By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005
The day Hurricane Katrina hit, pianos sank, woodwinds floated away and thousands of New Orleans musicians scattered around the country. But the music didn't die.
Instead, it's gone on the road, enriching the musical scene in cities and towns far and wide. The diaspora of New Orleans musicians is bringing blues and Cajun tunes to Colorado, jazz and brass bands to Nashville. Staid businesspeople in Houston are stomping to zydeco. There's R&B in country-western towns, swamp rock along the northeast coast. Funk in addition to punk in Portland, Ore.
In fact, the city of Portland has issued an open invitation, including free transportation, housing and rehearsal space, to any musician from the Big Easy, plus guaranteed performances in the city's February jazz festival. In Houston, local musicians have convinced several clubs and restaurants to regularly host their New Orleans counterparts. New Orleans musicians are also playing in benefits in cities that usually have little in common. Places such as Fayetteville, Ark., and New York City. The annual New Orleans Voodoo Festival, set for Oct. 29-30, has moved to Memphis this year.
It's not just charity.
"New Orleans musicians are also great entertainers. They bring excitement, and their music is definitely loosening up our town," says Houston pianist Paul English, founder of a recently formed nonprofit to benefit New Orleans musicians.
For the traveler, the diaspora might very well mean finding great and totally authentic New Orleans music in unexpected places. If you need a fix and have been feeling bad that you can't fly to New Orleans to get one just yet, don't despair. The music is alive and well. You just need to know where to look.Where Are They Now?
Where are the musicians in exile? New Orleans Times-Picayune music writer Keith Spera begins rolling names off the top of his head.
"Aaron Neville and Art are in Nashville, and their brother Cyril has set up shop in Austin, as have the Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indians, sax player Tim Green and four-fifths of the Iguanas," he says.
"Guitarist Jimmy Robinson is in Memphis. Anders Osborne is playing around at singer-songwriter nights in Nashville. Kermit Ruffins and a lot of people are in Houston. There's also lots of different people playing Baton Rouge, but I don't know how long they'll stay there. Pappa Goes Funk was in St. Charles, but that got creamed by Rita, so I expect he's not there anymore."
You also get a sense of the breadth of the split in the musicians' community at the Web site for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the legendary band that for many around the world has long defined the New Orleans sound. The site was recently updated to note: "We are elated to announce that we have now had contact with all musicians associated with Preservation Hall." The last surviving member of the original band -- 96-year-old banjo player Narvin Kimball -- initially refused to leave New Orleans during the city's evacuation, but the band manager forced him into a car just before the storm hit.
The band hopes soon to get back to Preservation Hall, which wasn't badly damaged, but in the meantime is scheduled to play gigs in places as diverse as Danville, Ill., and London.
Major headliners of international stature generally hit the road and post their tour schedules at their Web sites. Finding the thousands and thousands of great musicians who don't sit at the top of the charts is a tougher job.
"I've been bounding around," is how Washboard Chaz Leary puts it, in a New Orleans accent so thick he must constantly repeat himself to make himself understood to a Northerner.
Among other appearances, Leary had a regular gig at the Spotted Cat, a little jazz club on Frenchmen Street. Last week he was in Baton Rouge and was about to head to Pensacola, Fla., for a gig. This week, he's playing a bunch of towns in Upstate New York with his band the Tin Men, then on to small towns in Massachusetts for shows with his Blues Trio.
"Down in New Orleans, everyone plays at least three or four different bands, which is how you make a living," said Leary. That fact has made the dispersal of musicians around the country particularly difficult: Not only do you have to find new gigs, but you have to find your old playing buddies.
Leary is getting by, but he can't wait to get back to New Orleans. "It's America's foremost musical town. I miss hearing music all the time, even if it's 4 o'clock in the morning. And all different, interesting styles. There's no other city like it in the U.S., and I doubt in the world."
Now the hurricane that blew musicians far from home is also spreading the culture even farther, says Jan Ramsey, publisher of OffBeat, a Louisiana music magazine. "It's both a blessing and a curse," she says, adding that she hopes the musicians "will come back home and be centered in the creative environment New Orleans provides." In the meantime, her magazine is focused on helping musicians find each other and helping potential audiences find the musicians.
Christian Kuffner, Webmaster at New Orleans's jazz radio station WWOZ, was initially intent on using his station's Web site to help musicians find each other. But just getting back online was a Herculean task. "I didn't have a computer and was running around to libraries for bits of computer time," says Kuffner, who has temporarily resettled in Asheville, N.C.
By now, though, the site ( http://www.wwoz.org/ ) has begun listing benefits, including one in the Netherlands arranged by the U.S. embassy there. Usually the benefits at least include, and sometimes feature, New Orleans artists. Thus, anyone who happens to be in Huntington, N.Y., in coming days can hear Lil' Anne and Hot Cayenne, River City Slim and the Zydeco Hogs, and the Doc Marshalls. Bill Taylor, director of the Tipitina's Foundation -- a nonprofit associated with the New Orleans club of the same name -- says that if you want to hear a New Orleans band, all you have to do is "keep your eyes peeled."
"There are bands all over the place: Baltimore, New York, Little Rock, Lafayette, Memphis, Atlanta, Asheville-- the list goes on and on." And more is to come, he promises.
The foundation, which initially focused on immediate needs such as food and instruments, recently began networking with music clubs around the nation to help line up shows for musicians in exile.
Taylor is also working on a nationwide tour that will include musicians representing the myriad styles of New Orleans music. He hopes to kick it off sometime around the Christmas holidays. He adds that musicians will gather back home at Tipitina's on New Year's Eve for a show that will be broadcast nationwide.New Orleans on Tour
Devon Phillips escaped New Orleans with little more than one tenor saxophone. His regular gigs had been entertaining tourists on New Orleans gondolas -- a job he wasn't likely to find anywhere else. He was extremely skeptical when he saw on a New Orleans radio station's Web site the offer from Portland, Ore., to New Orleans musicians. The description made it sound like the city was basically offering to adopt him.
"But everything they said is true," he says. Not only did he get a free airline ticket, free housing and food and local transport, "they're helping me get gigs, providing rehearsal space and helping me put together my own band."
Sarah Smith, managing director of the Portland Jazz Festival, said various individuals and organizations in Portland are helping. Restaurants that never had live music are opening their doors to New Orleans musicians. Last week the city hosted a benefit for New Orleans relief, and Phillips's new band, New Orleans Straight Ahead, was an opening act.
So far, only six musicians have taken Portland up on its open-ended offer. But more are on their way, at least for a short time. A group is set to arrive Oct. 18 to do a Mardi Gras in October festival in the McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, and more are invited to participate in Portland's Jazzfest in February http:// .
The joy and exuberance that New Orleans musicians bring to the stage have been like a bolt of caffeine to the music scene in Houston, says English, founder of the new organization NOAH, an acronym for New Orleans and Houston.
Houston, he says, is a business town with high-quality fine arts. New Orleans musicians -- he figures there are probably close to 500 of varying abilities in Houston -- are pumping in a new party atmosphere. His group has been working to convince restaurants without live music to add it and has been asking clubs to open on nights they normally keep dark.
Tommy's Seafood Steakhouse, for example, used to be closed on Sundays. English convinced him to open on Sunday nights and feature New Orleans bands. The experiment was so successful that Tommy's is now also open for Sunday brunch, with New Orleans musicians providing the entertainment to go with the New Orleans-style food.
English says his group's initial idea was simply to help fellow musicians get on their feet. Soon, he realized the essential underlying mission: keeping the tradition of New Orleans music alive.
Even if they all straggle home eventually, he adds, "their influence will live on."