time.

Friday, July 29, 2011

They don't make 'em like they used to...

... Or do they? Whether you call it "retro," "vintage," or "old-school," recent fascination with all things old has become a theme in popular culture. History is no longer the domain of historians and collectors. The technologies of today are providing accessibility to past cultures. People are now easily exposed to the images of history through Turner Classic Movies, Youtube, and Wikipedia. In a world of rapidly advancing technologies, where change is the norm, stasis can seem novel. Futuristic idealism gives way to ironic historicism. Young people are seduced by the music, clothes, and cocktails of the past because nothing new seems as exotic.

But novelty is not the only driving force behind the vintage nouveau. Past standards of craftsmanship often exceed current standards. The common prewar building materials of stone, brick, wood, and horse plaster are more luxurious than today's dry-wall, cinder block, and particle board. Similarly, the suits, hats, and coats that were tailored in the garment district of the lower east side of Manhattan were of greater quality than the current designer clothes from the sweat shops of China. An LP played on a Thorens turntable through a Scott tube amp has much greater fidelity than an mp3 played though an iPod. And the quality displayed on the recordings from Capital Studios of songs composed by Richard Rogers, lyricized by Lorenz Hart, arranged by Nelson Riddle, and sung by Frank Sinatra is greater than anything you might find in pop music today.

So as contemporary culture turns back on itself, hopefully the downward trend in craftsmanship will be reversed. And maybe someday soon we can proudly say "we just make 'em like they used to!"