Bush to New Orleans Jazz Legend: “Pick Up All The Trash”
(This post was corrected)
Before Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and ruined many of its cultural landmarks, people from all over the city — all over the country, in fact — would flock to the Bywater section to see trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ weekly gig. I was in New Orleans immediately before Katrina and had the privilege of hearing Ruffins play. Inside a small, smoky bar, with his band positioned literally inches from its raucous audience, Ruffins commanded the room, using popular R&B arrangements like John Legend’s “Ordinary People” as his platform for long, cathartic improvisations.
After the show, I spent twenty minutes talking music with Ruffins’ sidekick, the young trumpet prodigy, Trombone Shorty. A few of Shorty’s teenage friends stood nearby and listened in. The street was filled with the sound of easy chatter from liquor-sodden revelers who had stepped outside for a smoke. A Stevie Wonder song drifted from inside the bar. I think it was “My Cherie Amor.” I was a world away from the dour east coast jazz scene where staggering door fees, drink minimums, and dress codes enforce an uptight atmosphere that favors the well-to-do, excludes young people, and keeps listeners at a distance from performers, who are often conferred undue reverence.
Anyone who saw Ruffins in his element knew that behind the Bush administration’s incompetent response to Katrina was a deep-seated disrespect for the culture that thrived exclusively in New Orleans. The White House had no idea what was at stake when Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast. To Bush and his cronies, New Orleans was little more than a cesspool of black Democrats. By the time the city was flooded, their consituency was safely evacuated.
Yesterday, George W. and Laura Bush hosted Ruffins and his band, the Barbeque Swingers, at the annual Congressional Picnic. Bush’s remark to Ruffins is the ultimate symbol of his disdainful attitude towards the culture of New Orleans that he allowed to drown under the floodwaters of the Mississippi:
MR. RUFFINS: Well, thanks for having us.
THE PRESIDENT: Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers, right out of New Orleans, Louisiana. (Applause.)
MR. RUFFINS: Thank you. Thanks for having us. We’re glad to be here.
THE PRESIDENT: Proud you’re here. Thanks for coming. You all enjoy yourself. Make sure you pick up all the trash after it’s over. (Laughter.)
God bless you, and may God bless America. Thanks for coming. (Applause.)
END 8:12 P.M. EDT
(I am told by a member of the press corps who attended the ceremony and by a reader that Bush directed his “pick up the trash” comment at the audience. I still find Bush’s comment reflective of a dismissive attitude to his New Orleanian guests.)