True Treme

With the premier this Sunday (April 11) of Treme, HBO’s new dramatic series on post-Katrina jazz in New Orleans, the Rabbit reprints his feature from the 2006 Playboy Jazz Festival program, published in June of that year (some nine months after the disaster) that focused on the heroic and self-sacrificing efforts to save New Orleans music scene. Note to friends with HBO: What are you doing Sunday night? (At left: Official poster of the 2010 New Orleans Jazz Festival; “Congo Square 2010: ‘Say Uncle, ‘ A portrait of Lionel Batiste” by Terrance Osborne”

Goin’ Home: Jazz Returns to New Orleans

by Bill Kohlhaase

–One of my pleasantest memories as a kid growing up in New Orleans was how a bunch of us kids, playing, would suddenly hear sounds. It was like a phenomenon, like the Aurora Borealis…music could come on you any time like that. The city was full of the sounds of music…”–Danny Barker quoted in Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff”s “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By the Men Who Made It” (Dover)

Jazz is a citizen of the world. But its home will always be New Orleans.

Sure New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, not to mention hundreds of other cities around the globe, have given the music a place to hang its hat, to freshen up, to come out swinging. They’ve given it progeny. But New Orleans is where jazz was conceived, where it was born. The city has produced an endless stream of famous musicians, from Louis Armstrong to the Marsalis brothers as well as hosts of lesser known but important artists from Buddy Bolden to Narvin Kimball. New Orleans is the jazz world’s heart and soul.

Hurricane Katrina struck deep at that heart. To jazz fans, it was as if somebody had gone after their mother. As the horror stories from along the Gulf Coast began to sink in, lovers of the music, people in and out of New Orleans to whom jazz is life itself, began to ask what about the musicians? What about the clubs? What about the history?

News of the hurricane’s cultural devastation was slow to follow the headlines. Good news was tempered by bad. Though 80 per cent of the city ended up under water, many of the city’s oldest areas, from Bywater to the French Quarter to St. Charles Avenue in Uptown and Carrolton were left intact. But much of the Ninth Ward including the historic Holy Cross neighborhood, were in shambles. Musicians survived but they were scattered across the country, some with no plans or means of returning.  Clubs in the French Quarter reopened some few weeks after the hurricane. But many of them made do with rock and cover bands or no music at all. Preservation Hall survived with minimal damage. Yet, with so many musicians displaced and no audience, it stayed closed for months.

It seemed then that jazz in New Orleans might never recover. But today, with the annual Jazz Fest and French Quarter Music festivals behind us, with the reopening of Preservation Hall, with musicians returning to the city to play community events in the  streets and clubs and parks and churches, with dozens of organizations and thousands of people dedicating themselves to the cause of music in New Orleans, there is hope. The city may never be the same. But its musical spirit survives.

That spirit permeates American culture. It exists, not just in hundreds of recordings and contemporary performances of New Orleans musicians, but in all the arts, visual and written.  The city, as favorite son Wynton Marsalis has often explained, is “the original melting pot” with its mix of Spanish, French, British, West African and American people.  New Orleans jazz, as Marsalis preaches, “objectifies the fundamental principles of American democracy.”  It is not about the blues but about triumph over the blues. Its spirit resides in community and, as anyone who’s heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band or attended a jazz funeral will attest, is all about celebration.

“New Orleans music has always been about overcoming adversity,” says Preservation Hall director and bassist Ben Jaffe. “Even during life’s most painful times, New Orleans has found a way to discover the joy in life. There’s no place, no music like it.”

Clarinetist, New Orleans native and professor of African-American music at Xavier University, Dr. Michael White, knows this joy. When he first heard the recorded music of legendary clarinetist George Lewis, sounding “like everything it meant to live in New Orleans,” his life changed. White was an upstart kid when he played his first public performance in Jackson Square with trumpeter Thomas “Kid” Valentine, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. That experience set him on a course that hasn’t changed since.

“New Orleans is the music’s spiritual center,” White declares. “It has a magical quality. Maybe it comes from the West African tradition, but there’s something in the music that’s very powerful, that can change lives. The spirit of this music can make you reinterpret your life, it makes you feel liberated, it gives you a true sense of freedom.”

It didn’t take long for that spirit to assert itself in the aftermath of Katrina. The jazz community came together just three weeks after the disaster in the “Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert,” a nationally-televised event from New York’s Lincoln Center which raised over $2 million in a single night to help New Orleans area musicians and musical organizations. Money continues to come in from sales of the concert recording on Blue Note Records.

The good news, like a cornet solo, has since continued to build. Early this year, it was announced that the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, spurred by support from Festival Productions and AEG Louisiana Productions, as well as major corporate sponsorship from Shell Oil Company, would go on as usual, putting an end to rumors that one of America’s largest and most important musical gatherings would disappear. Other corporate sponsors–a list ranging from American Express to New Orleans food producer Zatarain’s–jumped on board. Despite the exodus of local musicians and a host of big names including Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Ani DiFranco, the somewhat trimmer Festival announced that 90 per cent of its acts would be from Louisiana.

Charitable efforts blossomed. Within days of the disaster, Jaffe and his wife Sarah founded the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. “I started getting calls right away from musicians asking about money, asking about work. We moved the guys in our band to New York and it became apparent just what had been lost. Five of the nine members came in borrowed clothes. They couldn’t even access their ATM accounts. They’d lost their homes, their cars, their instruments; everything. I knew that we were in a unique position to help the music community.”

By of the end of April when this story was written, the Relief Fund had collected nearly $1 million and had distributed some $600,000 to some 800 musicians. Preservation Hall reopened during Jazz Fest, with a benefit for the Fund. “Every day there’s a little more hope,” Jaffe says.

Late last year, word came that Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. had partnered with Habitat For Humanity to build a “Musicians Village” of 81 homes in the upper ninth ward for displaced musicians. (Habitat is building some 300 homes in the area). The Village will also be the site of the “Ellis Marsalis Center For Music,” a gathering place for the musical community with performance spaces and recording facilities. President Bush visited the site in April and the Dave Matthews Band recently offered a $1.5 million challenge grant to the Village in the hopes of spurring further donations. At press time, three homes had been completed and the Village’s first residents were scheduled to move in sometime during May.

The loss of housing is one of New Orleans’ biggest problems and the toll on its musicians has been high. A Wall Street Journal article in April claimed that dozens of the better known musicians, from Cyril Neville to percussionist Bill Summers, we’re forced to leave the city and didn’t intend to move back. Many said the pay was better elsewhere. New Orleans’ loss was the rest of America’s gain.

It’s not the first time that New Orleans has seen an exodus of its musical talent. It happened in 1917 when the United States Navy shut down the Storyville district and its bordello-based nightlife. Jazz musicians started working the riverboats that carried them north. But the music went on in New Orleans, seeping into the culture in the form of parades, community concerts and even funerals. Housing, such as it was, remained for the ambitious musicians who stayed back and were willing to subsidize their income with day jobs.

With so many homes and businesses destroyed, things are different now. Even if their homes stand, their incomes have vanished. “It’s very important to the culture of the city to get the musicians back,” says Dr. White. “Without them, the soul and spirit of the tradition are gone.”

White’s own story illustrates how difficult the situation is. He evacuated his mother and an aunt to Houston where they remain. The shell of his house, located “right on the canals” is still standing but uninhabitable. He lost a priceless collection of jazz recordings, historical instruments and memorabilia in the deluge.  Between ever-changing bureaucratic rules and insurance company foot-dragging, he’s in a state of limbo that finds him commuting between Houston to take care of his relatives and New Orleans where he works. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “We keep hearing proposals, rumors of buyouts. I try not to go back to the house when I’m in town. It’s just too depressing. If it weren’t for the music, I would be coming back at all.”

Indeed, when it comes to musicians, New Orleans loss has been other cities’ gain. The pianist, Willie Tee Turbinton, once a fixture at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club has moved off to New Jersey where he is an artist in residence at Princeton University. The pianist Henry Butler has move to the Denver area. Some members of Los Hombres Caliente have set up shop in Portland, effectively splintering the band.

Housing is not the only problem. Musicians need the opportunity to make a living. That’s the goal of Bring It On Home, a grass roots organization designed to create performance opportunities. The group was founded by guitarist-banjo-player and leader of The Creole Jazz Serenaders, Don Vappie, cultural historian Milly Vappie and community activist Bo Gallup.

“When I got back home after the hurricane,” says musician and Louisiana native Vappie, “I realized that it wasn’t just houses that were destroyed, the work in the region was gone as well. The clubs were gone, the casino gigs were gone, the convention gigs. So we came up with the simple idea of subsidizing performances, creating jobs for musicians getting some into their pockets. If there’s enough work, the guys will come back.”

Under the auspices of the St. Tammany Art Association, the group started with out-of-pocket expenses to sponsor fundraisers in Bogue Falya Park last fall and during Mardi Gras. Their “Rent Party,” with some 25 local musicians held in April at the relocated Howlin’ Wolf club, raised tens of thousands of dollars and brought offers to take the Rent Party on the road. Documentary film-maker Glen Pitre was there with a crew to record the event for an upcoming PBS special

The area’s clubs are again embracing jazz even if doing so at a loss. Snug Harbor, once the performance home of pianist Ellis Marsalis, is back on line as is the Funky Butt and the Home Court Café with its traditional jazz. Zea’s Rotesserie hosts Bring It On Home events two nights a week. Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club is hosting music again, though it’s lost its headliner. “You can still go out and hear live music in New Orleans any day of the week,” says Jaffe.

Tipitina’s, one of New Orleans most active clubs over the last 40 years, has formed its own foundation dedicated to finding housing for returning musicians, restoring their homes and putting instruments into the hands of music students. Fats Domino, whose rescue put focus on the New Orleans music scene, announced that the proceeds of his new release, “Live & Kickin’” will go to the Foundation. During daylight hours, the club serves as a community center for musicians, a place where they can learn business skill and network with other music professionals. Habitat For Humanity recently hosted an application workshop there for musicians interested in housing opportunities in its Musicians Village.

Clubs aren’t the only businesses struggling to survive. New Orleans-based recording companies also took a hit from the storm. Jaffe reports that Preservation Hall Records lost much of its inventory and all of its employees due to relocation. “[The label] is still up and running but we’ve had to pare it back severely. Almost all of our releases have been pushed back.”

New Orleans most visible jazz label, Basin Street Records, home to Dr. White, Los Hombres Caliente, Kermit Ruffins, Henry Butler, Jason Marsalis and others has faced even harsher circumstances. The company lost some 15,000 CDs, its offices and everything in them. Most of its staff relocated out of the city. Still, label founder Mark Samuels sees a silver lining. “The hurricane put the music and our artists in the spotlight. Irvin [Mayfield] was on ‘Larry King Live’, there have been segments on ‘Good Morning America’, we’ve been interviewed by the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal and USA Today. The exposure’s been unbelievable.”

Trumpeter Mayfield, who lost his father to Katrina, heads one of the most far-reaching of the organizations trying to keep the spirit of the Bayou City’s jazz alive. His 16-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra serves as a vehicle to bring the tradition to students and audiences around the world. Mayfield has also helped raise money for other relief organizations, notably The Recording Academy’s MusiCares Hurricane Relief Fund. Mayfield’s commitment is not just to jazz, but an entire culture.

Reasons to be concerned for that culture remain. Dr. Thomas Brothers, associate professor of music at Duke University and the author of the recent book “Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans” (W.W. Norton & Company) says the future of jazz in New Orleans is at a turning point. “New Orleans has been, for the entire 20th century, the most important city for vernacular music in the country.  That status is in real danger right now.  My great fear is that a century from now some musicologist will look back on Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and see that it caused the end of New Orleans as a very special place for music.”

But the resolve in New Orleans remains high and people are taking inspiration from its music. “Improvisation is a central characteristic of the New Orleans sound,” says Dr. White. “Everything has changed in New Orleans so it’s time to take a cue from the music, to improvise, to dance around the things life has thrown in front of us. The New Orleans jazz funeral is a great metaphor. The music is slow and somber, until the body is laid to rest, then the music turns uptempo and becomes joyous. It celebrates the person going on to a greater reward. Life as we know it has died in New Orleans. It’s time now to celebrate the new life, the transition, that from here things can only get better.”

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