The first time I was in New Orleans was in 2005, the day after the city and the notorious Super Dome was evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. I was working for the PBS news magazine show “NOW” at the time and had been sent ahead of my crew on a scouting trip to New Orleans to cover the FEMA debacle. I remember so vividly the eerie silence as my first impression of the city. New Orleans had been completely abandoned. The only inhabitants roaming the streets were fresh-faced National guardsman pointing their machine guns at checkpoints, looking young, scared, and as lost as I felt. I recall the overwhelmingly putrid stench from the heat and the 10-foot watermark from the receding water; a reminder of an ugly chapter in the legacy of America.
Katrina will forever be woven into the fabric of New Orleans. Six years later, remnants of the storm are still very evident around the city. You can’t talk to a native person of New Orleans without having them share some kind of Katrina story.
It’s no mistake that we chose Preservation Hall as our interview site for Branford Marsalis. In the heart of French Quarter, the building was built in 1750. Since then, it’s been a private residence, a tavern, a photo studio and art gallery. Finally, in 1961, it became a performance space and today, it is the Mecca for Jazz lovers. Seven nights a week, people stream into the tiny, hot, humid space with no air conditioning, to experience the way jazz was meant to be experienced. Branford practically grew up within its walls. The famous Marsalis family, led by Ellis Marsalis, has been performing here since its inception and all members of the clan continue to play sets here to this day. After the storm, it took them eight months to reopen its doors and 4 out of the 5 musicians in its resident band, Preservation Hall Band, lost their homes.
We started the set up for the interview early in the morning when the sleepy streets are still shaking off the revelry from the night before, and the heat is still bearable if only marginally so. But by mid-afternoon, as we were ready to roll tape, various street musicians were also getting ready for their night of performance. Around the corner, up the street, and in the bars, music is definitely back in New Orleans. To our film crew, this battle of bands outside was a nightmare situation. Several times, we had to stop the interview to wait for a moment of silence that never came. Finally, it was decided that I would go and try to “pay off” the musicians with some sweet talk and a $20 bill. The $20 bill was popular but trying to keep the music down was like playing a game of Whac-a-Mole.
But then, just as everyone’s patience was wearing thin, Harry Connick Jr. strolled by the interview to play a little duet rendition of “The Saints Go Marching In” with Branford. For the moment, nothing else mattered. There was just the music.
Author: Titi Yu