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Still Singing Those Post-Katrina Blues

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

NEW ORLEANS -- In a funky, crowded, smoke-filled bar in the French Quarter, locals are passing a tip bucket 'round the room, while singer John Boutte whoops and hollers, banging on his tambourine, crooning tales of regret and rage over the havoc wreaked by that witch Katrina. Adding his own spin to an old Randy Newman song, "Louisiana 1927":

President Bush flew over in a airplane . . .

President Bush said, "Great job, good job!

"What the levees have done to this poor Creole's land . . . ."

Backstage, in between sets, the Virgin Mary gazes down from her perch on the wall while the bar's managers count the proceeds, every single, every fiver, every ten-spot, counting aloud, one, two, three, four . . . $147. They count again . . . $147. And then hand the loot to Boutte, the son of seven generations of musicmaking New Orleans Creoles.

"I'm rich," Boutte says sardonically, fanning out the bills in his hands like a deck of cards.

Two years post-Katrina, it's like this for the city's musicians: New Orleans may be the music mecca, the birthplace of jazz, the place where you go to get your juice. But it's no place to make money.

"People tell me I should get the [expletive] out," says Boutte, at 48 and 5-foot-3, a bronze-skinned, bellicose, curly-haired Pan.

"Hell no. Why should I leave? This is my home. My ancestors' bones are here. . . .

"They've squashed my joy. But I'm not extinguished yet."

* * *

Nearly 4,000 New Orleans musicians were sent scattering after Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Many of them have been trying to return ever since. Today the soul of the city -- its rich musical legacy-- is at risk.

"Everything is shrinking," says David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM, a public radio station in the city. "In the clubs, you get the impression that all's back to normal. When you start scratching the surface, it's smoke and mirrors.

"So many musicians have not come back. How many can we lose before we lose that dynamic? To what degree do we just become a tourist theme park?"

By industry insiders' estimates, a third of the city's musicians, like Boutte, have found a way back home for good. Another third, like Lumar LeBlanc of the brass band Soul Rebels, are doing what he calls "the double Zip code thing," parachuting into town for gigs and then heading back to temporary homes in Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles. The final third, like blind bluesman Henry Butler, stuck in Denver, have yet to make it back.

Among the double Zip-coders is Ivan Neville, singer, songwriter, keyboardist, son of Aaron. His mom's house was washed away. She passed in January. His dad settled near Nashville. Neville relocated to Austin, jetting in and out of New Orleans a couple times a month. As for making a permanent move back home?

"I don't see it," Neville, 48, says between sets at the Maple Leaf in the city's Uptown section. "Not in the near future. The spirit of New Orleans is alive. But it will never be the same again."

How do you measure loss? So much is gone now, so much will never come back. There are tangible ways, of course: High schools lost their caches of musical instruments. Fifty public schools remain shuttered; enrollment is down 40 percent. With the loss of schools comes the loss of teaching jobs, work that musicians counted on to pay the rent between gigs. With the loss of students comes the loss of a future generation of musicians. (This year, the state passed legislation requiring that art and music be taught in the public schools.)

"Is New Orleans's music scene coming back?" says Bill Summers, 59, a percussionist and voodoo priest who's played with Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Madonna and Sting. "Yeah. And no. Baby . . . it's very sad."

Says Deacon John Moore, 66, an R&B singer and president of the local musicians union: "We've been reduced to beggars in the streets. Begging for tips from the tourists. . . . The competition is so keen among musicians, they'd do almost anything for exposure."

Life was always tough for New Orleans's musicmakers: Decent pay was scarce, with musicians, desperate to make a buck, scrambling for whatever they could get, underpricing other musicians.

The waters rushing in from Lake Ponchartrain obliterated already fragile support systems. Neighborhood-based Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, once the backbone of New Orleans society, helping their dues-paying members with burial and hospital expenses, have been displaced. Eighty percent of the city flooded; more than 200,000 homes were destroyed in the process. Rents have close to doubled since the storm; a one-bedroom apartment that once could be had for $500 a month now goes for more than $800.

The upside to calamity, if there is one, may be artistic. "Post-Katrina, everybody is getting in touch with their New Orleans roots," says singer-songwriter Paul Sanchez, co-founder of the country-rock band Cowboy Mouth. "We all lost more than we can ever articulate. And as artists, it's our job to articulate that loss."

Deprivation still abounds. You see it in the FEMA trailers parked outside Katrina-ravaged houses. You feel it in the bulldozed lots of the Lower Ninth Ward, where homeowners have scrawled on the handful of remaining homes: "DO NOT DEMO. WORK IN PROGRESS."

You hear it in the music, from trumpeter Terence Blanchard's funereal "A Taste of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina" to Cowboy Mouth's CD, "Voodoo Shoppe," to Boutte's melancholic cover of Annie Lennox's "Why."

You read it in the death notices.

In the past year, New Orleans's music community has buried at least 19 of its own -- and everyone seems to keep a running tally from the obituaries. This summer, within a week of each other, five musicians died: R&B singer Oliver Morgan; jazz saxophonist Earl "the African Cowboy" Turbinton; musician and jazz poet Eluard Burke; R&B vocalist Issachar Gordon; jazz percussionist John Thompson.

George Brumat, the owner of the legendary jazz club Snug Harbor, died in July of an apparent heart attack at 63. Jazz virtuoso Alvin Batiste passed in May, also of a presumed heart attack, at 74. Just after Christmas, Dinerral Shavers, 25, a drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band, was shot in the back of the head while driving with his wife and children through the streets of New Orleans -- a victim of the city's crime rate, which escalated at an alarming rate after the hurricane.

"These are Katrina deaths," WWOZ's Freeman contends. "It's stress. They were fragile. And this pushed them over the edge."

* * *

There are, of course, programs created to help musicians and to "preserve" the legacy of New Orleans, efforts both private and public. There's the Musicians' Village, where native sons Harry Connick Jr. and Branford and Ellis Marsalis partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build 70 single-family houses in the Upper Ninth Ward. There's Sweet Home New Orleans, a collective of 14 not-for-profit agencies serving New Orleans musicians. And there's a grandiose, but so far stalled, $716 million proposal that involves restoring the Hyatt Regency Hotel and building a massive National Jazz Center and park.

"We have to think big," says Irvin Mayfield Jr., artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. "Build an institution that's going to survive any hurricane. The country needs to get behind something audacious."

But the hardest thing to preserve is something that can't be purchased. It is that which New Orleanians so desperately want to preserve: the feel of the city, that NOLA mojo, the likes of which can be found in Bullets, a crowded little Mid-City joint. Inside, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and his band, the Barbecue Swingers, are jammed against the window. A steady stream of sports is playing on the TV, but no one pays much attention.

In spirit, Bullets is as far from the tourist-laden French Quarter as you can get. Here, it's buckets of Miller Lite and chicken wings served alongside Ruffins's gritty, greasy swinging "trad jazz" -- traditional jazz. The crowd is more boomer than youthful, with seasoned souls sporting tees that read "We Survived Hurricane Katrina" and "New Orleans: Proud to Call It Home." A grizzled gent leans over a newcomer, slyly uttering the post-Katrina pickup line du jour: "I really want to show you the Ninth Ward."

As the sun sets, a man comes in peddling homemade tamales; another hawks cellphone covers and disposable cameras. Tattooed white kids arrive, while a contingent of Creole matrons stands in the center of the room, arms folded, looking just a little bit aloof. Until they start to dance as one, getting down and dirty with the beat.

A man scratches away on a washboard as band members sing in Creole and English, catcalling and ululating. Everybody, it seems, knows the words, and they sing along, loud and strong, filling the tiny club with a sense of goose-bump-raising communion.

I cry Hey mama

In the morning time

Yi-Yi-Yi

"Only in New Orleans," Ruffins chants, laughing and laughing. "Only in New Orleans."

* * *

This is the city that spawned Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Sidney Bechet, Randy Newman and Master P -- not to mention a long line of famous musical families: the Marsalises, the Nevilles, the Batistes, the Toussaints.

Folks like to brag that New Orleans is the northernmost tip of the Caribbean, a sentiment that has little to do with geography. It's a sensibility, evident in the food, the culture, in the French and Spanish surnames, in the old folks who cling to Creole, an Africanized French patois.

New Orleanians have always celebrated the mixing of genes, the blending of races and cultures into a potent ancestral gumbo. All this informs the music here, marinating it in nostalgia and a sense of defiant joy. New Orleanians are peculiarly tied to place, ever cognizant of history.

Drive by Congo Square, and without fail, a local will remind you that it was here that the slaves played their music on Sundays, drumming away their worries, and where a slave could earn enough extra money to buy freedom. Where the Creole orchestras played in brass band concerts -- many of whose members were the black sons of rich white fathers who sent them to Europe to be educated.

"In New York, you learn jazz, you learn the blues," Paul Sanchez says. "In New Orleans, you're born into it. Baby comes out the womb chasing the rhythm."

He's waxing lyrical as he tools around the Lower Ninth Ward, cruising in his green minivan.

"I tell you, this place is magic," Sanchez says. "I say this with sadness in my voice."

For Sanchez, scion of the city's working-class Irish Channel neighborhood, life pre-Katrina meant 16 years of touring the world with Cowboy Mouth. Partying like a rock star. He had a wife and a house, cash in his pocket. Then the water wiped out everything he had. Everything, that is, but his wife.

Back in the day, it was sold-out gigs at the 9:30 club in Washington. Now he's no longer with Cowboy Mouth, and when he's not playing for tips, Sanchez is driving from city to city, playing house parties for $750 a pop, hoping for the random club gig. Being "formerly of" a once-popular band gets you only so far.

Sanchez was in Atlanta recording a Cowboy Mouth album when the storm hit. With nowhere to go, the band booked a bunch of gigs and hit the road. But playing with the band now felt like "a cartoon," so he left. For three months, he and his wife hid out in Belize, too battle-scarred to move back home. Eventually, they made it back, renting out a spot in the Lakeview area.

His music has changed: It's slower, sadder, resolute, seasoned with both bitterness and hope, rooted in New Orleans traditions and themes. Now he's collaborating on a new CD with his buddy, Boutte; he spends a lot of time hanging out with blues and jazz musicians.

"At 47, I don't have to prove to anyone that I can rock," says Sanchez, a man with a fondness for old-school fedoras. "I played rock-and-roll. Now I play New Orleans music. There's definitely a freedom in that."

* * *

At 21, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews is one of the lucky ones. Where others have struggled post-Katrina, his career is taking off: He played with the Neville Brothers on Letterman. He made his acting debut on NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." For the rest of the year, he's got 19 gigs booked, touring the country with his jazz-funk-rock-pop band, Orleans Avenue.

When Katrina hit, Andrews was a 19-year-old wunderkind on break from touring with Lenny Kravitz. He fled with his family to Dallas, 10 crammed in his Volvo, wondering and worrying if other family members made it out, too.

He didn't stay away for long. New Orleans grounds him. Specifically, it is Faubourg Treme that feeds him -- reputed to be America's oldest black neighborhood, which nurtured the musical talents of the Rebirth Brass Band, 19th-century Creole classical composer Edmund Dede, Kermit Ruffins and Louis Prima. The neighborhood that nurtured Andrews.

Here, high-water marks along the wooden shotgun houses and shuttered nightclubs give mute testimony to the flood. Few residents returned, but today, under a highway overpass, against a backdrop of murals of long-gone jazz greats, a group of men gathers as it does every day, sitting on metal folding chairs, trying to reclaim a little bit of community. Most of them don't live here any longer.

"These," Andrews says, pointing at the men as he pulls up alongside them in his oversize SUV, "are the last that's left. This is the soul of the neighborhood."

He rolls down the window. "Hey, Dad. Do you need anything? You hungry?" His father, James, smiles at him, shakes his head.

This is where Trombone Shorty comes to touch base, to get his "laugh on," to run errands for his elders. To remind himself not to get a big head. To remind himself of the importance of reaching back, to pull along other musicians who aren't as fortunate as he.

"New Orleans made me who I am," Andrews says. "I can't leave it.

"I need New Orleans. And New Orleans needs me."

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