New Orleans Jazzfest: Scenes From a Recovery 

Wednesday, May 30 2007

At Evelyn’s Place in New Orleans’ French Quarter, change comes reluctantly if it comes at all. The walls and ceiling are covered in a dusty collection of novelty flags and global currency that have dulled and molded over time into a ubiquitous shade of pale brown. At the center of the bar, a makeshift memorial in the form of a blown-up black-and-white photograph, taken years ago of a smiling young woman with a sleek, shoulder-length bob, rests on prominent display. Green Mardi Gras beads dangle from the corners of the photo, and an inscription along the side reads, “Princess Evelyn.”

Evelyn, one of the French Quarter’s great characters, is dead.

“Technically, she died of pneumonia,” the new bartender explains, “but everyone knows that decades of hard living finally caught up with her.”

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For more than 40 years, Evelyn was a permanent fixture at the end of the bar of her own name — white Russian in one hand, cigarette in the other. Put the right song on at the right moment and she’d get up and dance. Piss her off and you’d know about it. Legend has it she once beat the hell out of Mickey Rourke to get him out of her bar as she was trying to close up.

The first time I saw Evelyn it was 10 o’clock in the evening and she was passed out face-down on the bar. A friend of hers who was keeping her company graciously volunteered to fill in as bartender and spent the next three hours plying my friends and me with Jack-and-Cokes and change for the jukebox. As we were settling up our bill, out of nowhere, Evelyn suddenly sprang to life and shouted “thirty-five dollars!” at the top of her lungs. Thirty-five dollars it was. We left a big tip.

“It wasn’t a night in here unless Evelyn showed her tits, passed out at the bar or pissed herself,” her replacement says fondly.

In some cities Evelyn might have gotten help and dried up. In others she would have wound up homeless. In New Orleans she was a princess.

The corner of Bayou and Broad streets in the 7th Ward didn’t exist last year. Not in any real sense, anyway. Only blocks away from the Jazz Fest fairgrounds, it was basically a pile of rotted dry wall, sludge-filled refrigerators and waterlogged furniture — a giant, moldy ghost.

A year later, things have changed. In this historically black-owned and -operated neighborhood, music streams from the open doors of shops with names like Good Vibrations, and children run in and out of their refurbished homes, playing music and hocking bottled water to the streams of white tourists passing through.

Up the block, the iconic Community Book Center has reopened, and an unusually long line gathers out front. The neighborhood is back and so, it appears, is C-Murder.

Raised in the nearby Calliope Projects and a member of his brother Master P’s No Limit record label, C-Murder is a rapper better known for his personal exploits than for his skills as an MC. Sentenced to life in jail in 2003 after being convicted for the second-degree murder of a 16-year-old, his legend grew from inside the prison walls when he somehow managed to record both an album and a music video under the nose of Jefferson Parish’s powerful Sheriff Harry Lee. Months later, his conviction was overturned, and he’s now under house arrest awaiting trial for attempted second-degree murder.

Today, however, he’s been allowed out for a signing of his first novel, Death Around the Corner. Such is the intrigue behind C-Murder that the mere possibility of this appearance produced one of the greatest headlines in the history of the newspaper business, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: “Rapper May Leave House.”

Dressed in a clean, white-collared shirt and dark slacks and sporting an eminently literary-looking pair of specs, C-Murder arrives with a huge smile and an entourage of cameramen. Passing a display of Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, he sits down and begins to chat graciously and pose for photographs with his fans. An example of the healing power of art? Perhaps, although I find it difficult to believe, coming from a man who continues to call himself C-Murder. Regardless of his intentions, the title of his book has proved prophetic — 11 people have been killed in this area in the past four months.

I want to ask C-Murder about the escalating violence, but I have to buy a book to get anywhere near him. After hearing a little girl in line say, “C-Murder, can I get a picture?,” I can’t bring myself to do it.

With a beer in hand and a belly full of Creole cooking, it could be easy to forget what happened in this city 20 months ago. Scanning the grounds at Jazz Fest, it seems like most people have. The emotion and nostalgia of last year’s festival has given way to a sense of normalcy — of recovery. Music is everywhere, the Crawfish Monica is as spectacular as ever — and at the Fais Do-Do stage, the same familiar faces are back, dancing the zydeco and the Cajun two-step under the hot sun.

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