New Orleans rising

Katrina has silenced the city's famous musical pulse, washing away clubs and scattering musicians. But Crescent City singers and songwriters, producers and administrators insist the sounds of the bayou will not be muted for long.

Published September 6, 2005 9:19PM (EDT)

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break, when the levee breaks I'll have no place to stay
-- Public Domain (also credited to Memphis Minnie, Kansas Joe McCoy and the members of Led Zeppelin), "When the Levee Breaks"

New Orleans brass-band music, exemplified in this age by such superb purveyors as the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth Brass Bands, is built upon the fundament of the funeral march. Yet there's something in the rolling snap of the snare that all but jump-starts the living heart. And the horns, even in their funereal bleats of sorrow, recall the mighty life force of the music that crumbled Jericho's walls.

On Aug. 29, the walls that held back the seiching waters of Pontchartrain began to break in the other direction, and the most musical city in America, if not the world, was largely inundated. The flood drenched homes where creative souls lived in what more than one Crescent City musician in the last few days referred to as a "paradise." It also flowed into and over clubs and studios, as well as the means of income for a music community that was a magnet for visitors and one of the most piquant exports in a city rich with delicacies. It washed over musical instruments and equipment as well as the music itself, both recorded and written, soaking, soiling and damaging but, thank God, not fully destroying one of America's most vital, important and soulful cultural traditions.

The muddy waters roiled by Katrina have no doubt flooded some legendary musical locales and wiped out irreplaceable artifacts of New Orleans music. Among the hardest-hit areas were the poverty-stricken African-American neighborhoods, where the New Orleans musical traditions are all but woven into the tattered but colorful fabric of everyday life. But neither the music of Crescent City nor the people who create it -- nor the spirit, soul, originality, independence and distinctive locality of that art and the musicians who create it -- can be washed away, no matter what the category hurricane or depth of flood. "It's going to take some time, but it will come back," says Art Neville of the city's legendary R&B band the Neville Brothers. "We've got to put it back because it's so involved with the local economy and the United States."

"The spirit did not drown," declares New Orleans resident Allen Toussaint, the producer, songwriter and artist whose work all but defined the New Orleans R&B sound. He is confident the Big Easy will continue to bless the world with its musical magic. "In fact, I am eager to get back to rebuild it. New Orleans music for me is life itself, it's my reason for moving in the morning when I wake up."

The good news in the tragedy is that it appears that every significant New Orleans musician feared missing is safe and sound -- something of a miracle as the death toll mounts. Then again, New Orleans music itself is a miracle. It is the place where the truest and most deeply rooted strains of indigenous American music -- blues, jazz, rhythm and blues -- flowed down the proverbial waters of the Mississippi, took root and sprouted into the sounds of Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop. New Orleans is Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and Irma Thomas. It's also the Radiators, Cowboy Mouth, and the Continental Drifters. "It's all the musicians that made their living playing Jackson Square. And now there's no Jackson Square to play," notes Marc Allan, manager of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines, six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.
-- Randy Newman, "Louisiana 1927"

"People are scattered like the lost tribes of Israel," says guitarist Paul Sanchez of Cowboy Mouth, who was recording in Atlanta when the storm hit the Big Easy. Many of the city's musicians were either out of town on tour or able to leave the city for points south and southwest before the floods. Summer is the time when New Orleans musical acts tour, play festivals and escape the humidity and storm season. Because of this, some just may have also escaped the fatal waters of the flood. Still, the crisis has shown that the New Orleans musical community is truly a little village. Everyone knows everyone else, or at least who the other musicians are, regardless of age, race or musical style. As they speak about their city and its music, they all have a hunger to know how the others are faring and where they are and that their musical brethren are safe.

I, in fact, became an informational nexus for musicians. Yes, I told them, Fats Domino was said to be missing but is now reported to be rescued from his flooded house and safe at the Superdome. (After being evacuated, Domino and his family later stayed for two days with Louisiana State University quarterback JaMarcus Russell in Baton Rouge, and is now with relatives in Dallas.) A Fox News Web site story erroneously wrote that Irma Thomas was also missing, even though a simple Internet search would have revealed that she played a show in Austin, Texas, on Saturday night before the storm hit. She is now staying with relatives of her husband in Gonzales, La. Fox News also erroneously said that Toussaint was at the Superdome, too.

"Alex Chilton is missing," announces an arriving e-mail. The legendary veteran of the Box Tops and Big Star gave his car to friends on Saturday so they could evacuate and decided to stay at his home in the Treme district and ride out the hurricane. After it passed, he called a friend to say that he was OK. Then his neighborhood flooded and he wasn't heard from again. Friends saw a picture of people waiting to be evacuated from the French Quarter on and thought the fellow with his hands over his face could be the notoriously press-shy Chilton. Finally, on Sunday it was confirmed that he was seen in Molly's, a Decatur Street watering hole, on the preceding Wednesday. On Monday, friends and family finally heard from the MIA rock musician that he is fine and had been evacuated to Houston. However, in typical fashion, Chilton declined to tell the Memphis Commercial Appeal, his hometown paper, where, exactly, he is.

Two days before Katrina hit, Toussaint checked into a room on the fourth floor of the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street. During his stay, Toussaint noticed that La Louisiane across the street was open, "so I walked across the street, had a soda, and played a couple of tunes on the little piano they had there." He finally got out of town on Wednesday after "waiting for busses to arrive that never did," when he ran into a friend who had chartered a school bus, which took him and other survivors to Baton Rouge, where he spent a night at the airport before flying to New York City, where he is now staying in a hotel.

Although there have been many reports of looting and violence from New Orleans, Toussaint stresses that "close up, in such a catastrophic event, I saw many interesting and kind deeds. I saw people who probably would have never met or spoken to each other helping out each other."

Rebirth Brass Band trumpeter Derek Shezbie holed up in his fourth-floor apartment with enough food and water to make it through the height of the flood. When it started to recede, he waded through the water to a highway and hitchhiked to Baton Rouge. Even after his ordeal, he then united with his fellow members of Rebirth as well as players from the New Birth and Soul Rebels Brass Bands to play for New Orleans citizens on Labor Day at the Astrodome and bring them the healing power of music.

Many have family at home they have yet to hear from, such as Dirty Dozen saxophonist Roger Lewis, who as of Sunday had not gotten word about one of his daughters. "You've got to be strong. You can't get weak, you've got to keep your strength up," he says. Lewis isn't concerned about whether his home is flooded. "That's material. I'm just worrying about my daughters and aunts and uncles. Material things -- you can always get that back, no big deal."

Rocker Peter Holsapple of the Continental Drifters was on tour as utility guitarist and keyboard player with Hootie & the Blowfish, and his wife and child were able to evacuate their home in St. Bernard Parish. "My section of town is under 20 feet of water," he says. "My house and car are completely submerged, and all my recording gear and instruments and 30 years of song notebooks and master tapes. I try to spend my time not taking inventory of the things that I'm going to lose in this, and rather count my blessings that my family is OK and friends are OK, and that we have the ability to start over again. There are so many people down there who aren't even going to get that chance.

"My guitar tech said yesterday, and I keep repeating it like a mantra: love people, use things. I lost things, but I didn't lose the biggest things, like my wife and family and friends."

A relative of Tommy Malone of the Subdudes offered him an empty house in Denton, Texas, to stay in for the time being. He has been looking over satellite photos online to get some idea of the status of his home near Bayou St. John, where he left all his equipment. "Some of my stuff was downstairs. It's probably ruined," he says. "Most of my expensive stuff I brought at least upstairs. It just depends on how high this thing got. And whether or not looters are gonna do their trick. But considering what I've seen on the tube, I am shitting in high cotton."

Toussaint believes there is at least 7 to 8 feet of water in his house in the Bayou St. John area and that his Steinway piano and equipment are ruined. He did take with him some computer discs with material he had been working on, "so all is not lost in that area," he says. He is not certain about the fate of the tapes of some of his classic recording work.

The initial tally of what hasn't been lost is somewhat encouraging. The New York Times reported on Sunday that the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University is safe, but damage to the roof of the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter raised concerns about the jazz collection housed there. Venerable music venues like Preservation Hall, Tipitina's, and Maple Leaf, as well as newer clubs like House of Blues and One Eyed Jack's in the French Quarter, all seem to have been on high enough ground to not be flooded.

Other nightclubs probably haven't been so lucky. The Howlin' Wolf, Carrolton Station, and the Lion's Den are likely casualties. The Mid-City Lanes Rock 'N Bowl that hosts the annual Ponderosa Stomp and other shows and events may have escaped damage by being on the second floor. But the status of homes and clubs is hard to determine, as people scan aerial photos and rely on sketchy reports from those still inside the city to ascertain the condition of the places they hold dear.

The future was uncertain at press time for the 35-year-old New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which is held every year during the last two weeks of April. The Voodoo Music Festival scheduled for the Halloween weekend is currently in limbo and obviously will not be held in the ruined city.

Even at the nightclubs that aren't damaged, the groups that play there and the people who work at them won't be returning to action for the foreseeable future. "Who's going to go to them? Are all the musicians going to stay in New Orleans and play them?" wonders David Hirshland, executive vice president of Bug Music in Los Angeles, which administers song publishing for scores of New Orleans musicians, and a former co-owner of the Big Easy bed and breakfast Chateau Marigny. "You name a New Orleans musician other than the top tier, and they need New Orleans and the disposable income [spent there] in order to survive. They don't go out on the road to make money. They do those gigs six to seven nights a week to make money. That's their bread and butter."

"The prospects for local musicians that do rely on the city for their employment are going to be affected in a big way," says Scott Billington, vice president of A&R at Rounder Records, who has produced dozens of albums by New Orleans and Louisiana artists. "My friend Vic Shepherd plays down at this little place called the Gazebo across from the Cafi du Monde in the French Quarter. They're not a band that's ever going to go on the road anywhere. But they make a living there. There's a unique group of musicians in New Orleans who relied on the conventions, Uptown balls, and coming-out parties for work."

Touring musicians from the Big Easy, even for all their losses, are a good bit luckier. "I don't have a house anymore," says Sanchez of Cowboy Mouth. "I don't have a car anymore. But I do have shows to play, so I know I will be on the road in a tour bus with a bed to sleep in, which is more than a lot of families have in New Orleans tonight."

He ponders damage to New Orleans beyond flooded homes and clubs and endangered livelihoods. "It doesn't have to do with business or economics," he says. "It has to do with sitting in my friend John Boutte's courtyard at his little place in the French Quarter. John is a fantastic jazz singer, and people would come by to eat John's wonderfully cooked New Orleans food and listen to him tell crazy stories in the colorful way that only he can."

Concerns also run high for the recording studios of the Big Easy. "Ultrasonic Studio looks like it's underwater," notes Billington, who had three sessions booked there for the fall. "You can take the mikes and hard drives out of there, but not the beautiful grand piano and the Hammond organ." The Neville Brothers' camp is uncertain regarding the fate of their second-story, state-of-the art Neville Nevilleland facility.

In addition to the human toll, as well as ruined homes, clubs and studios, and lost wages, some of the Crescent City's rich musical history has doubtlessly also been washed away by Katrina. Aaron Fuchs of the New York record label Tuff City estimates that half of the 250 or so reissued records in his catalog is music from New Orleans. After releasing recordings by better-known artists like James Booker, Professor Longhair and Eddie Bo, he had a line on scores of obscure gems on tape stored in closets and packed in suitcases.

"There's no place that has more lost good music than that city," Fuchs says. "There was so much music that was recorded that was deemed to be 'too New Orleans' when it came out. Most were four-song sessions in those days. So the two songs that were put out were the ones that sounded like the rest of the country. And the two that didn't come out had like the rumba and all those cross-rhythms that are perfect for our modern, post-hip-hop years. I was on the verge of all kinds of findings. It's like I had just raised the Titanic and someone came along and sank it again."

I want to go back to the Crescent City where everything is still the same.
-- Lucinda Williams, "Crescent City"

"People love New Orleans like people love Jerusalem," observes roots rocker Shannon McNally, who has lived in New Orleans for the last four years and has temporarily relocated to Oxford, Miss. "It's sacred. It's holy ground." Chris Lee of the hard rock band Supagroup fled to Memphis the day before the hurricane hit. Back home, his vintage 1965 Plymouth Barracuda has been destroyed by a falling tree. The Saint -- the Garden District bar he owns with his girlfriend Sean Yseult of the band Rock City Morgue -- has been looted. "All of our gear is at our drummer's house and hopefully when we come home it won't be floating in his house."

On Friday, Lafeyette rocker C.C. Adcock drove into New Orleans with his houseguest Mike Napolitano, a producer and engineer who had evacuated his French Quarter home and studio with his girlfriend, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. Napolitano wanted to retrieve some unfinished recording projects he'd left behind on hard drives. Adcock was stunned that he'd driven so easily into the city as well as by the scant presence of the National Guard and rescue services. "There seemed to be a complete lack of organization," he reports.

"We always knew that if one of those category storms hit New Orleans it was going to be just as bad as it is," says Art Neville of the Neville Brothers and the Meters, who is staying with friends in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

McNally, whose new album is titled "Geronimo," pulls the ripcord on her anger. "Anyone who has lived in New Orleans for a week can tell you that this storm was inevitable," she fervently notes. "Anybody who says, 'Oh, what a surprise, we never imagined in our wildest dreams that this would happen,' should not only be fired but disappear from the face of the earth. This catastrophe has always been a when and not an if. This is not news.

"I really hope that this retarded government that we live under figures out that it is one of the most precious places in America and that they need to rebuild it," she adds.

The national music community has stepped up to help the people of New Orleans with the various network specials and telethons that have already aired and are in the works. Grass-roots benefits by musicians and the music industry are sprouting up across the nation.

And the specific needs of Big Easy musicians will be addressed by New Orleans Musicians Relief, a charitable fund being set up by the mayor's office. Before the end of the week, a Web site will go live ( that will allow the city's musicians to register and indicate where they are and apply for funding. It will also feature a bulletin board listing all the benefit concerts and fundraising efforts and allow people to make contributions directly to the musicians of New Orleans.

"We want to set up something under the auspices of the mayor's office that is the most grass-roots, plugged-in organization that is in touch with the musicians of New Orleans and will be distributing money directly to them," says Scott Aiges, the city's director of music business development.

As the city was setting up its relief efforts, members of the New Orleans music community were also launching independent efforts to help their own and others from the Big Easy. Producer and musician Jeff Beninato set up an account at Chase Bank to receive contributions for another New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund (Chase account #699721957). Hip-hop artist, producer and No Limit Records head Master P. created Team Rescue to help get supplies to survivors still left in New Orleans. Prevervation Music Hall has also established a relief fund for the city's musicians.

The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences has already ponied up an initial $1 million for the musicians of New Orleans. And Adcock learned during an interview with the Chicago Tribune that the Windy City's music nightclubs are planning on adopting Big Easy venues to which they will contribute their proceeds. He is also talking with Lucinda Williams about moving their New Orleans show that was scheduled for the 26th of this month to Lafayette and making it a benefit. And the Neville Brothers have cut a deal with EMI, their record label, to donate a portion of their artist royalties from the latest group album and Aaron's upcoming Christmas release, which the label will match.

One way that music fans can help New Orleans is by attending shows by its musicians on tour. "If you're going to tell people anything, tell them to please go out and support New Orleans musicians on the road," says Kenny Samuels, production manager for the Radiators.

Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan seconds the call. "For New Orleans musicians to survive, they're going to have to be on the road for at least the near future, and people will have to come out and see them play and show some support," adds Scanlan. "If they do that, those people will be doing their part to get New Orleans back up on its feet again." "It's almost our duty right now to have New Orleans musicians out on the road promoting the culture of New Orleans, especially when it's sitting underwater," says Allan, manager of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

The pressing question about New Orleans music is whether it will weather this proverbial storm and survive. "It's going to survive, of course," says Lewis of the Dirty Dozen. "It's just going to be different because of what the people are going through, and that bleeds into the music. It can't help but bleed into the music because music is a feeling. And the feelings of what we are going through now will come out in the music."

The destruction wrought by the hurricane and flooding hit hardest in the most poverty-stricken quarters of the city where its black musical styles are as essential to life as red beans and rice. Given the extent of the devastation and the seeming neglect of the residents by the powers that be, one can't help wondering if the core of the city's soul has been injured beyond repair. "One of the big contradictions of New Orleans music for me has been that the soul of New Orleans music, the real hardcore roots stuff that keeps it moving forward -- the second-line brass bands and the gospel music and the Mardi Gras Indians -- resides in those really gruelingly poor neighborhoods," observes Billington of Rounder Records. "And it's amazing considering the poverty of certain areas of that city that the culture has stayed alive the way it has." He finds the parades put on most every Sunday by the neighborhood social and pleasure clubs "one of the most life-affirming musical events that anyone can imagine. Yet it's in the middle of these neighborhoods that people can barely inhabit."

"Basically I want to get back in, get my house together, and get New Orleans back to what it is," asserts Scanlan. "I was e-mailing with a friend of mine who pointed out that New Orleans really isn't about the buildings. It's about the people who live there. I couldn't live anyplace else.

"I'm kind of hoping that New Orleans comes back as maybe a little smaller city but a better city," he adds. "If we can have a lot of the major colorful things happen that define New Orleans -- Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest -- just to have those things happening will make people feel like they're home again."

Some musicians will not be returning to New Orleans for a variety of reasons that include everything from the need to get their children in schools to trepidation about living in a ruined city that might still face danger from the elements in the future. But singer-songwriter Susan Cowsill, a former member of the Continental Drifters now launching a solo career, vows that she will not forsake the city she has called home.

"I can't cotton with all this, well, where you moving to?" Cowsill says "For some people that's cool. I can't relate to it. I want to go home and fix our house, fix our city, and get back to our world of beautiful music and sweet souls that inspire one another."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson is a freelance journalist in Austin, Texas, who writes a column on entertainment and politics for the Progressive Populist.

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