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New Orleans’ Jazz Scene Still Hurt, Inspired by Katrina

August 31, 2010 at 7:18 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown has an update on musician Michael White who continues his efforts to keep New Orleans' musical tradition strong, five years after Hurricane Katrina.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the story of a New Orleans musician and his efforts to keep a musical tradition strong, five years after Katrina. Jeffrey Brown has our profile.

MICHAEL WHITE, musician: So, you can see where the waterline was at the top of the door.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the line right there?

MICHAEL WHITE: Yes. That’s the highest point. And that was at least nine feet.

JEFFREY BROWN: We first met Michael White soon after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed his home in Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans.

As both musician and scholar, White had long been one of the best-known champions of the New Orleans jazz tradition. Now he was living temporarily in Houston and had returned to sift through his belongings to see if anything could be saved.

MICHAEL WHITE: This was my piano. I used to have rehearsals in here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thirty years of collected photos, books and pieces of musical history all destroyed — saddest of all, White’s collection of clarinets.

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

JEFFREY BROWN: At that point five years ago, White was unsure about his own future and that of his city.

MICHAEL WHITE: You know, it’s very difficult. Everyone is trying to deal with just basic survival, you know, finding money to eat, places to stay, dealing with whatever illnesses or emotional trauma that — tha

t remains. So, it’s tough.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: Three months later, Michael White had decided to at least try to live in New Orleans. He was eager to reunite with the other displaced musicians from his Liberty Brass Band and resume teaching at Xavier University. Still, he faced numerous hurdles.

MICHAEL WHITE: They’re sort of what I call the after-flow of the hurricane, which is pretty much almost as bad as the hurricane itself. It’s what happens after. And, you know, what happens after is, you have to face a lot of real problems, like you’re homeless, and, number two, that you have to figure out what’s going to happen with your home.

JEFFREY BROWN: His neighborhood was still a ghost town. And there were doubts about whether enough students and faculty would return to Xavier to make it a viable university again. Now, five years later, Xavier University is rebuilt and thriving. But White’s old Gentilly neighborhood is still mostly empty. Earlier this month, he sold his house to the state for a modest sum of money. It’s slated for demolition. And he’s disheartened at just how little of New Orleans has been rebuilt.

MICHAEL WHITE: To look at the state of much of the city, if you go into a lot of neighborhoods, off of the big streets, five years after Katrina in an American city, I think it is a great tragedy. I think it is a disgrace for the city to be in this condition now. I think that New Orleans should be two or three times more along.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, White says, he’s glad he’s back in New Orleans and moving on with his life.

MICHAEL WHITE: For a long time, like many people, I went through a serious period of depression, of anger, of many different kinds of emotions.

And then I came to realize the most valuable thing that I have, I never lost. It’s inside. It’s that music tradition. It’s the memory of all of those parades, of all of those older musicians who — who brought the spirit of New Orleans’ music and passed it on to me, so that I could help to pass it on to others. And the spirit of that music is with me every day. Every time I play my instrument, everything I ever knew and felt about New Orleans is still alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: White says that, in the years since Katrina, he’s experienced a personal and musical rebirth, another New Orleans tradition. Last year, he spent time at an artists retreat and, in the space of three weeks, wrote three dozen songs, more than he had written in his entire life. He’s now recorded a number of them for a new C.D. titled “Blue Crescent.”

MICHAEL WHITE: In the beginning, all of the songs sounded sad and in a minor key and just horrible. And now I realize that was just letting go of a lot of that pain.

But many of the songs became upbeat and optimistic. You know, there’s a great metaphor in our jazz funeral tradition for a recovery from Katrina. We have slow and sad music when the body is coming out of the church. And when it moves towards the cemetery or it’s buried, there’s joyous, up-tempo music and dancing.

The lesson from that is, mourn the losses of Katrina. Don’t forget them. But, at the same time, you’re moving and transitioning to a greater state or existence, hopefully greater.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Michael White, that greater existence means composing and performing new work while continuing to play and teach the old musical traditions of New Orleans.