They Got It Bad
Many of New Orleans's traditional jazz musicians are having trouble getting in to Musicians' Village, a Habitat for Humanity project, because of bad credit, writes Katy Reckdahl in this July 2006 offBeat magazine article.
Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

Hot 8 Brass Band snare drummer Dinerral Shavers grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, a couple blocks from the levee. After Katrina, his mom's house floated an entire block. He seemed the perfect candidate for Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village. But when he and most of band mates applied, all of them were turned down. "We were told to straighten out our credit," he says.

Seven members of the Rebirth Brass Band lost their homes after Hurricane Katrina. Not one has applied for the Musicians' Village, says leader and tuba player Phil Frazier. "I think a lot of musicians have bad credit, so they're just not messing with it," he says.

Habitat started getting the upper Ninth Ward site ready at the end of February, just after Mardi Gras. At the end of April, just before Jazz Fest, volunteers gathered at North Roman and Bartholomew streets and started construction on the first three houses. The first 75 homes are going on the site of the now-demolished Joseph Kohn Middle School, a 5.5-acre parcel of land purchased from Orleans Parish Public Schools in January. Habitat hopes to build an additional 250 to 300 houses in the surrounding neighborhood, on what are now vacant lots. Jim Pate, head of New Orleans Area Habitat, says that they're hoping for musicians in anywhere from a third to half of these houses.

"If this housing is supposed to be for jazz musicians, why are most jazz musicians not eligible?" asks Williams.

Between February and May, Habitat received 61 applications. About 50 percent were denied outright or were incomplete. The others are either moving slowly through Habitat's next two phases or are stalled, most often because of missing paperwork. The refusal rate may seem high, says Pate's colleague Sarrah Evans, but typically Habitat families are denied at a much higher rate, more like 80 to 90 percent. That said, they have already accepted about 30 families for the non-musician houses in the Village. So that part of the Village is moving along.

The Musicians' Village is moving more slowly. Shavers says that he doesn't know one brass band musician who qualified. "Who are the musicians who are getting in?" he asks. "Are they jazz musicians?"

Some are. Out of the six officially accepted musicians, half are traditional New Orleans musicians: bassist Peter Badie, Jr., singer-harmonica player J.D. Hill, and Mardi Gras Indian queen Cherise Harrison-Nelson. The others are musicians from other idioms: Latin bandleader Fredy Omar, world-rock drummer Boyanna Trayanova (from the band Saaraba), and singer Margaret Perez.

To be fair, Habitat has never advertised the project as an "all jazz" village. But to Hot 8 trumpeter Raymond Williams, its concept says jazz. After all, he says, the concept came from jazz musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis. Its centerpiece will be a cultural center named for jazz pianist (and Branford's father) Ellis Marsalis. "If this housing is supposed to be for jazz musicians, why are most jazz musicians not eligible?" asks Williams.

In December, trombonist Corey Henry got a note from Harry Connick, Jr. about the Musicians' Village. The note came indirectly, through Henry's girlfriend, Briana Burgau, a waitress and student in New York who had waited on Connick. "Harry left the number for me to get on the list and put down all the info," says Henry. "So I called the number, but I never got an application." Habitat says that several other applications disappeared around that time in the then-unreliable New Orleans postal system.

Most musicians first heard about the Village in December, after Connick and Branford Marsalis stood with Mayor Ray Nagin and announced the project. The partnership was a logical one, since Connick has long been a loyal supporter of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. For the past six years, he's been the organization's single largest contributor.

Now, several months later, Corey Henry knows that he can't get into the Musicians' Village by simply "getting on the list." He fears that credit checks will eliminate many fellow horn-players. "They know lots of musicians are going to have bad credit," Henry says. "So I don't know who's going to make it in there."

In general, musicians embrace the idea. "I like the concept, I really do," says Tanio Hingle, leader of the New Birth Brass Band, who sent in his application a few months ago but hasn't heard anything. "You could've called the Treme neighborhood a Musicians' Village before it got too expensive," says Hingle, remembering how musicians would practice in each other's backyards when he was a youngster. He believes that, if Habitat accepts more musicians, it could easily create a new spot, where musicians and their families would live side by side, socialize, and jam. "This is a tradition that's been going on for a long time," Connick told CNN This Morning on Lundi Gras. "That's how I learned to play, going and sitting in with these guys when I was a little boy. They don't talk; they just play."

Cherise Harrison-Nelson grew up in the upper Ninth Ward hearing musicians play and Mardi Gras Indians practice. "That was the Guardians of the Flame's stomping ground down there," she says. "On Mardi Gras mornings, my dad, my brother, and my son all came out of the house at 3630 N. Johnson, two blocks away from the Musicians' Village," she says. As an adolescent, she attended Kohn school, where she was teased for being an artistic, eccentric kid, she says. She remembers sitting at her bedroom window at the corner of Johnson and Independence and listening for the first bell. Then, and only then would she leave home, arriving at the school just before the second bell, which gave her classmates no time to taunt her.

During that time, Harrison-Nelson spent long hours sitting alone on the school's bike rack by the corner of Johnson and Alvar. "I would sit there and think, 'It's not always going to be like this.' I could envision something else for myself," she says. After she signed her paperwork with Habitat, she asked for that corner. Her house will be built there, where the bike rack once stood.

Harrison-Nelson, currently the counsel queen for her late father's gang, the Guardians of the Flame, believes that musicians and Indians and social and pleasure club members need to hear about the Village in their communities in language they understand. So she organized a housing fair at the Backstreet Cultural Museum on St. Claude Avenue. "We had tables set up for people to talk one-on-one. And in the back, we had beer, chicken, and finger sandwiches," she says. Habitat got 25 applications, Evans says, although there's no word yet on how many of those were accepted.

Musicians' Village houses are designed with two, three, and four bedrooms and—in response to the severe post-Katrina flooding—they are built high off the ground, 5-feet, 7-inches up. On the Kohn site, buildings will be mostly classic New Orleans shotguns and four-bay double shotguns. But the homes will not all look alike. For the Musicians' Village, Habitat will use a total of seven different traditional New Orleans facades that will sometimes be flipped left to right.

The average mortgage payment is about $500 a month. That's attractive to Dinerral Shavers, the Hot 8 drummer, who right now is paying "sky-high-ass rent"—$950 a month for a two-bedroom place. That mortgage payment seems reasonable for most working musicians, says Hingle. "The $500 ain't no issue because most people are paying in that much in rent right now," he says.

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