Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks to everybody for being here even though I know so many people are still dealing with disasters of their own. Let's take a listen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What you're hearing are the sounds of Louis Armstrong, jazz legend, national treasure, and native son of New Orleans. When Hurricane Ida made landfall on Sunday, it wiped away. Part of Armstrong's New Orleans history.
Speaker 2: Historical significance behind this building that is no longer there as this is the Karnofsky Music Store. This music store we know is affiliated with Louis Armstrong.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Karnofsky building is where Armstrong worked as a child for the Karnofsky family. They were the ones who encouraged him to pursue music. While we can never predict exactly what weather events will take from us, we can try to prepare. In this instance, New Orleans was not prepared to lose the Karnofsky Building. I wanted to get a sense of how big a loss this was by talking with another native son of New Orleans, actor Wendell Pierce. You probably know peers from Jack Ryan or maybe his iconic Bunk Moreland role in The Wire. If you're from New Orleans, what you truly remember is Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste in HBO's Treme.
Wendell Pierce: Bro, if you'd taken Jefferson Highway to magazine to get into town like I told you, it would have been cheaper.
Speaker 4: You're killing me, dawg. $28 on the meter.
Wendell Pierce: I'm good for it, man. Just pick me up at 2:00 right here, baby. Take me home.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What I didn't expect to hear was how harrowing the experience of getting his own father who's 96 years old to safety during Ida was. Pierce had to watch the storm unfold from an ocean away due to his work.
Wendell Pierce: I am in Athens, Greece right now working shooting Jack Ryan. I saw the storm coming. We saw how urgent it was to evacuate. I didn't want to take any chances. My father was 80 during Katrina and he's 96 now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wow.
Wendell Pierce: He's at home still. We rebuilt the home that we rebuild after Katrina and he's under 24-hour care. I coordinated two caretakers to go with him in his wheelchair-accessible van and a follow car. One of the caretakers, I said, "Bring your family," her husband and three children. They started the trek to Houston. It took them 12.5 hours. We had a medical emergency with one of the children on that Friday. I called ahead and said, "We're going to be delayed because they have to have a medical procedure and we'll get there Saturday morning." Got there Saturday night. That's how long it took.
When they arrived, their rooms were given away. It's now 1:00 o'clock in the morning. I asked to speak to the night manager or the night auditor, whatever his position is. I was on speakerphone and he refused to speak to me. I said, "I coordinated this entire trip. I've paid for this entire trip. How can you give the rooms away?" They gave the rooms away. Now I'm stuck. We're in Houston, there's no rooms because everybody from New Orleans has evacuated there. My father has been in his wheelchair on the road for 12.5 hours. I know I have to really take care of his health because he's fragile.
We then immediately started getting on the phones trying to find someplace to stay. That night clerk then said, "Get out, you can't stay here," to my caretakers. I said, "We are trying to get rooms. You gave our rooms away." We called, he said, "If you don't leave this lobby, I'm going to call security." I was furious. I told my caretakers, we were all getting a little upset then, I said, "No, stay calm, go outside. He said he wants us to leave and we still have to find rooms." Then they went outside in the parking lot. There my father strapped into his wheelchair-accessible van, the three kids are sleeping in the back seat of the other car.
We're all on the telephones trying to find rooms in the middle of the night. It's now around 2:00 AM. He then comes down and says, "If you don't leave the parking lot, I'm going to call the police and have your vehicles towed." At this point I'm curious, but I know the one thing I have to do is get my father somewhere so he can rest so his health won't be endangered. I've been living all year in the four seasons in Budapest. I called them literally on the other side of the earth, they said, "Contact a hotel in Houston, we have one there." Contacted them, they gave us three rooms almost immediately. I said, "Leave that parking lot now."
I saw a wonderful story this morning of how this World War II veteran was saved in St. John Paris and how he was treated and taken out and the flag was given to him and all of that. I thought about my father how he has treated, another World War II veteran, as he arrived at 2:00 AM in Houston, like, "Mary and Joseph, there's no room." In the end, forget you. Not only that, I will threaten you by calling authorities on you and now threaten you to get off my property.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of what has happened here is because the levees held because there aren't spectacular images to show of our family members and our neighbors and our friends on the roof of their home awaiting rescue, folks might think that, "Oh, all you had to do was evacuate. How hard is that?" I feel like your story was such an important reminder that that question of just evacuate, just go, it's not that simple. You're in a circumstance where you have resources, you're Wendell Pierce. You can make that phone call.
Wendell Pierce: Yes. I thought about that. People attacked me on social media saying, "Who are you to call out some night clerk?" I'm like, "It doesn't matter who I am, it's how people are treated." I was only thinking about all the people that were treated that way that didn't have the resources. How many people didn't have the platform that I have on social media to expose the way that's probably how difficult the evacuation could be for so many people. 12.5 hours on the road and to be greeted like that but then just to have the difficulty of finding rooms and having the resources to now be in those rooms and going, "Are we going to stay for two days or two weeks, or now two months?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which of course in so many ways brings us back to the experience 16 years ago. Particularly, I think, as I was realizing that your father was trying to get into a hotel in Houston, and we remember how so many people who were fleeing Katrina who went to Houston also did not find a warm welcome from the public policy there. Can you talk to us a little bit about the work that you've really been doing over the past 16 years? Maybe start with Pontchartrain Park.
Wendell Pierce: I grew up in a wonderful neighborhood in Pontchartrain Park, which grew out of the civil rights movement. It was something ugly actually, separate but equal as we turned something ugly into something beautiful and it became an incubator for Black talent. It was a neighborhood that was very important to the evolution of New Orleans and the civil rights movement. It was totally destroyed during Katrina. I put out a call to action to my generation, the Joshua generation, who've gone out in the world and become successful men and women to come back and reestablish the neighborhood.
That's what we did. We rebuilt the neighborhood brick by brick, block by block, house by the house. We reconstituted the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, Major League Baseball came to the community, and rebuilt Barrow Stadium, and made it an urban youth academy for their training program. Southern University at New Orleans has returned. We put together our own development and did 40 homes. Leaving at this time we were a little anxious to see that all the work that had been done over the 16 years would hold. So far so good when it comes to the levees.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not everything survived Ida. Do you want to talk a little bit about the destruction of this legendary jazz landmark?
Wendell Pierce: For years, cultural leaders in New Orleans have been advocating for the city to really honor our iconic landmarks and iconic figures being the birthplace of jazz. Actually, jazz is a national park. Literally, the art form is a national park just like the Grand Canyon. Most people in New Orleans don't even know that. One of the landmarks was on the most famous block of jazz where the creation of jazz literally you can stand on its mark. That was the Karnofsky Grocery Store and Pawnshop. Forgive the pronunciation, but the family was caretakers and employers of a little jazz icon and protegee by the name of Louis Armstrong. It was where he worked.
Next to that shop, hopefully, when I go back it's still there, is the Eagle Saloon. At the Eagles Saloon, the real founders of the music, the inventors of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Buddy Bolden, they all played there. On the other side of that pawnshop and down that street a couple of addresses is the Iroquois Theater where when the music then started to be popularized, people really wanted to see it. It became one of the music halls at the very beginning of the onset of this great American iconic art form of jazz. Those three buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. I'm 58 years old in December and they have never been renovated and never been restored and never held up to the level that they deserve. One of them was lost in Ida.
I hope that this is a lesson that we've learned as New Orleanians, as the leadership goes back, as cultural bears we must demand that these places be restored, be held up on the National Register of Historic Places. They're the only reason they haven't been torn down is because they're protected by that designation, but yet we have procrastinated and been been apathetic about these icons. We wonder if that indifference is going to continue on. It just broke my heart when I saw the images of it gone. When you see that image, there was the one nod to the historic nature of that plot of land was a mural of the only photograph of Buddy Bolden in the early band.
"Once in New Orleans," the saying said right next to it. It was a beautiful mural. It was actually hopeful that they might even actually restore the buildings that it was honoring next to that. Now the image, that mural is destroyed too. It went down with the building and it's gone, it's decayed, it's crumbled, but yet there's still the saying next to it, once in New Orleans. The irony of that and the irony of that image should shake us to our core and realize that we have to bring back and honor the people that created this great, great American art form, jazz.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate the trip that you're taking us on here. I think one of the great anxieties after Katrina was the concern that New Orleans would become the Disney version of New Orleans rather than the version that is true that is out of the neighborhoods, not just the French Quarter, not just the tourist spots but the neighborhoods, the communities where the music actually came from. Can you talk about legacy radio station WBOK 1230am? I know you're one of the new owners there and certainly investing in WBOK is definitely about a landmark of a different kind.
Wendell Pierce: Yes. WBOK is a legacy station, 70 years old. It gives a platform to those people that you were talking about. The real grassroots culture bears and they are the ones who sometimes never get an opportunity to speak their mind and that's what WBOK does. It gives them a platform to go out there and speak their mind. Can you imagine this station being on air 70 years ago when people were saying there's a fish fry on Friday night at such and such a church and Martin Luther King is going to be with Professor Dillard on Sunday?
It's that thing that I saw the radio station was being sold and came together with the group of investors to say, "We can't let this station and a platform that has given to so many people in the community, and African-American community specifically, go away. We have to give a voice to the voiceless." It's that same attention that I hope we bring focus to and light to when it comes to our jazz landmarks and icons.
A lot of them are in poor Black neighborhoods. You go to Central City in New Orleans, that's where Buddy Bolden grew up and that's where Jelly Roll Morton was and you understand the pathology of them walking right down in the street where that iconic Karnofsky Grocery Store fell and where the Iroquois Theater was and where the Eagle Saloon was. Giving voice to the voiceless, it all ties together as I advocate for the people in the communities as they're coming back on WBOK 1230am New Orleans, what New Orlean is talking about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love WBOK. [chuckles]
Wendell Pierce: Also those are the same people that created the music. Jelly Roll Morton, you can go to where he lived in Central City and see there's a bar on every corner and a church on every other. You saw that Saturday night and then Sunday morning, it's all in one block and you realize what were all the variables that made up the music and this democratic nature of what jazz is all about. That you can be free and the freedom of an individual, but still are on a form or law or structured and that's the core changes. That's what jazz is. It is the manifestation of the American aesthetic.
Freedom of the individual when he plays improvised solo and at the same time honoring structure, the structure of the song, and the music. Also, it's emblematic of America, what we want America to be. A nation of laws but at the same time, you have your freedom within that, that the two can coexist. That is the American aesthetic and that is the aesthetic of what jazz is, and that is what our contribution to the cultural discussion of the world is. That's why people come from around the world as jazz pilgrims to see that culture. We should honor that by having those landmarks restored and giving voice to the voiceless because they were the voices at the time. That's what WBOK is all about.
I am working here in Athens, Greece for another 10 days. I can't wait to get back home and begin rebuilding and recovering from this storm. I'm a multifaceted man, of multiple interests and a man hopefully of renaissance. I'm an artist and see that's the forum that I like to make the most impact because while laws change behavior, thou shalt not this, thou shalt not that, art can change people's hearts and minds.
With thoughts about you the individual when you reflect on who you've been and who you hope to be as you lie awake at night, the forum of the artists is where we collectively come together and we decide on where we've been, where we hope to go. We decide on what our values are and then go out and act on them. That's the forum where I like to play, where we collectively come together, decide what's important to us, what our values are, and then go out and act on them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have one last question for you because anybody who can do an extended metaphor on American democracy and jazz, who makes reference to the Joshua generation, who can tell me about the investment work around housing and economic development in Pontchartrain Park, are you running for office?
Wendell Pierce: No, I'm not. People always ask me that. I said, "I'd rather be the kingmaker than the king." I find that it is a government of, for, and by the people and I'm one of the people. I always tell people always assume that you are in office. You are the people. You are the government. What you want to see, make it happen. Create the world that you want to see, create the community that you want to see. That's the thing that you see in times like this, people reaching out in times of need like Ida and you realize that we have more in common than we have differences and that we should utilize that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wendell Pierce, thank you so much for joining The Takeaway today.
Wendell Pierce: Thank you.
[00:18:53] [END OF AUDIO]
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