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The sounds after the storm

Last week, New Orleans hosted the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, with headliners including Pearl Jam and Simon and Garfunkel. The festival, which features hundreds of acts sprawled across the New Orleans Fair Grounds, has stood for decades as a testament to the city’s rich cultural history. But this year the festivities took on a more somber tone, with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Need to Know spoke with three leading jazz thinkers about how the storm and its aftermath have reshaped the city’s music community.

Irving MayfieldIrvin Mayfield
Cultural ambassador for New Orleans, lost his father in Katrina

Abby Leonard: Did Katrina do anything to help awareness and funding for the arts?

Irvin Mayfield: Other than people saying they like the art the city provides and using it as a backdrop for TV shows and movies, no one is saying, “Here’s a million dollars to invest in the arts because jazz is a great American art form.”

It’s important to recognize how special New Orleans is. You play the snare drum or the clarinet in any other city and you’d be considered a nerd, but here, there’s no shame in it and it’s absolutely valued … All of this has happened without a significant investment in what makes the city great.

Leonard: How difficult is it to see New Orleans struggle to get back to where it was?

Mayfield: I do feel like we missed the ball on advocacy for culture. In the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, journalists sometimes didn’t understand the story. They consistently reported that “the most messed up government in the history of the world let a city fall.” The story did not become about the essence of the city: Louis Armstrong, Tennessee Williams, gumbo and red beans, Café du Monde and a 4-year-old who got the name Trombone Shorty because his horn was bigger than he was.

Leonard: How did the emotional toll of Katrina impact your own music?

Mayfield: My dad was a victim of the storm. If there was ever an opportunity for music to change, it would have been mine. But New Orleans music would never be more emotional because of a tragedy. Great art is already as emotional as it can be. The substance of the city, from the food to the music, won’t change because of a disaster like Katrina.

Bruce RaeburnBruce Raeburn
Curator, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University

Leonard: Five years after Katrina, how is the music community faring in New Orleans?

Raeburn: There have always been strong ties between New Orleans neighborhoods and their music, so the areas of greater devastation lost more musically. Even if musicians were able to return, they weren’t necessarily able to return to their old neighborhoods, so much of that longstanding identification no longer exists.

Leonard: It sounds pretty bleak. Are there any bright spots?

Raeburn: In culture rich neighborhoods like Treme — site of the eponymous HBO series — things are bouncing back. Central City was never damaged and, of course, in some places there were problems with poverty and crime even before Katrina and nothing post-Katrina has solved those problems.

Leonard: What’s been the impact on the music itself?

Raeburn: Historically, New Orleans jazz music was good times music. It mostly stayed away from topical issues and was really a vehicle for escape, it was a coping mechanism. But it seems that in the wake of Katrina, we’ve seen that New Orleans artists are singing or writing songs about Katrina or taking another look at songs like Randy Newman’s “New Orleans 1927” where he sings, “They’re trying to wash us away.”

With the problems in the federal and state responses following the storm, the people of New Orleans really just felt left behind and forgotten. So there’s been a change that’s reflected in the music as New Orleans musicians have really gotten more involved and more politicized.

Michael WhiteMichael White
Keller Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Xavier University, clarinetist for the Original Liberty Jazz Band

Leonard: What changes have you seen in New Orleans jazz since Katrina?

White: Some of the younger brass bands who mainly play modern brass or funk have taken up trying to learn about the history of early brass band music, particularly the Hot 8 Brass Band. Since Katrina, there’s been a much greater awareness of keeping the traditional views of New Orleans alive. So many musicians were displaced, and their absence is always there.

Leonard: What’s the musical community like now? Have most musicians returned?

White: Not all the musicians have come back, some were older and it was just too difficult. Even for those who did, it hasn’t been easy. Most musicians don’t have health care and a lot are struggling — we’ve lost several just within the last year including Marva Wright, a great blues singer. And the drummer Bernard Johnson, who was only 57. A lot of people are stressed and getting sick.

Leonard: You suffered significant losses in the storm. What effect did that have on your own music?

White: I lost my home and along with it, a really large, expensive archive of jazz sheet music and instruments. It’s now just an empty house in a neighborhood of empty houses.

Katrina kind of washed away a lot of my views about music and about life, I feel almost as if I died and was reborn.  I produced a post-Katrina CD called “Blue Crescent,” 12 original compositions that tell the story of Katrina in music. I can’t even bear to listen to it now; it just recreates the whole thing for me. But since Katrina, I’ve found I can convert life experiences to music and that’s really a new thing for me.

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