Four years have not lessened the horror of what happened in New Orleans during the first week of September, 2005. Spared a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, which veered to the east and dropped from a Category 5 to a Category 3 storm before making landfall in southeast Louisiana, the city was decimated when the levees and federal flood protection system failed in more than 50 places. Eighty percent of the city flooded, killing more than 1800 people, leaving tens of thousands more stranded for days—trapped in attics up to their chins in toxic flood water, abandoned on highway overpasses and rooftops in the sweltering heat, packed into the storm-ravaged Superdome and Convention Center. The vision of hell unfolded in real time as global media captured the images of bodies in the street, orphaned children, and the elderly and the sick, slumped in wheel chairs, waiting for rescue and fighting to hold on.
Today, the people of New Orleans are still fighting—wracked by psychological trauma and the devastating Diaspora of a city destroyed, not to mention the corruption and cronyism that have marred the no-bid contract recovery efforts. And just as the long, painstaking struggle to heal the deep wounds began to make headway, the city was struck again—this time by the global economic crisis that hobbled the city’s crucial tourism industry. It was an unexpected and quietly devastating blow. Today, the city is reeling from job losses, rising costs of living and a disturbing escalation in violent crime. But the people who returned to claim their home are determined to preserve the city’s deep roots and extraordinary culture. Leading that fight, in many ways, is New Orleans’ tight-knit and hard-hit music community.
The birthplace of jazz and Louis Armstrong, New Orleans is a musical hot house that has incubated and nurtured the greatest traditions in jazz, blues, soul and rock and roll. From Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, to Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, to Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and the Meters, the Marsalis family and Harry Connick, Jr., to Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and Louis Prima, to influential lesser known legends like Snooks Eaglin, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Willie Tee, and others—not to mention Dixieland, brass bands, Zydeco and a vibrant hip-hop scene—the problem with listing the incredible musicians of New Orleans is that you can never stop without fear of a glaring omission. Their contributions to American music seem almost infinite. Not bad for a city of less than 400,000 that sits below sea level and the poverty line.
“It’s a different place here,” says four-time Grammy Award-winning producer John Snyder, the program director for the music industry studies program at Loyola University. “It’s a certain thing in the air. I don’t know what you’d call it. A soulfulness and an earthiness. It’s got that tropical vibe, where people seem to be conserving energy all the time. It is more about conserving energy than expending energy. It’s in the music and it characterizes all efforts—academic, entrepreneurial, legal, you name it. A lot of effort has to be expended just to get to the point of doing something. It has lived in a different century every century it has been in, and it is never the future. It’s always in a historical context of culture and booze and music and architecture and dilapidated elegance. But after Katrina, everything changed.”
“The music community in New Orleans was so neighborhood based,” say Reid Wick, senior project coordinator for The Recording Academy, who helped administer MusiCares’ Hurricane Relief Fund and Music Rising’s instrument replacement program. “So much of it was learning how to play in the bars and churches of your neighborhood. After Katrina, that was totally disrupted. Some entire regions of the city are vast wastelands, still—and not only poor areas. Everything from the neighborhood where you used to live, to the club you used to play on Saturday night and the church you played on Sunday morning, are just not there anymore. So when those clubs aren’t there, and those neighborhoods aren’t even there, a lot musicians are just going to be struggling and out of work.”
But even in the darkest days after the storm, the musical community worked together to help each other, and their city. They were matched with a vast outpouring of compassion and support from life-changing assistance programs like MusiCares and Music Rising. Following Katrina, the city had the sympathy of the world, and while volunteers streamed in to help rebuild, the city’s musicians found themselves in greater demand than ever before.
“The storm brought a lot of attention to the music community,” says Snyder. “It created work as well as displacement. It created new opportunities as well as destruction and loss. It is like everything else. It is not all one thing. In this situation you have to look for the good and make the best of it.”
“Many musicians were able to come back and for awhile there was actually more work than there had been in the past,” agrees Scott Aiges, director of programs, marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “You had places tripping over one another to hire New Orleans musicians to help support them. But that has died off now. The number of gigs has decreased significantly and the pay scale has gone down significantly, so it is much harder to make a living as a musician—much harder. And it has always been challenging. It’s a city so famous for its music that people think musicians here have it made—but musicians by no means have their livelihoods guaranteed in New Orleans. In fact, we did a study back when I was working for the mayor’s office before the storm and musicians were making on average about $21,000 a year. So we referred to the musicians a lot of the time as the working poor. They are working very hard. They are most often parents and they struggle extremely hard to make ends meet.”
Compounding the destruction and displacement wrought by the storm and its aftermath was the long-term damage done to New Orleans’ tourism industry, a vital part of the city’s economy and the economic lifeblood of the music community. While the city’s struggles to attract visitors began to pay off a few years after the storm, they were suddenly and dramatically undercut last year by the global financial crisis.
“It seemed like we were really starting to see some improvement in the local economy,” says Mark Fowler, manager of Tipitina’s Music Office Co-Op in New Orleans. “The local tourism industry was really starting to get back into good shape. And then we had this big economic crash that just derailed everything. People just aren’t having conventions like they did. And a big convention isn’t just about the people in town going out and spending money—there is all the auxiliary support business, whether it is people in restaurants or cab drivers or audio-video tech guys, all the people whose work is related to that stuff. So all the people in the local economy don’t have money to go out and do stuff either. It impacts musicians on a lot of different levels.”
“The convention business drove so much of the economy of New Orleans, in particular the music industry,” says Wick. “It just hasn’t really come back to the level of what it was. It could be ten years if it ever comes back. And it is hard to track that—a restaurant that would hire a trio or a pianist, when the tourism dollars stop coming in, the first thing they are going to cut is the music budget.”
In addition, the wealth of talent in New Orleans seems to compound the problems. Though the community is surprisingly uncompetitive and supportive—just listen to the warmth and respect when musicians talk about each other during interviews on the incredible WWOZ, one of the best radio stations in the country—their sheer number drives down the fees they can command.
“Music is everywhere,” Snyder says. “Everyone is a musician. The way up North people carry briefcases, down here they carry instruments. But musicians have never made money here. People don’t like to pay for music. They might pay a little bit, but not enough to support it. If you go out in New York City and go to a jazz club, it’s going to cost you a hundred bucks for two people. Nobody would pay a hundred dollars to hear music here. If you ask for ten, you might get people to go. So there’s no money in playing music and there is no infrastructure to speak of, no publishing companies or record companies or management companies.”
“The money thing is very problematic,” says Fowler. “There are so many people competing for the same jobs. It is a buyer’s market. The pay at a lot of places is probably $25 a set, so $25 an hour, which for a day job is pretty good. But when you think about potential income, it is a job more than anything else.”
Of primary importance for those fighting to preserve and protect New Orleans’ musical traditions is to pass along an understanding of the business of making music—from marketing to publishing to legal issues—and a greater understanding of the income potential of licensing.
“One of the things we are trying to do at the Co-Op is to get people to not think just about gigs but all the other things you can do with your music,” Fowler adds. “Get stuff licensed to be used in films and advertising, television shows, more lucrative situations. That is where the bulk of the money is made these days, because there is actually money there. We’re like, ‘We all love playing gigs, but you gotta think of this other stuff.’”
Much like the musical traditions the community is trying to preserve, the recovery and relief efforts are marked by an intense level of creativity, generosity, humility and versatility. Wick’s deep ties to the hardest hit members of the community allowed him to see the need for an organization to help coordinate relief efforts, which lead to the founding of Sweet Home New Orleans.
“Sweet Home New Orleans is an umbrella organization for 14 different relief agencies,” Wick says. “There are probably 5,000 musicians in New Orleans and many of them live in a totally cash world. They’ve never had a checking account or a credit card, so they have no credit history established. With Sweet Home we tried to help with housing issues, and wound up being a case management and application service to streamline the application process for 14 different relief agencies, like MusiCares, Society of Singers, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Musicians Clinic, and three of four other agencies that were springing up. We’re still going strong three or four years later.”
“Still going strong three of four years later.” It perfectly encapsulates the hope and heartbreak the community balances. How extraordinary that there is the generosity, dedication and compassion to keeps these relief efforts alive—and how painful to realize they are still so necessary so many years after the tragedy.
Today, there are still many, many ways to help the city’s citizens and musicians. From financial donations to instrument donations, there is still tremendous need and many devoted organizations to contact for a better understanding of how to contribute. But for Aiges, one answer is simple.
“Come to New Orleans,” he says. “Bare witness. Understand there is still a struggle going on, but the culture of New Orleans remains intact and it remains a tremendously joyous place to experience. Everyone who comes to New Orleans takes a little piece of it with them when they go. And the more that is spread throughout the world, the more people are aware of how special New Orleans is. And you can’t predict how that will resonate and how that will change things for the better.”
You can help. Click here:
Sweet Home New Orleans
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation
New Orleans Musicians Clinic
Listen to WWOZ!