Music Returns to New Orleans

November 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: For anyone who loves New Orleans and its music, this was a sight and sound to savor: One of the city’s leading ensembles, the Rebirth Brass Band, at one of its leading clubs, Tipitina’s, open for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit.

BAND MEMBER: Today iss our first day back y’all, rebuilding New Orleans.

JEFFREY BROWN: The appropriately named band has been a New Orleans fixture since 1983. But all of its members have been displaced by the storm — most lost their homes and their instruments. Derek Shezbie literally had to swim to safety and now lives in Baltimore. Shamar Allen’s home in the Lower Ninth Ward was completely demolished. He now lives in Atlanta.

For the band and for an overflow crowd, this was an evening of hope for the rebirth of a city and the musical tradition so tied to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But earlier that day on a once beautiful tree-lined street in the Gentilly neighborhood of the city, we saw first-hand how culture and lives have been upended.

MICHAEL WHITE, Musician: So you can see where the water line was at the top of the door.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the line right there?

MICHAEL WHITE: Yeah, that’s the highest point and that was at least 9 feet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael White is one of New Orleans’ most prominent musicians and, as a professor at Xavier University, a scholar of the city’s musical history and culture.

MICHAEL WHITE: Music is a way of life in New Orleans but it was a way of life for me. It is a great thing to have that tradition. And so much of it was in that house.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joined by White’s friend, film maker Michael Murphy, we donned masks and gloves to cope with the intense smell and the slime of mold everywhere.

MICHAEL WHITE: This was my piano. I had rehearsals in here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thirty years of collected artifacts, photos, manuscripts, books — pieces of music history — all soggy under our feet.

MICHAEL WHITE: Somewhere in there I had a lot of music. Original transcriptions of music of Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver. And then there were a lot of original pieces that I wrote. I never had a chance to really record or play.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps most painful, White’s collection of clarinets.

MICHAEL WHITE: These were my vintage instruments from the 1890s into the early 30s and most of them were in the cases. And a lot of them were rare, hand made and you know I would play different ones. I would put them in rotation.

JEFFREY BROWN: You would use them?


JEFFREY BROWN: Different sounds?

MICHAEL WHITE: Each instrument is like it’s own person. It has its own sound, its own personality and moods almost. I couldn’t bear to open those cases because to me those are bodies inside.

JEFFREY BROWN: White is now living in Houston and unsure of the future — his own and the cultural life of the city.

MICHAEL WHITE: We don’t know how many people are on the death lists are people that we know. Maybe musicians, maybe people that came out to hear the music. You know, it’s very difficult. Everyone is just trying to deal with basic survival. You know, finding money to eat, places to stay, dealing with whatever illnesses or emotional trauma that remains. It is tough. So we don’t know when, how, or if, how much of the musical fabric that really makes New Orleans is going to return.

JEFFREY BROWN: New Orleans has one of the great cultural traditions of any city, anywhere. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, the Neville and Marsalis families, New Orleans has an honor roll of influential musicians hard to match.

Here, perhaps like no other place, the music comes directly from the streets, passed down from generation to generation. Most famously in the jazz funerals which begin with the slow dirge of sorrow and give way to the raucous joy of the so-called “second line” street parade.

Like so much about New Orleans, in the past and now, death and life side by side. The rhythms here are a gumbo of African, Caribbean, European — mixed together for hundreds of years — rising from places like Congo Square.

DAVID FREEDMAN, WWOZ General Manager: So this is where slaves on Sunday afternoons were allowed to sing and dance and play the wonderful African rhythms that they brought with them became the basis for Jazz and all the other great music to come out of New Orleans.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Freedman runs one of the pillars of the city’s musical culture, the small public radio station WWOZ which was flooded and damaged. The operation was moved to a makeshift quarters in Baton Rouge where many of the station’s volunteer DJs are living in exile. Freedman says those DJs, like the musicians they play, are part of a living culture of New Orleans music.

DAVID FREEDMAN: The music doesn’t come from CDs. It doesn’t come from radios. It comes from the people. It’s an expression of their way of life. And the way they live their life. As a kid, jazz funerals used to go by my house just down the block. I mean, that’s what the city means to me. I grew up here and I think that is what it means to everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: With all the city has to deal with now, there is an awareness that helping its culture come back to life is a big part of bringing the entire city back. And that means helping the musicians themselves and getting them home.

Bill Taylor heads the Tipitina’s Foundation. Affiliated with the music club, it has located and offered aid to musicians displaced by Katrina.

BILL TAYLOR, Tipitina’s Foundation: You know, We called all the people who play the club regularly and just said: Where is everyone? What do they need? I mean, they need a place to live. They need food for their kids. What do you all need? What can we do to help to give you some hope right now?

JEFFREY BROWN: Amid talk that the football Saints and others might leave, Taylor says his club must step up.

BILL TAYLOR: If we don’t stand up and say, we’re here and we’re here to help and we’re not going anywhere, then who would?

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Halloween weekend, there were signs of musical life everywhere. Kermit Ruffins, a local legend and a trumpet-playing, singing heir to Louis Armstrong, performed for an overflow crowd at Fat Harrys, a neighborhood bar.

KERMIT RUFFINS, musician: We’re like the last cats doing that old New Orleans tradition of music with those old words and those old beautiful tunes. We’re doing a lot of our own stuff at the same time. New Orleans is famous for its musicians and I can’t wait till everyone gets back and has a big party.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think it’s going to survive?

KERMIT RUFFINS: I know it will survive. We will swing again. That’s for sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Soul Rebels Brass Band and costumed revelers marched through the French Quarter which escaped much of Katrina’s wrath.

And the city also went forward with a smaller version of its annual Voodoo Festival, a mix of rock and traditional music. Thousands turned out and the theme of rising from Katrina was everywhere.

FRED LE BLANC, musician: Baton Rouge is nice. Atlanta is OK. I got nothing against Texas, but New Orleans is the greatest place in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mayor Ray Nagin was there and took a spin to the music. Talking with us, the mayor was cautious, but upbeat.

RAY NAGIN, New Orleans Mayor: New Orleans is on a long road to recovery. But we have transitioned from the rhythms and sounds of New Orleans being military helicopters and, you know, Humvee vehicles, to now. The music is back. And when the music is back, New Orleans is alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scenes of normal life juxtaposed against enormous devastation especially in the neighborhoods where many of the city’s musicians once lived.

What happens now to New Orleans’ culture and, by extension, to the city itself? Michael White, like so many others, invokes the spirit of the jazz funeral.

MICHAEL WHITE: I think one of the lessons of the jazz funeral for all these years it that that is what we have to do now. We have to be optimistic and say, we have transitioned into something else, but that something else is an opportunity for it to come back and be great.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a little hard when you walk in your house the way we just did.

MICHAEL WHITE: It’s tough but it’s all I have to hang on to. You have to continue. Hold your head up. Be proud. Look for the good part. Express the pain and sorrow through the music and keep going.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Rebirth Brass Band was certainly doing its part, playing four separate concerts in a single day. But the next morning, the musicians were to fly out of New Orleans, back to their temporary lives unsure of when they could return to their homes.