The cops keep knocking on the door of the brownstone in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York, that is home to Bill Lee, the 84-year-old bassist and composer, and father of filmmaker Spike Lee. As reported by Corey Kilgannon in Saturday’s New York Times, “This year through May 23, the police said, 17 noise complaints have been filed about the Lee residence. Most, if not all, were called in by a woman in the brownstone next door who moved in three years ago.” Kilgannon was picking up on a story that ran a few days earlier in the New York Post.
I’ve not spoken with anyone involved in this story. According to the Times piece, the neighbor who keeps complaining, who didn’t want her name published, has been “awakened at all hours” and has offered to pay for soundproofing to Lee’s home. Everyone deserves a little peace and quiet at home, and it’s hard to comment on individual incidents without knowing all the facts.
Yet my eye was drawn to some quotes and passages in the Times and Post articles. Like this, from the Times piece:
The Lees’ next-door neighbor on the other side, Dianne Mackenzie, said that though she and her tenants could hear the music at moderate volume, she was fine with it and warned prospective tenants not to rent if they objected to music. She called the dispute emblematic of the changes in Fort Greene, a neighborhood long known for its diversity and creative residents, and one that has seen an influx of higher-income settlers.
“This is the problem with the people who just got here, compared to the people who’ve been here longer,” she said.
Ms. Lee [Bill Lee’s wife] echoed Ms. Mackenzie’s sentiment. “You didn’t just move into a house, you moved into a community,” she said.
And this in the Post:
“I don’t think of music as a problem,” said Lee, who plays bass and piano. “Music is a big part of this house. Always has been.”
Bill’s wife, Susan, 61, added: “Why should anybody who’s lived a certain way in a neighborhood be forced to change? The thing that bothers me most about it is the attempt to criminalize and demonize the music and the musicians.”
My mind flashed on something saxophonist Steve Coleman told me more than a decade ago, when I was researching a chapter for the book “Brooklyn: A State of Mind.”
I was writing about the dynamic scene among jazz musicians in Fort Greene and surrounding neighborhoods in the 1980s and ’90s, right about when Bill Lee’s son Spike was establishing himself as a big-time talent (and a nascent brand). Entertainment Weekly ran a 1992 cover story about Fort Greene, calling it a “Black Bloomsbury.”
Coleman had spent some time in a Manhattan YMCA after hitchhiking from his native Chicago in 1978. He soon found himself drawn to Brooklyn by pockets of smart and daring players but for another reason, too. He was disturbing other residents at the Y with his practicing. He took his horn up to the roof, but neighbors in nearby buildings complained. Brooklyn reminded him of Chicago, he said, for its neighborhood orientation.
“For one thing, you could relax,” Coleman said. “And another thing — and this is crucial for musicians, though it may not sound like a big deal: You could make noise. A big deal with musicians is to be in a place where you can play without worrying. And I’ll tell you, traditionally, in black neighborhoods, it’s easy to practice. When you go into white neighborhoods, or expensive neighborhoods, people are not used to people making noise. They just won’t tolerate it.”
I’ve never forgotten those remarks, because they say a lot about the intersection of cultural history and real estate. It’s worth noting that part of Fort Greene’s allure, beyond its architecture and proximity to Manhattan, is its cultural imprimatur.
But what happens in cities known for music when redevelopment builds on the cachet of culture but doesn’t want it next door?
I’ve been writing about these issues as they continue to play out in a variety of ways in New Orleans since 2005. Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 piece for Salon, about the police shutting down a memorial procession for a tuba player in Tremé, a neighborhood known for traditional jazz culture, that connects to the idea that development often bites the cultural hand that fed it, as well as to Susan Lee’s point about “criminalizing musicians”:
Katy Reckdahl, a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, had rushed to catch up with the Monday-evening procession when her 2-year-old son Hector heard tubas in the distance. What she didn’t expect was a sudden flood of patrol cars, sirens blaring. Her front-page, full-banner-headline report two days later described police running into the crowd, grabbing at horn players’ mouthpieces, and trying to seize drumsticks out of hands. “The confrontations spurred cries in the neighborhood about over-reaction and disproportionate enforcement by the police, who had often turned a blind eye to the traditional memorial ceremonies,” she wrote. “Still others say the incident is a sign of a greater attack on the cultural history of the old city neighborhood by well-heeled newcomers attracted to Tremé by the very history they seem to threaten.”
Reckdahl was among the speakers at a Tulane University panel discussion June 6 on “The Arts and Gentrification in New Orleans” (other panelists included pianist Ellis Marsalis and trumpeter Shamarr Allen). The website announcing the event stated: “New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and home to a thriving arts scene, has recently become a hotbed of entrepreneurship, industry and development. The current economic boom raises serious questions about the continued viability of New Orleans as an authentic cultural epicenter.” And it asked: “Does Progress Destroy Culture?”
In some ways — in important ways — New Orleans is exceptional for both its singular culture and for the idiosyncratic forces that often oppose or even suppress that culture. But in some ways — again, important ones — New Orleans offers potent examples of the sorts of tensions that play out wherever culture clashes with supposed progress.
A few months ago, I received a postcard in the mail that bore the headline “No, America, We Will Not ‘Turn That Music Down.’” The promotional campaign, from the Louisiana Department of Tourism, hit just as the City of New Orleans cracked down on music clubs that ran afoul of zoning and noise ordinances. Cops began showing up and shutting things down because irate neighbors demanded that clubs, well, turn that music down — or off. The city’s policies, which are only sporadically enforced and often cryptically expressed, make it complicated to turn it up in the first place — live music is essentially prohibited in most areas of the city if you play by the rulebook (no one does) — and easy to silence it with the slightest provocation.
In the fall of 2012, several popular New Orleans clubs were forced to temporarily suspend or stop presenting music. Local bloggers declared it the city’s latest “war against culture.” With all due respect to the rights and wishes of homeowners who deserve peace and quiet, it was hard not to view these developments as fresh skirmishes, rich with troubling implications and deep irony. Some of these clubs were among the earliest to reopen as gathering spots for culture lovers and venues for musicians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. A few have been host to lovingly lingering scenes in the HBO series “Treme.”
When music critics and professors gathered in New Orleans in April for the Experience Music Project Pop Conference, they met for opening-night drinks at Mimi’s in the Marigny, just outside the French Quarter. There was no live music or even DJ entertainment, though. Mimi’s was caught in the crosshairs of the crackdown. A day later, panelists at “Noise Ordinances in Austin and New Orleans” discussed why that was the case, and what it meant.
When I arrived in October at Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy, a new club owned by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, the place was packed with musicians, club owners, attorneys, nonprofit staffers, and, at one table, Scott Hucheson, who heads Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office of cultural economy. Through Ruffins’s weekly gigs at several clubs (some of which technically violate city ordinances) and his frequent cameos on “Treme,” he has become, for many, the face of New Orleans culture. When that face turns sour, people notice. Ruffins knows that shutting down music costs musicians work. Now he also has interests on the business side of all that: he owns the Speakeasy and a soon-to-open reincarnation of the beloved Mother-in-Law Lounge. “I’m pissed off,” he said, “and I want to discuss a plan of action to stop the city from taking live entertainment away from small clubs.” He promised to help find solutions, or else to plan a march on City Hall.
Those sounded like fighting words. Yet beyond a contentious first meeting, what has emerged is a movement to turning the volume down — not of the music, but of the rhetoric surrounding it. Those weekly gatherings at Ruffins’s club have become meetings of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), a leaderless organization bent on educating its members about city policies and building bridges with local government more so than fomenting protest. Hannah Kreiger-Benson, a freelance musician and Tulane University graduate student, refers to herself as “facilitator, planner, and representative” for the group. “MaCCNO represents something new, a broader coalition which formed in an organic, grassroots fashion,” she said. “We’re trying to change the public perception of musicians and culture-makers, who want to be seen as valid participants in the policymaking that directly affects them.”
Musicians deserve a seat at the table. There’s more at issue than just the fate of live music in clubs. The spontaneous street events that define New Orleans tradition — jazz funerals, second line parades, and Mardi Gras Indian assemblies — have all required the defense of local attorneys and advocacy groups during the last several years.
Wherever music is made and especially wherever styles are born and culture is lived — in New Orleans or Brooklyn or anywhere — there will be noise. Whether that noise is beautiful or not is a matter for the beholder. Neighbors, be they residents or club owners, need to be good neighbors. And yet culture itself at some point becomes a constituent in communities where it has long been foothold and attraction.
Susan Lee told the New York Times last week: “This is a professional house with professional musicians living here. If it bothers you, maybe this is not the place for you.”
I recall what a longtime resident of Tremé told me in 2007, after a resident’s complaint prompted police to cut short a hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” in a neighborhood where funeral processions are both an essential element of culture and an act of shared respect.
“What are these people thinking?” he said. “It’s like if you move into beachfront property and then decide that you don’t like sand or water.”