New Orleans - Creolization and all that Jazz

by: Berndt Ostendorf

Studienverlag, 2013

ISBN: 9783706557214 , 204 Pages

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New Orleans - Creolization and all that Jazz


Günter Bischof


The essays in this volume are a tribute to and a showpiece of the ascendancy of the American Studies field in post-World War II Germany and Western Europe. Berndt Ostendorf has been a leading figure in that new field in postwar Europe. He does not shy away from making frequent references to his own intellectual autobiography in these essays. His chapter “Growing up in the Fifties: Jazz, the Cold War and the Birth of American Studies” represents a veritable showpiece of postwar intellectual formation of a young German escaping the burdens of German Nazi history by way of total immersion in American popular culture. He demonstrates how the new opportunities offered by student exchange programs – what today we call “international student mobility” – allowed young Germans (and young Austrians like myself) to embark on trajectories of “Westernization” and “Americanization”. Such escapes helped mastering difficult pasts and open new windows for post-Nazi intellectual formation. Clearly his visits of the United States as a high school pupil and later as a university student and lecturer offered personal and intellectual windows to a new life. Such a new world, both less stultifying and more inviting to foreigners, put Ostendorf on the path towards becoming a shaper of postwar German and Western European discourses about America.

Ostendorf held the chair of American Studies in Munich for more than 20 years (1981–2005) and produced a steady flow of essays and articles that defined many aspects of American cultural studies in the postwar European American Studies movement. He was a key “translator” and mediator of American academic discourses in Germany and Western Europe and in the process helped shape those debates on the continent. He was one of the first to venture into “black studies” in Europe, thus contributing to the formation of African-American cultural studies discourses in the 1980s. He was a key impresario in grounding the “multi-Kulti”-debate in Germany in the 1990s in the larger American context of that discourse. He contributed to a thorough understanding of American popular music and introduced it to the ethno-musicology discourses in Germany.

As chair of American Studies he regularly invited top-notch and cutting-edge American academics to come as Fulbright guest professor to his “Amerika-Institut” at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. These guests immersed the Munich students in their innovative research interests and thus contributed to uplift them to participate in those innovative discourses. Both Sidney Mintz and the late George McGovern, the 1972 nominee for President of the Democratic Party (who also held a PhD in American History), taught in Munich as Eric Voegelin guest professors. When I served as a visiting guest lecturer in Munich in 1993/1994, David Blight (then Amherst College, now Yale University) was involved in doing his path-breaking research on Civil War memory later published in the prize-winning book Race and Reunion. Through these prominent visitors the Munich students came to inhale and reflect these discourses, at times even before they came to dominate the American intellectual landscape. Munich students often knew about these academic debates before they became popular in the US. So it went with many superstars of American academia who came to the Ostendorf’s Amerika Institut in Munich.

Ostendorf’s New Orleans essays collected in this volume give a cross-section of his amazingly diverse yet idiosyncratic contributions to the field of American cultural studies as seen through the lens and mirror of the rich cultural history of the Crescent City. Ostendorf penned these essays over a period of 30 years and during many visits to New Orleans, years before “cultural studies” became a buzzword in academia. In that sense he was an innovator, precursor and trend-setter in the field of cultural studies and an icon of New Orleans studies in Europe. Berndt Ostendorf taught for a semester at the University of New Orleans in the spring of 1989, exchanging with his friend Joseph Logsdon, who taught in Munich as a visiting DAAD professor that semester. He took advantage of his stay in New Orleans to practise deep immersion – as a participant observer in a quasi-anthropological field study. This is when he encountered the photographer and ethnographer Michael Smith who became his friend and regularly took him along to Mardi Gras Indian parades. Smith introduced Ostendorf to second line parades and jazz funerals. Here he became interested in the Afro-Caribbean dance traditions in public spaces that fascinated him so much. The “dance-driven” musical culture of New Orleans and its many carnivalesque outrages during Mardi Gras and jazz funerals absorbed him as did the sensuous of the lively street scenes encountered every day in the “libidinal economy” of “sin city USA.”

As his autobiographical essay “Growing up in the Fifties: Jazz, the Cold War and the Birth of American Studies” shows he had already deeply imbibed the sounds and rhythms of American jazz and popular music as a statement of personal liberation from the German past. Now in New Orleans attending the music clubs and jazz festivals of New Orleans allowed him to experience the amazingly colorful musical scene of the Crescent City that “never sleeps”. Living in the city with his wife Jutta and being a gourmet and excellent chef himself allowed him to enter the world of New Orleans food culture and cuisine, yet another variation of experiencing the “rich gumbo” of ethnic influences on New Orleans’ popular culture and food ways. He followed the complex heritages of the three principal food traditions of New Orleans – Creole, Cajun, and the “down home” fusion of “N’Awlins”. Ostendorf came to appreciate New Orleans as the “El Dorado of eating and public drinking” and taught seminars about it in Munich. New Orleans’ “caloric temptation” he sees as the counterpoint to the bland food culture of the rest of America and its obsessions with dieting.

Ostendorf immersed himself in New Orleans Creole cultures with such gusto that he would write and teach about the city and its fantastic cultural mix for the next 20 years. His seminars in Munich on “New Orleans Music”, or “Race and Creole New Orleans”, or “The Cajuns” became legend. His students came to New Orleans to research their Master’s thesis or doctoral dissertations in local archives; some received year-long scholarship at the University of New Orleans History Department for more thorough study. Ostendorf became a promoter of New Orleans – not a tourist one, but an academic one. Whereas most American Studies in Europe had followed the lead of the Northeastern Ivy League universities and its exclusive focus of studying Anglo-America, Ostendorf’s interests led his students to give equal attention to Franco-America and Hispano-America, both of which had a colonial presence in Louisiana. New Orleans is the place where the three European imperial ”contact zones” rub against each other and interact. New Orleans, as Ostendorf likes to point out, is not “the Southernmost North American city but the Northernmost city of the Caribbean.” That makes the Crescent City such an extraordinary laboratory to study the “bricolage” of American culture-mixing. In fact, since New Orleans is such a fascinating zone of culture formation, namely cultures clashing and assimilating, “bricolage”, “metissage”, “hybridity”, and “fusion” are Ostendorf’s favorite concepts to explain “Creole New Orleans.” One of the most extended essays in this collection is devoted to dissect and understand the term “creole” and its complex grammar and legacy. His struggle with the concept of “creole” is at the heart of understanding New Orleans culture. His favorite theoreticians of creolization are anthropologists Sidney Mintz and Melville Herskovits – and Ostendorf’s own “star student” Stephan Palmié, now a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. They provide this participant observer roaming of the streets of New Orleans with the lenses to understand the Afro-Caribbean complexity and quasi “other-Americanness” of New Orleans culture.

Ostendorf is at his best when he maps out the outlandishness and quirkiness of American subcultures; his exuberant prose in many of these essays suggests that he had much fun researching and writing them. He penetrates with his sharp wit American fads such as the 1960s/1970s infatuation with Cajun culture, music and cuisine. With an even more cutting humor bordering onto the sarcastic he dissects a segment of the paranoid Far Right situated around the John Birch Society (the successors of McCarthyism) in 1960s America. It is a case study of anti-communist Angst in archconservative white American circles who feared that African rhythms and dance were about to undermine and threaten to destroy the American nation. The “jungle noises” of American jazz threatened to pervert the classical forms of music. Rock ’n’ Roll in this reading was “sexual, un-Christian, mentally unsettling and riot-producing.” Elvis Pressley and the Beatles...