Do You Know What It Means?

Looking for something more behind a New Orleans anthem

Seventy-five years after Louis Armstrong made it a hit, the song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” is still going strong. It’s on albums by everyone from Harry Connick, Jr. to Jimmy Buffett, and is a staple for New Orleans bands playing festivals, graduations, and weddings. Since Hurricane Katrina the title has been borrowed by several books and countless articles about the city, and is regularly quoted by politicians and tourism officials. It’s even printed on home décor and lapel pins. 

This is understandable, considering how widely New Orleans is missed: by smitten visitors, by residents who were forced to leave after the levees failed in 2005, and those like me who remain in the city and pine for the way it used to be.

But while I appreciated the song’s sentiment after the flood, something about it never sat right with me—its opening question had become uncomfortably on-the-nose, while the subsequent lines felt disconnected from reality. So I checked out its source, the 1947 movie New Orleans featuring Armstrong and Billie Holiday, which, despite their musical performances, is profoundly corny. Ostensibly a dramatization of the spread of jazz from New Orleans, it promotes a bogus history that demeans Black musicians and aggrandizes the white people who benefit from their work.

This perspective runs through the lyrics of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” its theme song. In it, the narrator reminisces about the city—except the imagery is all pastoral, and ill-fitting. First there are “moss-covered vines” and “tall sugar pines,” though moss here tends to grow on trees, and sugar pines not at all. Then the narrator calls the Mississippi a “lazy” river, when it’s obviously quite industrious. This isn’t New Orleans, but Hollywood’s projection of the Old South and, you might expect, a poor fit for memorializing the displacement of predominantly Black communities from the city after Katrina.

Things get more interesting at the end of the song, when the narrator turns from this imaginary landscape to introduce a new character: 

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
When that’s where you left your heart?
And there’s something more, I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans

Maybe the one-cared-for is still in New Orleans, and the reason why the narrator left their heart here. I like this last-second turn, actually: It’s as if the narrator can’t confront a lost love directly, so mused about the setting instead. Singing about missing a place for four stanzas before divulging it’s not the thing you are actually missing is a curious choice, though.

It’s explicable in its original context, the love story in New Orleans, which parallels the exodus of jazz musicians from the city. A budding romance between the main characters, Nick and Miralee (Arturo de Córdova and Dorothy Patrick), breaks up when each has to leave New Orleans following the 1917 closure of Storyville. After finding professional success individually outside the city, they reunite in New York and don’t look back. In the closing sequence, when Miralee sings, “I miss the one I care for / More than I miss New Orleans,” this turn has a banal resolution—she missed Nick, reconciled with him, and doesn’t care much about the city anymore. It’s an unlikely final note to hit, as it would be later, to evoke civic pride.

So, where did this bizarre cultural artifact come from, and how was it endowed with such significance?

The project began with tantalizing potential, as a collaboration between Orson Welles, a traditional jazz enthusiast, and Duke Ellington. Shortly after completing Citizen Kane in 1941, Welles started work on It’s All True, a film comprised of four real-life episodes, including one called “The Story of Jazz” that followed Armstrong’s rise, with Satchmo playing himself. After Welles saw Ellington’s theatrical production Jump for Joy, he contracted him to oversee “The Story of Jazz” and write a score for it.

Just before shooting was set to begin, though, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and Welles went to Brazil on a suddenly urgent diplomatic mission meant to combat the spread of fascism. “The Story of Jazz” died on the vine. When he got back to the States, Welles tried reviving a biopic about Armstrong to no avail. Interviewing Armstrong 28 years later, in 1970, Welles recalled wistfully: “Remember, we wrote a movie script about [your life], but they didn’t let us make it?

Instead, when World War II ended, producer Jules Levey reassembled pieces of “The Story of Jazz” to make New Orleans. Armstrong still played a cornet player called Satchmo, but the plot had only superficial connections to his life, and now centered the fictional Nick and Miralee.

Welles was a progressive willing to buck Hollywood conventions, but without him at the helm, the movie pandered to white audiences that could happily enjoy Black music, but not the agency of Black characters. As a result, jazz aficionado Leonard Feather wrote in a 1947 review, “Billie Holiday is (of course) a maid, Louis Armstrong talks to his horn, no Negro shakes hands with a white man, and the… racial overtones of the story are carefully muted.

Without Ellington, Levey turned to the songwriting team of Eddie DeLange, an acclaimed lyricist from New York, and Louis Alter, a composer from Massachusetts, to craft the film’s ode to New Orleans. Both were white, and their description of the city harmonized with the film’s racial politics.

Armstrong chose to stay involved, though he recognized its limitations. Feather reported that he fell out laughing when the production team gave him records of New Orleans music to emulate in his performances. But the movie put him as close as he could get to a leading role, and his manager was eager to see it happen. So Armstrong portrayed a cartoonish version of himself, and took satisfaction in playing music his way, a more respectable depiction of jazz than some earlier Hollywood fare, which outsourced it to white performers. As compromised as it was, New Orleans celebrated his art.

It also successfully promoted sales of his recording of “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” A version of the tune sung by a choir with strings plays behind the opening credits, and we hear it performed by Armstrong, Holiday, and others, in full or in part, no less than seven times over the film’s 89 minutes. Armstrong toured behind the song’s success. Sung by the world’s most famous expatriate from New Orleans, listeners have had little reason to interrogate its lyrics, then or since.

It had a sweet melody, after all, and after New Orleans was forgotten in the ensuing years it became a standard, reworked in a range of styles. There was a pop treatment from Ricky Nelson. Fats Domino recorded it with his signature piano triplets and a horn arrangement by Dave Bartholomew. Ellis Marsalis played it as straight-ahead jazz. It joined the canon of New Orleans music, and the city’s tourism industry embraced it. But growing up, I didn’t hear it often, and thought of it less. That changed shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

A week and a half after the levees failed, I was on a soundstage in Manhattan wearing an orange t-shirt with the phrase “Do You Know What It Means?” twisted into the shape of a hurricane on the chest. It’d been printed as a fundraiser for the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, which I’d just been hired to run by Ben Jaffe, proprietor of Preservation Hall. My first task was to help assemble members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who’d been scattered across the country, to close out BET’s disaster relief telethon with “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.”

At that point, with a lot of the city still underwater, the song had turned into a plea. We needed the world to confront the possibility that, without a sufficient response, New Orleans might not recover, and would be missed forever. The band’s appearance on live television would show what was at stake, simultaneously asking and answering the song’s rhetorical question.

That question took on another meaning for me when I went down to 56th Street to meet John Brunious, the leader of the band. He’d flown in from Arkansas, where someone had recognized him on a bus full of evacuees. When Brunious got out of a cab, looking around like he’d been airdropped into a foreign country, he coughed, and his whole body shook—he’d been coughing ever since he swallowed floodwater on his way into a rescue boat.

Meanwhile, a security guard had stationed himself at the door I’d come out of, and he didn’t believe that a disheveled 64-year-old was there to sing the show’s finale. In New Orleans, the name Brunious meant something—he and his brother were trumpeters and bandleaders, and his father had played trumpet and arranged songs for Cab Calloway. But in the outside world, no one knew it. We only got into the studio after two hours of pleadings and phone calls.

During the telethon’s last commercial break, the band gathered behind the studio set, wearing “Do You Know What It Means?” shirts. A minute before they were scheduled to go on, Brunious’ cough deepened into a retch. I ran for medicine and when I came back the band was in front of the cameras without him. Carl LeBlanc, the banjo player, had taken over the vocals.

For me, what they played mattered less than the fact of the performance, which was spare and moving. I didn’t know the song’s origins then, and gave no thought to its lyrics after the opening line. The important thing was that the musicians were there, despite the catastrophe, playing in the traditional style: LeBlanc strumming the banjo slowly, so you could hear each string; Joe Lastie, who’d just lost everything in the Lower Ninth Ward, knocking the bass drum on an offbeat.

For the band, asked both to embody and transcend the unfolding disaster for the benefit of others, the song was a handy piece of the repertoire. Conveying the full gravity of the situation was impossible, but “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” could bear some of the weight. In that moment, the band made what was once a racially retrograde Hollywood contrivance into a symbol of Black cultural authenticity.

Over the next several months in New York I heard the song a lot. Exiled New Orleans musicians on tour played it to keep the recovery effort in the spotlight, and to recognize the displaced New Orleanians in the crowd. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band went on to make a new recording of the song, as did several other artists.

During the slog of rebuilding in New Orleans, a lot of bands started working it into their live shows, the way they might play the national anthem on the homefront during a war, a reverent nod to the suffering that people went to the concert to forget. I didn’t begrudge anyone—performers or audience—their experience of the song, especially when it helped them contend with the aftermath of the flood. I just couldn’t share it, even when I wanted to. Then I learned where it came from, and didn’t know what to make of its elevated status.

Should its source taint the song forever? Jazz itself was born of New Orleans musicians infusing existing material with a new feel, using it to their own ends. Most of the time, the artists who adapted “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” improved on the original. In 1961, Fats Domino was one of a few to change the nonsensical line, “The Mardi Gras memories / Of Creole tunes that filled the air,” to “The Moonlight on the bayou / A Creole tune that fills the air”—an ecologically appropriate image.

And the lyrics carried only one layer of meaning. The vocal expression of a singer like John Boutté wasn’t confined to the words he used. Instrumental versions had even more freedom to interpret the song. Tuts Washington’s syncopated solo piano take was only nominally the same composition as the one in New Orleans.

In any case, the outsider’s gaze in “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” was reflected to varying degrees in a lot of the city’s music. Preservation Hall itself, like New Orleans, emerged from a midcentury traditional jazz revival driven by white promoters and influenced by white consumers from elsewhere. The Jaffe family’s racial attitudes may be more evolved than the film’s, but the Preservation Hall band catered mostly to white out-of-towners and nerds like me.

In the early days of jazz, Armstrong never looked askance at making music for outsiders. His playing developed first in front of Black crowds but, before leaving New Orleans, he diversified his repertoire (and his income) by playing more formal gigs for white audiences on riverboats. Like John Brunious and countless other New Orleans musicians, Armstrong worked within existing economic structures to support himself. Sometimes he created something groundbreaking in the process; other times not.

There was no law of jazz purity for “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” to break, and I wasn’t going to tell an artist what to sing, or a listener what to feel. I still avoid the song, though. It may be intended to evoke warm feelings, but for me it became code for Katrina, of which I need nor want no external reminders. In my mind, the song plays over a montage of images of the flood, a nightmare version of the opening sequence of the 1980s television show Frank’s Place,” which set Armstrong’s rendition over sepia-toned photos of the city.

Of course, I appreciate why people turn to the canon of New Orleans music to cope with that trauma. Two days after the BET telethon in 2005 I met some other evacuees at a bar in the East Village to watch the Saints’ season opener against the Panthers, which they won on a last-second field goal, to cathartic screams and cheers. I went to the jukebox and called up the most triumphant song I could think of, the Rebirth Brass Band version of “Casanova.”

As reported by Kelly Harris-DeBerry, songwriter Reggie Calloway originally conceived “Casanova” as a country song, but the group LeVert out of Cleveland made it a Number One R&B hit in 1987. That record made its way to HBCU marching bands in Louisiana, which inspired Keith and Philip Frazier of Rebirth to give it their brass band treatment. With some new, nasty lyrics, it caught on with modern brass bands across the city.

The ingredients could have come from anywhere—their minds, the radio, the soundtrack of a corny old movie. Rebirth took what struck them and made it their own. It’s what jazz bands did before the inception of the term “jazz” (a development staged farcically with Nick in New Orleans). Back then, some just called it “New Orleans style.” It was a sensibility, a way to make use of a song. And that practice never stopped.

When “Casanova” came on the jukebox in New York my friends and I went nuts, knees bucking, arms in the air. We didn’t know if or when we’d go home again, but the song let us claim that space for ourselves. This was a function of Black brass band music that Armstrong prized when he was young, taking over streets with his cornet that he otherwise had to cede to white people, under threat of violence. We, mostly white people, were indebted to that tradition, and my proximity to it, more than “tall sugar pines,” was what I’d miss of New Orleans. So we shouted along with Rebirth’s call-and-response coming out of the jukebox: “Take ‘em off / Take your motherfucking drawers off!” Afterwards, I cried. We make meaning where we can.

Illustrations by Happy Burbeck

Top image: From the Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.0300.51 (Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection)