Since Katrina, New Orleans has split into two cities—one moving toward renewal and the other caught in limbo. In this article originally published in the March 2007 Jazz Journalists Association newsletter, Larry Blumenfeld calls for the jazz community to confront the urgent problems facing the future of New Orleans and its culture.
Stick to the "Sliver by the River," the high-ground neighborhoods along the Mississippi's banks, and you might think New Orleans is healing. Take a taxi from Louis Armstrong Airport to the French Quarter and you'll find scant evidence of Katrina's wrath. Sluggishly approaching its former self, the Quarter again boasts coffee and beignets, music and mystery.
New Orleans is now two cities—one inching toward renewal, the other caught in what David Winkler-Schmidt of the local Gambit Weekly once called "the horrible unending of not knowing." The Gambit music section lists favorite clubs hosting favorite bands, many of whose members still travel from Houston or Baton Rouge for gigs, or who live in temporary quarters, perhaps with family, maybe even in a FEMA trailer. The great body of culture that long inspired and still shapes the sound of American music—in the form of jazz musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-liners, neighborhood brass bands and up-from-the-projects MCs—remains stuck in that unending.
I'm alarmed by the situation in New Orleans 18 months after Hurricane Katrina hit, surprised by the fact that so many of our readers are unaware of the depth of the problems that persist, distressed by the ineffectiveness of local, state and federal support, and dismayed that there is not more outcry and activism within the jazz community.
I wrote those two paragraphs nearly a year ago, for a piece in The Village Voice. Yet I could have written them yesterday—or today, after my arrival back New Orleans for a three-month stay, the continuation of my research and writing as a Katrina Media Fellow for the Open Society Institute. I'm alarmed by the situation in New Orleans 18 months after Hurricane Katrina hit, surprised by the fact that so many of our readers are unaware of the depth of the problems that persist, distressed by the ineffectiveness of local, state and federal support, and dismayed that there is not more outcry and activism within the jazz community. And for all the ink spilled about post-Katrina New Orleans, I don't think there's been enough consideration of the cultural consequences of all this, not to mention the role that culture should play in finding solutions.
In January, at the IAJE conference, I presented a panel discussion called "Jazz, Politics and American Identity." When Dr. Michael White had to cancel due to another engagement, I decided to leave the chair empty, for the "elephant in the room"—or maybe for the musicians who were among thousands of New Orleans residents approaching City Hall in protest of a wave of violent crime and a lack of police protection, at the very moment I began addressing the audience at a midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom.
Ideas that we love to invest in as abstractions—the commingling of joy and pain embodied by blues, the spirit of improvisation as applied to life's challenges, the relationship between jazz band organization and images of democracy—are being lived out in real life through hard times in New Orleans. Can we hear it differently in light of the current crisis? And if these communities are gone for good, how will that affect the music?
Here are some of the organizations that are working to find homes for musicians in New Orleans—both for their families and for their music:
The New Orleans Musicians' Clinic at the LSU Health Sciences Center is a not-for-profit occupational-medicine service sponsored by Daughters of Charity Services of New Orleans, the LSU Healthcare Network, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. The clinic spent nearly a million dollars last year simply subsidizing gigs. Post-Katrina, the need for its services has deepened, and the mission has expanded to a wide range of support activities and funds, from housing to basic needs to subsidized performances. See neworleansmusiciansclinic.org.
Founded by Benjamin and Sarah Jaffe of Preservation Hall, New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund has a twofold mission: humanitarian outreach to New Orleans musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina, and the revival of the city's musical culture. The fund offers grants to leaders in the music community and has aided more than 1,000 musicians, connecting them with instruments, financial assistance and subsidized gigs. See nomhrf.org.
The Tipitina's Foundation, which grew out a beloved Uptown club, provides a relief center that offers musicians everything from free legal and business assistance to music education to help with housing. Iconic musician Fats Domino has donated the proceeds from his new release Alive and Kickin' to the foundation. (A star-studded Fats tribute record is in the works.) And a recent instrument giveaway provided instruments worth $500,000 to needy local schools. See tipitinasfoundation.org.
The Arabi Wrecking Krewe, many members of which are New Orleans musicians, has offered loving post-Katrina assistance. The nonprofit organization has located musicians and their families, gutted and repaired homes and literally rebuilt lives one nail at a time—free of charge. See arabiwreckingkrewe.com.
The New York-based Jazz Foundation of America has been saving elderly jazz and blues musicians in crisis since 1989. Post-Katrina, the JFA embarked on a comprehensive mission to aid New Orleans: paying the first month's rent for new homes; forwarding nearly $200,000 worth of donated instruments to musicians; providing counseling, advocacy and pro-bono legal advice; and creating a long-term job program that has employed more than 200 musicians. See jazzfoundation.org.
Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO) is a collaborative effort of nonprofit agencies, including some of those above, designed to facilitate the return of displaced New Orleans musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, and Social Aid & Pleasure Club members. See sweethomeneworleans.org.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of the Jazz Journalists Association newsletter. Copyright © 2007 by Larry Blumenfeld. Reprinted with permission.