No other American city values music the way New Orleans does. Heck, one of its airports is named after legendary musician Louis Armstrong!
Music is not something that is tangible, linear or measurable, said Nick Spitzer, producer and host of the National Public Radio show “American Routes,” but it is one of the things people value.
Even in the midst of their own gloom over Hurricane Katrina’s destruction where homes and neighborhoods were crushed and where there was little infrastructure and not much support from state or federal government, music helped many evacuees rebuild their lives with a strong hope in the future and a deep connection to a place they loved.
“That’s what life’s about,” said Spitzer, “creating space for creativity.”
Spitzer and several jazz musicians spoke at the annual conference of the American Planning Association, held recently in New Orleans, where many sessions discussed the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina.
Before the storm hit, Benny (“the Peter”) Pete, tuba player and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, headed to Atlanta with his family. Only two of his band members were there while the rest were scattered all over the country. One day, he received a phone call to reunite the band in Baton Rouge to perform for the evacuees living there. He jumped at the chance – despite the fact that neither he nor any of the band members had their instruments. Students from Louisiana State University and local high schools loaned them their band instruments just to hear a concert.
Pete said that all he cared about was playing music again, but he soon realized how important it was for the evacuees who were homesick and traumatized by Katrina to hear their music.
“We found out the power of our music,” said Pete, quite surprised. “We didn’t understand that before but it was music that pulled us all together. It showed us the value and power of our culture.”
The music Hot 8 performed that day hearkened back to the social aid and pleasure clubs, said Pete, where a well-dressed band led a parade down the street, forming the “first line,” while onlookers joined them to form the “second line,” with strutting, jumping and high stepping underneath their decorated parasols as they blew whistles and waved feathered fans.
These clubs, called benevolent societies, developed in New Orleans during the mid- to late-1800s to help poor African-Americans and later other ethnic groups, defray health care costs, funeral expenses, and other financial hardships. The presence of these societies gradually fostered a sense of community among the people as they provided charitable works and hosted social events. The benevolent societies were also responsible for the “jazz funerals” where bands play somber, processional music from the church to the cemetery. On the way back, the music became more upbeat and joyous as mourners celebrated the deceased’s life with tears and joy.
The evacuees living in Baton Rouge recognized their culture and joined in the second line, said Pete. Once they returned to the city to pick up the pieces of their lives, they often held similar parades in order to obtain some relief, even though the familiar stores and landmarks of their streetscape were missing because of the storm.
Irma Thomas, known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, said that storms have been a part of her life and career over the past 50 years and that she has left New Orleans three times due to hurricanes. Katrina, however, took on new meaning for her.
“Katrina gave us a look at the way we are and how vulnerable we are to weather,” she said. “It also showed us how lax and unconcerned government agencies are.”
When Katrina hit, Thomas was in Austin, Texas, on a gig. She said she saw the rooftop of her home in water on television. “You always know where you live,” she said. “You know it.”
She and her husband lost both their home and her club, the Lions Den. However, the tragedy didn’t sink in for her until one night she sang “Back Water Blues,” a song written in the 1930s about a Louisiana storm. When she came to the line: “I went high on a hill and got no place to go,” she lost it in front of her audience.
Thomas lived in the Ninth Ward. Like all evacuees who were dispersed throughout the country, she and her husband had to decide whether or not to return to New Orleans. For two years, they stayed in Gonzales, 60 miles upriver, until they were able to return home “where their hearts were.”
Katrina inspired Thomas’ new album, “After the Rain,” which won the Grammy for best contemporary blues album in 2007.
“Music orients us to the place and provides the creative spark for ourselves and the whole city,” she said. “Music was all Orleanians had after Katrina.”
In fact, the city lost a lot of its musicians, many of whom lived in the Ninth Ward. They either couldn’t return home because of finances (many work for cash and don’t have a credit record) or the older ones were on tour in Europe.
Losing many of the city’s musicians created a problem for young people looking to be mentored by them. Most schools had closed and opportunities for kids to join bands and play music were severely reduced. As a result, the first Mardi Gras after Katrina had few high school marching bands playing in the parades.
“We want to let them know that they have a culture,” said Pete. “Without that [music] connection, they are lost. We needed to let them know that they have a rich culture here in New Orleans.”
“Music kept the kids out of trouble,” said Thomas. “Music teaches them discipline.” If students have bad grades, they aren’t allowed to play in the band.
Since Katrina, the Tipitina’s Foundation’s Instruments a Comin’ program has been helping students obtain musical instruments and to learn to play them.
Music has also inspired many musicians to write songs about saving the wetlands in Louisiana, which would have helped protect New Orleans from Katrina by providing buffers between land and sea.
“We’re losing wetlands the size of football fields every day,” said Thomas. “If you lose New Orleans, you’ve lost America,” she said.
Five-time Grammy winner and singer/songwriter, pianist and guitarist Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr., known as Dr. John, also expressed his concern about the wetlands as well as his love for the city.
“Thirty years ago we had a plan to build new wetlands,” he said, “but corruption in the state made the money go elsewhere.”
As a boy growing up in the bayou where people lived with the land, Dr. John learned how to hunt, fish and trap. However, 50 years later, most of these wetlands are gone.
He performed his song, “Please Save Our Wetlands” on piano for conference attendees.
Dr. John now lives in New York, but he retains the reputation not only as ambassador of New Orleans, but as its social critic through his music. For example, he has often railed against the influence of the oil companies, whose 8,000 miles of man-made canals have played a role in Katrina’s destruction. The companies own the politicians who built the canals for “Black Gold,” the title of another song, despite the vulnerability of the coastline, he said.
Murphy Oil storage tanks spilled one million gallons of oil in St. Bernard Parish, one of the worst hit places in the city, due to Katrina’s 145-mph landfall winds.
“The City That Care Forgot,” an album produced in 2007, won Dr. John his fifth Grammy. He said he wrote these songs because he found he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t say something.
Seeing all the damage, having friends whose homes were destroyed and going to funerals was a real heartbreaker for Dr. John. A post-Katrina function of the New Orleans Jazz Foundation was a great relief for people, he said. They were so glad to be there because it was a diversion from all funerals they had been attending. Now, he is trying to save the city’s Charity Hospital because “it has personally saved me a bunch of times.”
“Any civilization has health care,” he said as he riled against the hatred and confusion that had come out in the health care debate in Washington. “It’s simple to see what’s going on. The insurance companies, chemical companies and pharmaceuticals have everyone locked in and they’re making a fortune on people dying. That’s not the thing to do. We all have a right to live.”
Dr. John is now working on a song about insurance companies turning their backs on Orleanians and stranding them such that they can’t come home again.
“I love New Orleans and south Louisiana. It is a real sacred place.”