Calendars in the windows of the clubs on nearby Frenchmen Street still list who was to play each of the 31 days of March. Almost half those gigs never happened.
On the balcony above the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, a couple is dancing. In defiance of the silence, they have turned a speaker to the street to share graceful, lilting piano runs. The music is not live, though — it is Spotify. The playlist is a tribute to Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the musical Marsalis family and a pillar of New Orleans jazz. He died April 1, at 85, from complications of covid-19.
“I’ve got Ellis’s spirit up here,” Jason Patterson, one of the dancers, called down to a lone pedestrian carrying a can of beer. Patterson is the landlord and talent booker of the shuttered bistro, where Marsalis performed weekly for 30 years. “He still wants to play.”
But beyond the reach of Marsalis’s recorded tunes, an unfamiliar quiet has settled in the streets of New Orleans, sapping the soul of the city that gave birth to jazz.
“It lets you know that things are different,” said Doreen Ketchens, the clarinetist exiled from her corner on Royal Street to self-isolation in her home. “It lets you know that things can die.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Louisiana had reported 21,518 cases of the novel coronavirus and 1,013 deaths — the fourth largest number of deaths in the country. New Orleans has accounted for 276 of those who died and 5,718 cases.
Epidemiologists estimate that Mardi Gras festivities, which drew more than 1 million visitors and culminated Feb. 25, accelerated the spread. The first case in Louisiana was detected March 9. Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a stay-at-home order on March 20, but most entertainment in the city had been canceled by the day before.
The coronavirus turned off the music at the worst possible time of year for New Orleans and the practitioners of its boisterous style. Festival season was just gearing up — the huge French Quarter Festival was set for next week, to be followed by the even bigger New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Both have been pushed to the fall.
Cantrell (D) on Tuesday recommended that all festivals be pushed back to 2021.
This is a vital three months for local musicians, who, along with New Orleans cuisine, represent the essence of the city to the world. With a population of about 390,000, New Orleans has 38,000 “cultural workers” with jobs in music venues and restaurants, according to a 2016 study by the city. Musicians’ advocates estimate that more than 5,000 professionals and semiprofessionals produce the city’s collective sound.
In a town that averages 85 live musical performances a day, festival season marks several delirious weeks when music is being performed around-the-clock. Most years, musicians can hope to bank some savings against the slow summer months when many tourists think it’s too hot to visit New Orleans. But this spring, the gigs have dropped straight to zero.
“Every time my phone rang or I got a text, it was a gig canceling,” said Ketchens, whose street performances supplement work in concerts, weddings, parties and the like. “I think in three days I lost something like 17 gigs” — including one with Marsalis, her former teacher, with whom she rehearsed several weeks ago at his house.
The average musician in New Orleans makes $17,800 a year, according to a 2012 survey by Sweet Home New Orleans, a musicians advocacy group. The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, which gives primary care to those with meager resources, has 2,600 patients. The lifestyle offers little room for rainy-day savings.
Even Grammy Award-winning band musicians can struggle.
Stafford Agee, trombone player for the Rebirth Brass Band — which received a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album in 2011 — said that while he was able to ride out March on his savings, now he’s worried how he’ll pay the bills and support his four children.
“My ‘riding out’ is done,” he said. “I’m rode out. . . . We’re in another month now.”
In addition to local festivals, Rebirth had dates booked on the West Coast and in New York and Washington, D.C. Those are gone, too. On top of money woes, another band member — leader Phil Frazier — tested positive for the virus. Frazier’s symptoms have receded, and he is doing better, according to Howie Kaplan, the band’s manager.
Agee is applying for grants offered to artists affected by the coronavirus shutdown from national groups such as MusiCares, as well as local organizations such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and the New Orleans Business Alliance. Any assistance is welcome, Agee said, but he noted that the grants being offered range from $500 to $1,000.
“Rent is $1,600, so once I pay the rent, where do I go?” he said.
The federal government changed unemployment insurance rules in response to the pandemic to make it easier for freelancers and gig economy workers to qualify for aid. But some musicians said they are still having trouble navigating the online forms to prove their eligibility.
To survive a crisis like this, Agee typically would find odd jobs. After Hurricane Katrina, he took on minor contracting and electrical work.
“I was kind of like rebuilding the city with music and with my hands,” he said, but he pointed out that’s impossible to do during the pandemic. “What can you really do when no one is supposed to be outside? Drive Uber? You can’t pick nobody up because no one is supposed to be outside.”
The informal assistance networks that sprang up after Katrina are inspiring similar efforts now. Culture Aid Nola is a new umbrella of advocacy groups, including the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which coordinates access to food, health care and related assistance for musicians and other workers in the hospitality and tourism industry. City Council members Kristin Palmer and Helena Moreno have helped organize food distributions with the Second Harvest Food Bank in neighborhoods populated by laid-off gig economy freelancers.
Three days a week on the sidewalk outside his closed club, Howlin’ Wolf, Kaplan distributes a couple hundred takeout containers of food to musicians and hospitality workers. On a recent Monday, Nick Benoit, a bass player, and Chad Cassady, whose guitar was strapped on his back, picked up meals of red beans and rice and fried chicken.
“Everything’s closed, and I have not a ton of windfall left,” Benoit said. “I don’t know if or when things will ever return to gigging in bars again.”
Some musicians are responding to the crisis by performing from home via Facebook Live. Compensation comes in the form of virtual tips from fans over platforms such as PayPal and Venmo. But the medium is better suited to some than others.
“Who wants to see someone just stand there and play a horn?” said Stafford, the trombone player for Rebirth.
Margie Perez, a vocalist and bandleader under her own name and in the group Muevelo! thought the same thing — how could she re-create her sound all by herself? — until she spoke recently with her neighbor Sula Spirit, another singer.
They live in Musicians’ Village, a neighborhood developed for artists during the post-Katrina reconstruction by Harry Connick Jr., Branford Marsalis and Habitat for Humanity, with an arts center named for Ellis Marsalis. Now, on Saturdays, they stream shows with their neighbors in Sula Spirit’s backyard and split any donations, wearing masks and gloves as they set up and performing at a safe distance from each other.
“It’s been good,” Perez said. “We’ve been getting a lot of love.”
Streaming shows are valiant attempts to restore pieces of the canceled calendar. On a recent Monday evening, singer-songwriter and guitar player Arsène DeLay and bass player Charlie Wooton were seated about six feet apart in her living room with their instruments. It was the hour of their regular gig at Buffa’s Bar & Restaurant.
“This is for all those folks who want a little bit of normalcy, to the folks who normally come and listen to music, especially on Mondays here in my sweet hometown,” DeLay said to an unseen audience that ebbed and flowed from fewer than 50 to more than 100 over two hours, according to Facebook views.
DeLay, who comes from a storied New Orleans musical family — her uncle John Boutté wrote and sang the theme of the HBO series “Treme” — said the donations approximate the earnings from the Buffa’s gig. But an artist can’t keep returning to the same loyal fans who are facing their own economic crises to make up all the other lost gigs in a week. If she didn’t have the cushion of proceeds from having performed her song “Comin’ Home” on the series “NCIS: New Orleans” in 2018, she’d be up a “creek without a paddle,” she said.
“Music is very much a communal sport here in New Orleans,” she said. “Viewing concerts that are streamed online is great survival for the times we’re in right now, but it does not take the place of people collectively gathering to come together and listen to music.”
Funk trombonist and singer Sam Williams recently came up with a more elaborate solution to the challenge of conveying the hot, unbridled energy of a Big Sam’s Funky Nation show to a virtual audience. On a Thursday at noon, the band members positioned themselves six feet apart amid the usual cords and amplifiers — except the stage was Williams’s driveway in a neighborhood tucked beside a highway overpass.
“Hope you all are having a good time on this funky quarantine day,” Williams said to the smartphone and the laptop set up on a balcony. The band tore into songs like “4 da Funk” and “Gimme Dat.” Williams and Andrew Baham — on trumpet and backup vocals — executed the choreographed dance steps they usually display in sweaty clubs. Williams invited call-and-response exchanges with the unseen audience. Bass player Jerry “JBlakk” Henderson (wearing a black bandanna for virus protection) and drummer Alfred Jordan (in a black mask printed with an image of sharp teeth) soloed mightily in the hot sun.
The neighborhood-shaking volume drew folks onto their porches. They clapped and took photos. A few crept close to the driveway, but never enough to constitute an illegal gathering of more than 10. A man passing by in his car rolled down his window and played a cowbell to the beat.
Funky Nation is grateful for what amounts to grocery money from the weekly live streams, Williams said. But that can’t replace three months of four gigs a week that they’ve lost. During Jazz Fest alone, he was counting on 20-plus gigs performing with Funky Nation and with personal side projects.
Through his music, Williams, 39, is the sole provider for his wife and twin 3-year-old sons. Besides his dwindling savings and piling-up bills, he is worried about two sisters who tested positive for the virus. At least so far, their conditions don’t seem serious, he said, adding, “I’m trying not to stress myself out, but I am very anxious right now.”
For the time being, as the number of coronavirus cases relentlessly climbs, this is one way New Orleans tries to beat back the silence — with the music beaming from scattered driveways, living rooms and yards. That music, in turn, is received by isolated members of a hunkered-down audience, fragilely connected by a shared sound experience.
After Katrina, “music was part of that inspiration to rebuild,” said Jon Gross, tuba player with the renowned Treme Brass Band, sitting on his front steps near the fairgrounds where he would have played at Jazz Fest. This time, he noted, the crisis is global.
“It may be on New Orleans musicians to . . . inspire everyone to rebuild,” Gross said. “There may be something to the fact that we can reach out to every household through technology. That may be our calling: Instead of being here and letting the world come to us, maybe we stay here and play out to the rest of the world.”