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Setting the Tempo: TOM PIAZZA



SS: Does that tie into the stereotypes about the South, that some people haven’t changed their mentality, regardless of what century we’re in?

TP: The South is a very complicated, complex cultural ecosystem. Before anybody is too glib — not that I’m saying you’re being too glib — about pointing at the South and remarking on the South’s quaintly backwards attitude about things, everybody just has to remember that in the South people of African and European ancestry have been living in very close proximity and in fact have very often inter-married for hundreds of years in ways that the North hasn’t even approached. The kinds of social relationships and attitudes that you find in the South are in fact a lot more nuanced and complex than those attitudes might be in the North, even when people are espousing attitudes that are much more inclined to agree than we would be in some cases in the South. The fact of the matter is that people in the South very often as I say in the book, I’ve heard white people express opinions down here that you would never, ever hear somebody come out and say in polite company in the North. You’d never hear stuff like I’ve heard down here. People are just assuming you feel the way they do because your skin is white. That’s not to say that people in the North don’t have those same feelings, they’re just conditioned not to express them socially.

Beyond that, the fact of the matter is there are all kinds of strange racial attitudes up North. Just because there’s a kind of ethos of tolerance doesn’t mean there’s anymore mutual understanding between African Americans and so-called white people up North than there is in the South. In fact, I think there’s less.

SS: Do you think the city will repopulate to the levels it was at before the storm?

TP: No. I don’t see how it can. First of all, tens of thousands of houses in New Orleans have been compromised to the point where they’ve already been destroyed or they’ll have to be destroyed. Beyond that, there are many more houses that are still, in principle, viable houses, but that there owners were uninsured or there owners had minimal insurance. There’s no way they’re going to have the money to actually do the renovations. And if they had to relocate and they’re living in Atlanta or whatever and they’d like to come back and fix their house, how are they going to do it? Where is the money going to come from? Just multiply those kinds of situations by tens of thousands and you get some kind of sense of what the difficulty is. The so-called road home program that’s administered by the state is just a complete disaster. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. Something like three percent of the people who are supposed to be getting money haven’t seen anything from them, and there’s been every kind of mix up. The insurance companies have been horrible. Certain companies have just completely stopped writing policies. In fact, I think every single major and minor commercial insurer stopped writing home owners insurance in Orleans Parish or at least below Interstate 10 after Hurricane Katrina. I know this because I bought my house last July and as a first time homeowner — and I checked, believe me — none of them would write new policies. How are people supposed to move back? How are people supposed to acquire houses?

SS: It’s a longstanding tradition that kids in New Orleans come up through this inherently musical system. Obviously it was a different time, but is that how people traditionally learned how to play instruments in the South?

TP: Sure. People forget — it’s a funny thing. There’s so much of an encrustation of legend and image around New Orleans jazz — and around Southern music in general — I think people forget young people go to school in New Orleans and in the South just like they do every place else, and even people from poor families and African Americans are serious about going to school. They might have been segregated in the old days, but they went to school and schools had bands because they had sports teams. They had bands that would play for sporting events and for marches and parades and they had orchestras. They had formal choruses. Yeah, sure, people learned their instruments in schools. There were many people who came from very musical families. There are certain families in New Orleans — and I’m not just talking about the Marsalis family — but families like the Lastie’s or the Andrew’s family. There are many different families in New Orleans with lineages of musicians going back generations.
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