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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.

"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."

No playing favorites

Earlier this year, Habitat's response was fairly rigid. The organization cannot play favorites, said the spokeswoman, Tusa, because according to Fair Housing law, all applicants must be equal. In the past six months, however, Habitat has made more musician-specific efforts.

"We've had a lot of success in fundraising because of the musician angle," said Andy Lee, Habitat board vice president. "So we know that we have a responsibility to not only resettle displaced families but also displaced musicians."

In other words, Habitat is fulfilling "something of a cultural mission," Lee said.

Fulfilling that mission is just not a nice idea, it's mandatory, according to those concerned over the high rejection rate for musicians. "If Habitat for Humanity is calling it Musicians Village, they should make sure that the village houses musicians," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and an expert on nonprofit management. Depending on the challenges faced, the new mission may require some adjustments, he said.

"If Habitat for Humanity needs to change their practices to make this happen through debt relief and other means, it should do so. Otherwise it is false advertising and the kind of error in judgment that affects public trust in charities."

Tusa said that Habitat hasn't wavered on its credit policies, but it is letting musicians prove their income with gig calendars instead of the conventional W-2 and 1099 forms.

Legal volunteers

Lee, a lawyer with Jones Walker, said that "Habitat has stepped up to the plate" by forming coalitions and finding resources. Lee has tried to help musicians clean up their credit by negotiating with creditors. He's also recruited other lawyers for the effort, including the Entertainment Law Legal Assistance program, which is sponsored by Tulane University Law School, the Tipitina's Foundation and the Arts Council of New Orleans.

But the process is slow, said ELLA supervising attorney Ashlye Keaton, who said that her project has taken on about 20 cases so far. "I think that a couple of our cases have gotten through," she said.

Lee has also found the process slow-going, due partly to applicants' missed appointments and failure to complete paperwork. "I'm not a social worker," he said. "You start to think, 'If he really wants this, he'll call me.' "

One thing is clear, say both Lee and Tusa, Habitat will not be administering any debt-relief program for musicians. "To use funds dedicated to building houses for paying off debt would be improper," Lee said. "It would not be faithful to donors' intentions."

Branford Marsalis, phoning in from North Carolina, agrees that debt relief isn't the answer. But he said that the issue is complicated, because it means confronting the fact that musicians don't make much money in this city. "New Orleans musicians get the short shrift amidst the short shrift," he said. "It's why many of us leave, and it's why a lot of musicians are in debt."

Marsalis understands that musicians may need help dealing with tax forms and creditors. "I'm all for handholding, and if I could, I'd fly down there and do some of that," he said. "But I'd be firm—'I'll hold your hand, but when I'm through holding it, this paperwork needs to be done.' "

Personal outreach

Cherice Harrison-Nelson, counsel queen for the Mardi Gras Indian gang Guardians of the Flame, is one of the 14 musicians who have been assigned addresses in the Village.

But she spent the day after Christmas in bed, depressed. A Mardi Gras Indian who really wanted to get home was rejected for the Village, said Harrison-Nelson, who has been volunteering to help Habitat with grass-roots outreach to Indians and brass band musicians—"people who are close to the community, who help the community celebrate themselves."

Her sadness about her fellow Indian came from being brought up in a strong community that sticks together. "We know that we all sink or we all float. So we want everyone to be OK."

That stick-together attitude has spurred Harrison-Nelson to deliver applications to the Habitat office, to go through applications step by step, and to get phone numbers at a parade and then follow up with a phone call. But so far, despite her efforts, she is the only Indian in the Village.

Creative bill-paying

"The credit-worthiness issue is big," she said. "I always say, 'Creative people are creative 24/7. They pay their bills creatively, too.' "

If the nature of music-industry finances is one reason for the dearth of musicians in Musicians Village, another is that the city's jazz artists and Indians often come from this city's poorest neighborhoods, where bad credit is common. A recent Brookings Institution report, "Credit Scores, Reports and Getting Ahead in America," found that, in general, Southerners are more likely to fall behind on payments than borrowers elsewhere in the United States.

Matt Fellowes, the report's author, compared credit scores across the country and found that "the South just lit up by its low average credit score." He also found that average credit scores were lower in areas with high concentrations of minorities.

Why? Fellowes said he doesn't know, but he speculates that it may be due to lower wages, higher expenses or the way businesses finance credit in this region.

Harrison-Nelson said that her outreach time is limited now that she's working in public schools again. She believes that Habitat wants to do the right thing, but that will take intense grass-roots efforts that might seem like baby-sitting or hand-holding to some people. That's necessary, she said, because "working for a community and working in a community are two different things."

She gives Habitat credit for addressing artists' need for housing. More recent efforts, such as Sweet Home New Orleans, began looking at housing needs because of Habitat's focus on the issue, she said.

Tragedy intervenes

Around the corner from Harrison-Nelson's future house, brass band musician Alfred Growe was doing carpentry work last week, putting in his Habitat for Humanity service hours. A trombonist with the Free Agents Brass Band and a field service rep for Cox Communications, he walked out the front door, dusty but happy, after being approved for a Musicians Village house. His first application had been denied, but he then worked through his credit problems.

That triumph, he said, was dampened by the fact that no other brass band musicians—no one from Rebirth, no one from New Birth—had made it into the Village, no one except his buddy Dinerral Shavers, snare drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band.

Fans on the road often come up to band members and tell them that they donated to Habitat for Humanity, and are disappointed to learn that not everyone can get into the Village, Growe said. And many of the musicians who have been accepted, Growe said, are transplants from other places who do not play traditional New Orleans music.

Habitat could not release the names of the 14 accepted musicians because of privacy concerns. Tusa said that it's also been difficult to define who's a New Orleans musician and who's not. "If I play the flute at home, but I do PR for my job, I can call myself a musician," she said.

Growe got excited, talking about the future he envisioned in the Musicians Village—living next door to his friend Shavers, taking care of each other's kids, grilling out in their back yards together. He and Shavers had decided to do a fundraiser to help brass band musicians pay off their bad credit, Growe said.

That could help musicians they know like Glen David Andrews, who, with few gigs in post-Katrina New Orleans, has little hope of tackling his debts without assistance.

Robert Osinoff, a volunteer from Washington, D.C., who had spent the day cutting wood and pounding nails with Growe and Shavers, chimed in to support the fundraiser idea. Jazz fans like him, he said, would be willing to chip in money toward reasonable debt relief—if they knew it would put more musicians into the Village.

That night, Growe and Shavers called a bunch of bandmates and told them they were going to find ways to get them into the Village. It felt good, Growe said.

But less than a day later, Shavers lay dead at Broad and Dumaine streets, shot in the back of his head. Police have arrested 17-year-old in the killing, and say that he was aiming for Shavers' stepson. The two young men had feuded at school, according to the New Orleans Police Department.

"We were happy and joyous about being there," Growe said after word reached him. "Now it's just me there. There's a sense of loneliness."

Originally published on January 2, 2007, in The Times-Picayune. © 2007 The Times-Picayune, L.L.C. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com.


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