Alex Rawls- Some thoughts on the past, present and future of New Orleans music. The battle of New Orleans
They weren’t threatening, and they didn’t train their rifles on us, but no one’s ever really ready to answer questions in the close proximity of guns. They seemed satisfied with our explanation, and as we talked, we found out they were from Oklahoma, from near my mom’s hometown, Commerce. We talked about Mickey Mantle, who was born in Commerce, and how weird it was to find people who knew that the Oklahoma towns of Commerce and Miami (pronounced “Miama”) even existed, much less to find them amid the rubble of New Orleans.
Here, power lines were down and laid in the streets, and a building that preservationists had designated as historic because of the age of one of its walls had crumbled. The guardsmen walked on through the streets of the Garden District by the rubble and downed branches, talking as though they were at home. They wore full camouflage uniforms in the 95-degree New Orleans heat, carrying full backpacks and weapons. We could barely wear shorts and T-shirts in this weather. More than that, they aren’t part of our community. Whatever recovery happens in New Orleans for the city and the music scene will happen as a result of community action — as cornball as it sounds, people pulling together for a common cause.
There were signs of that, even in the hurricane. People helped each other board up and get out of town. One bar owner told me he had spoken to restaurant owners near the Convention Center, where survivors were housed in the first days after the hurricane. The bar owner said the restaurants were looted, but only for their good booze, and not for all of it. It seemed people generally took what they thought they would actually use. Such an account is thirdhand and suspect — the truth may have been Katrina’s first casualty — but it’s consistent with enough reports from those who stayed to sound possible. There’s no question some horrible acts of violence and lawlessness were committed, but many were struck by the civic consciousness behind much of the looting.
That sense of pulling together is going to be necessary, because the only thing that’s clear about the future of New Orleans’ culture is that the community itself will have to bring it back. The prospect isn’t comforting, since it means a variety of nonconformist types are going to have to get on the same page, something they don’t do easily or naturally. But the government is unlikely to restore the musical culture, even if it could.
In one sense, city and state officials value the city’s musical and cultural identity. They recognize tourism brought in $9.9 billion last year, and that music and Louisiana culture were big draws for the 25.5 million who visited the state.
Louisiana lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu borrowed a phrase from Wynton Marsalis when he titled his plan for the cultural renewal, “Louisiana Rebirth: Restoring the Soul of America.” His plan proposes to “Rebuild Louisiana to worldwide preeminence as a top tourism destination,” and to “Make Louisiana’s Cultural Economy the engine of economic and social rebirth.” It makes broad statements: “We will rebuild on the historical and cultural roots of Louisiana, making them stronger along the way”; “We will rebuild our communities and the lives of all our citizens to levels that exceed those prior to Katrina; we will settle for nothing less.”
It’s not clear, though, how his plan would help musicians, other than making them central to any recovery. Still, Mercurio says, “Culture is something the government can’t control.” Freedman of WWOZ agrees: “You can set the parameters, but you can’t engineer it.”
Unquestionably, the government has a role to play in the music scene’s recovery. “If you give these musicians housing and jobs for a year, you’d go a long way,” Freedman says. He adds that it would be beneficial to do something like that sooner than later: “The longer musicians stay away from the city, the less likely they are to come back.” He points to trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, who in style and song has identified himself as thoroughly as anyone since the Neville Brothers as a product of New Orleans. Ruffins has set up shop at Sammy’s Bar in Houston, and he’s doing the kind of business that suggests he could play there as long as he’d like.
It’s not a good sign that, when Landrieu was asked about efforts by San Francisco and Denver to give New Orleans musicians stipends and housing assistance, he responded that he had to “chuckle a bit that folks think they can lure those people away. They live in New Orleans because they love it there.” It would be much more reassuring if he countered with plans for how to make it possible for the people who make the culture to be a part of the city they love.
Enticing musicians back seems like a large step toward recovery. It would give the rest of the city a reason to return. After all, as much as people like their houses, they live in New Orleans for the city’s life, and music is a central part of that. Similarly, the musicians would help restore the characteristic that made the city such a tourist destination.
Until the city and state are prepared to help, groups such as Project HEAL and Tipitina’s Foundation have started the process of recovery. Project HEAL is based in Lafayette, where many members of the New Orleans music scene fled from Hurricane Katrina. Created by the Acadiana Arts Council, it offers displaced musicians assistance in a variety of ways, from short-term financial assistance, to shelter, to helping musicians get gigs and return to work.
Adam Shipley envisions Tipitina’s serving as a community center for displaced musicians, giving them what they need, whether it’s a replacement instrument or a meal and a place to crash. The Tipitina’s Music Co-op was based in the Fountainbleu in Mid-City, but since the Fountainbleu took on water, the community access computer and assistance center is moving into Tipitina’s as well. “We’re trying to create a vehicle to get musicians back in town and onstage,” Shipley says.
He recognizes the relationship between the city and the musical community. “It’s necessary to have trickles of that lifeblood back in New Orleans,” he says. “Logistics are the question. When are we going to be a living, working, breathing city?”
Part of his activity has been an extension of a program Tipitina’s Foundation sponsors each year called Instruments A Comin’, which provides musical instruments for high school band programs. He is now trying to nationalize the program, looking for horns and marching band instruments and money to buy them around the country, not just in the New Orleans area. “Those high schools, those marching bands, the kids in the Treme, that’s where it all comes from,” Freedman says.
Bars around the country have hosted benefits for Tipitina’s Foundation and Project HEAL, as well as for clubs and the general recovery effort. Many have joined the effort to rebuild New Orleans’ music scene, but as wonderful as that sounds, it isn’t clear if that’s enough. Will city leaders understand the value of music enough to help it return?
Musicians and bohemians have traditionally been considered outsiders, people who don’t fit into the system. It’s easy to envision their needs and interests being marginalized in favor of economic development zones that focus on the middle class. Without the city’s culture, though, what’s going to draw people back? As gung-ho as Shipley is for his work right now, he admits he can’t think about the potentially huge obstacles the city’s music community faces. “It slows me down,” he says.
When New Orleanians fled to Lafayette, many ended up with guitarist C.C. Adcock, who lives next door to saxophonist Dickie Landry, with whom he plays in the swamp pop supergroup Little Band Of Gold. He doesn’t remember everyone who has passed through his house since Katrina, though he remembers a BBC radio journalist, Mic Napolitano, who produced his Lafayette Marquis album, and Ani DiFranco, Napolitano’s girlfriend. Members of New Orleans’ Tex-Mex band the Iguanas crashed on his floor for awhile, and people stopped by for drinks or red beans, which always seemed to be on the stove.
“I hope we’re able to rebuild the industry and its infrastructure,” Adcock says. “I hope we can build something heavier out of this. We’ve got to break the cycle of tap-dancing for change.”
He is also optimistic about New Orleans music. “I know as a musician that traveling, being away from home, your memory and longing to return is really conducive to writing and making music,” Adcock says. “I think after this you’re going to hear some killer songs and performances.”