In the months after Hurricane Katrina, a number of plans to restore Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage were proposed. State Lieutenant-Governor Mitch Landrieu announced “Louisiana Rebirth: Restoring the Soul of America,” It proposed to “Make Louisiana’s Cultural Economy the engine of economic and social rebirth,” but said nothing about how the makers of culture—the musicians, among others—were going to handle basic challenges like finding a place to live. Similarly, the cultural committee of Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back program highlighted the economic impact of investment in music and the arts, but that plan doesn’t seem to have been adopted, and any provisions it might have made about providing for the well-being of musicians has certainly been overlooked.
The New Orleans music scene would not exhibit the vitality it does today if it were not for the musicians’ hurricane relief agencies (in alphabetical order): Arabi Wrecking Krewe, Backbeat Foundation, Carrollton Station Foundation, Desire NOLA, Habitat for Humanity, Idea Village, MusiCares, Music Rising, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic (NOMC), New Orleans Musicians’ Hurricane Relief Fund (NOMHRF), New Orleans Musicians’ Relief Fund, St. Anna’s Church and Tipitina’s Foundation. Countless national and international organizations sprang to life as well to help New Orleans, including Jazz at the Lincoln Center’s Higher Ground Fund. The prompt response of all these agencies and those who worked less publicly to meet musicians’ needs made it possible for many to return, and for those who have yet to return to spread the gospel of New Orleans music to other parts of the country.
Of the relief agencies, only Habitat for Humanity, MusiCares and New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic had any significant experience with meeting emergency needs, but after Katrina, they were doing so under difficult circumstances like everybody else. NARAS needed someone who knew New Orleans to help MusiCares, and it turned to Reid Wick, who spent four days at Memorial Hospital helping patients get to the roof to be air-lifted out. Four days after he escaped New Orleans, he was in Memphis cutting checks for musicians to buy new equipment.
While the NOMC and Tipitina’s Foundation changed their mission—Tipitina’s Foundation changed its focus from music education to musician relief—most of the other agencies emerged in moments of need. Preservation Hall director Ben Jaffe applied for 501(c)(3) non-profit status for the NOMHRF within 72 hours of Katrina and was approved in a week. Others got started when they could and did what they could to make it possible for musicians to return and go to work, whether it was providing instruments, helping with bills, or in the case of the Arabi Wrecking Krewe, helping musicians gut their houses so they could start rebuilding.
In most cases, they were improvising. According to Tipitina’s Foundation director Bill Taylor, “Within three days, we were organized. I was in North Carolina, and our Webmaster Doug Miller was in Shreveport, and we were able to get our Web site up as a virtual point of connectivity. We had musicians contact us saying, ‘Help, we’re in need, ’ and we had people who wanted to donate contacting us as well. ” Ivan Neville lost his keyboards when his father Aaron’s house flooded, so someone bought and shipped him a Clavinet, and when snare drummer A.J. Mallory and his family were living in a tent outside Alexandria, a family with an extra small house in Dallas loaned it to them.
Similarly, NOMC had to change missions when it relocated to Lafayette for three months because its nurse/practitioner couldn’t treat people there. Director Bethany Bultman spent days emailing people around the country to let them know what life was like in shelters to start raising money. When she checked NOMC’s bank account online three weeks later, she found people had put over $350,000 in it. “At that point we decided people needed debit cards,” she says. Thanksgiving was approaching, and she realized that they should get them at Wal-Mart because “they could buy gas, they could buy a turkey, they could buy clothes. ”
Neighbors helping neighbors has been one of the hallmarks of New Orleans’ recovery, so it’s no surprise that musicians have played a major role in the revival of the music community. When housing was a major concern, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. teamed with Habitat for Humanity to create the Musicians’ Village, which to date has started 57 houses, completed 34 and provided shelter for 13 musicians’ families.
As time passed, needs changed. The money NARAS earmarked for hurricane relief for MusiCares was going quickly, so it started Music Rising to better address New Orleans’ needs. NOMC started a gig fund to help create work for musicians. Tipitina’s closed for most of the fall to focus on Foundation activities. According to Taylor, the Foundation changed from being reactive to pro-active at this year’s Instruments A-Comin’. “That was the first time I thought I was doing something in the moment, not reacting to the storm, ” he says. The NOMC still doesn’t have an office and is working out of a house, so the shift out of reactive mode hasn’t quite happened yet. “We’re trying to do that right now, ” Bultmann says.
Since the first months after the hurricane, a number of new agencies have emerged to help meet the needs of the music community. The benefit events surrounding the anniversary of Katrina announced the start of Rebuild the Soul of America Charitable Trust, and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is itself a 501(c)(3) non-profit agency and has begun a series of activities including Jazz for Generations and New Orleans Jazz Treasures, which is assessing what jazz artifacts were lost during the hurricane. Many agencies are working together for a new initiative, Sweet Home New Orleans, which is exploring a flexible, needs-based approach to the housing problem.
Hurricane Katrina has changed New Orleans and its music scene. Many musicians still aren’t back, and some will never return. The neighborhoods that were the breeding grounds for brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and hip-hop are largely scattered, and it isn’t clear what the neighborhoods will be like when or if their inhabitants return. This is a cause for great concern. “What worries me more than anything is what’s happening to the younger generations of New Orleans musicians, and whether the traditions are being passed down, ” Taylor says.
There is a lot of uncertainty in the city’s future, and all New Orleanians are facing the challenges musicians face. Still, the generosity, sacrifice and ingenuity shown by the relief agencies that came to the aid of musicians and the community speak volumes about how we value not only our culture but the people who create it. Those agencies are the first responders for the music community, and it would be a sadder, less populated community without them.