Sour Note
Credit problems are keeping many musicians out of Musicians' Village, reports Katy Reckdahl in this article originally published in the January 2, 2007, Times-Picayune.
Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

During his last set at the Sound Cafe on Wednesday, jazz musician Glen David Andrews and his band, the Lazy Six, got the entire audience on their feet, hands in the air, chanting: "Rebuild New Orleans." After the set was done, Andrews greeted a few fans and packed his trombone for the ride back to an uncle's FEMA trailer, where he's been living for months.

In December 2005, Andrews went to the Greyhound station in Houston and bought himself a one-way ticket to New Orleans, the city where his family has raised generations of musicians and a place he missed desperately. "It was my Christmas present to myself," he said.

Most of Andrews' family lost homes or longtime rental apartments to Hurricane Katrina, and so he and a few of his musical cousins got applications from Habitat for Humanity for houses in its Musicians Village in the Upper 9th Ward. He was denied because of bad credit that came from several hundred dollars of unpaid bills, he said.

Andrews is not the only musician turned away by a philanthropic project that has raised millions in the name of housing New Orleans musicians. Nor is he unaware of the irony. Spotty income streams and dubious credit histories are almost as much a part of the musician's life as road tours and unscrupulous club owners, and yet that financial profile is the grounds for rejecting a lot of the applicants seeking to live in the Village.

Village's "poster child"

The bass drummer for the Lazy Six, Terence Andrews, got a rejection letter on the same day as his trombonist cousin. "Everybody I know got denied," he said. That includes first cousin Glen Joseph Andrews, trumpeter for the Lazy Six and for the Rebirth Brass Band, whom bandmates call "the poster child for the Musicians Village," because—despite the rejection—he's pictured playing his horn next to Habitat's online donation form for the project.

The Lazy Six bandmates say that their band is representative of the musicians they know—about half have been rejected and the other half haven't applied because they expect to be denied.

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity spokeswoman Aleis Tusa said that Habitat doesn't typically track applicants as musicians or non-musicians. But after hand-counting the data, she reported that in a year's time, out of 116 total families in the final stages of Habitat's process, 28 families—about one in four—were musicians. On average, according to Habitat, only one out of 10 applicants meets the requirements and is accepted.

Despite the rejection, he's pictured playing his horn next to Habitat's online donation form for the project.

"A hell of a deal"

The keen interest in Musicians Village is not hard to fathom. Qualifying applicants get the chance to own a two- to four- bedroom home with a no-interest 20-year $75,000 house note. "I'd take a Habitat house any day—it's a hell of a deal," said Glen David Andrews. The average mortgage payment hovers around $550 and includes insurance and termite coverage.

The Musicians Village idea was hatched a few months after Hurricane Katrina hit. Harry Connick Jr., who had been the New Orleans Area Habitat's largest contributor for several years before Katrina, teamed up with fellow jazz musician Branford Marsalis to develop the idea, announced in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 2005. The first 73 single-family homes and six rental duplexes are now being constructed where Joseph Kohn Middle School used to stand. Habitat hopes to build an additional 250 to 300 houses on vacant lots in the surrounding neighborhood. Residents and neighbors will be within walking distance of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a performing and education space named for Branford's father, which will be built at the center of the Kohn school site. If it had enough applicants from the musician community, Habitat estimated that between one-third to one-half of the houses would belong to musicians.

The groundbreaking came with grand declarations. "This plan, this village, will help restore New Orleans' musical heritage, and protect it for the next generation that will follow," said Branford Marsalis, in Habitat's Dec. 6 press release.

Photo op for VIPs

Since then, the Musicians Village site has become a must-do photo op for visiting VIPs. President Bush has pounded nails there. So have Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Congressman Bill Jefferson, former President Jimmy Carter, presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.

Donors have also flocked to the project. Some of the higher-profile donations: The Dave Matthews Band issued a $1.5 million challenge grant. The band Electronik Church donated 100 percent of its tour ticket sales. The group Little Feat gave $20,000. All proceeds from a new Harry Connick CD benefit the Village; Connick also engineered five benefit performances of the Broadway show "The Pajama Game," in which he starred. Oil companies BP America and Shell gave $250,000 and $500,000, respectively. Another few million came from benefit concerts and from recordings such as "Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now" and "Our New Orleans: A Benefit for the Gulf Coast." Most of that money goes toward housing and some for the Marsalis Center, according to Habitat.

Local jazz musicians have watched the hubbub and want to be part of it. The New Birth Brass Band played at the Village for one of President Bush's two visits there. "He basically told them to look out for us," said New Birth bass drummer and leader Tanio Hingle. "But none of us is eligible."

1 2 NEXT>