New Orleans music post-Katrina

by Mark Guarino

The floodwaters in New Orleans will bring snakes, disease and devastation to its streets. It is already bringing ignorance. Last week, U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert told the Daily Herald “it doesn’t make any sense” to rebuild the historic city, adding, “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.” He backtracked a day later.

Hastert’s plainsman perspective is not just a window into why the Federal Government has been slow both in protecting the levee system over the years and saving citizens from their rooftops last week, it also continues the city’s tradition of being marginalized by outsiders. While the girlie video market, beer corporations and the city’s tourism board have promoted New Orleans as a playground for fraternity row, most people do not realize how much the city is a living museum to the nation’s cultural history which last week’s disaster threatens to wash away. If it is already out of the minds of the politicians who don’t live there, it might also be out of their sight soon.

“The music is a component that comes out of the rich, culturally diversity of that city,” said Louisiana swamp rocker C.C. Adcock who is on tour with fellow native Lucinda Williams. “That diversity is also what you’re seeing now and the huge cultural problems between the haves and the have nots. It’s despicable and makes me sick.”

Musical roots

The seeds of popular music arrived in America through the port of New Orleans, incubated there over time, developed through its complex interchange of interwoven cultures, and then spread north and east. When Chicago was still a swamp, New Orleans had the nation’s first opera company, in 1796. Reports of the first brass band came in 1885. The early Spanish and French colonialists, their West African slaves, the Native Americans settlers and later immigrants from Europe and the Caribbean clashed, but in that struggle created an entirely new culture and musical vocabulary. The combination of African rhythms, European instruments and social outlets such as parades, dancehalls, society balls and brothels came to a boil, resulting in the music we today call jazz, and its subgenres, ragtime and the blues. Because repression had so much to do with its creation, pain is embedded in the music, but there is also the joy of improvisation and the freedom of rebirth.

In the 1900s, the music spread to the industrialized north through the published songs of Jelly Roll Morton, the trombone style of Kid Ory, the trumpet of Louis Armstrong and the piano syncopations of King Oliver and Buddy Bolden. After World War II, as the city began its economic decline, it once again sparked another musical subculture to flourish. A rash of recording studios and club owners meant a new wave of creativity. The result were R&B innovators like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lee Dorsey, Professor Longhair and countless others who set the blueprint for Elvis Presley onwards. As rock grew to filling arenas, New Orleans deepened the groove, creating funk, starting with the Meters. By the 1970s and continuing through today, stars such as Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Trent Reznor and others flocked to New Orleans to rejuvenate their careers by recording there and soaking up its vibe while area heroes such as the Neville Brothers, Marcia Ball and Dr. John spread it globally.

Unlike Chicago and other cities, music is functional, not just recreational. Marching bands are serious endeavors. Kids are more likely to pick up brass instruments to learn than guitars. Church services might have a Dixieland band play. And, of course, when you die you can choose to have a band follow your coffin to its grave.

“It’s the whole beat. The wildness of rock and roll can be traced back to the people of New Orleans and the way music is done there,” said Tom Jackson, the host of “The New Orleans Music Hour” on WLUW 88.7-FM in Chicago.

New Orleans today

Due in part to the growing popularity of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the renewed interest in traditional music, the city’s tourism and convention business has rebounded which, for its musicians, means opportunities to play all around the world. But due to the lack of industry and a fractured political system that is wary of outsiders, the economic boom of the mid-‘90s never fully took hold in New Orleans. A consequence is that its clubs continued to remain largely safe from being shut out by higher rents and other factors that come with gentrification. Unlike many American cities where the few clubs in town are owned and controlled by large franchises and corporate promoters, music in New Orleans still is nurtured on stages in corner bars and neighborhood joints. Tourists living in cities homogenized by suburban sprawl and endless condo development arrive hungry for a taste of downhome regionalism they can’t find at home.

But while the city survived on charm all these years, it may not be so lucky surviving the flood.

“I would not be surprised if a couple of clubs at every level — small, medium or bigger — closed forever,” said Chris Lee, lead singer of Supagroup, a popular rock band out of the New Orleans. An end result, he said, is that there might be fewer bands coming back. “Where are the jobs going to be? Most people I know work in the service industry as waiters, bartenders and cooks. Everyone in my band is either a cook or bartender. If there’s no tourists (going) down there, then it’ll be pretty slim pickings,” he said.

Jackson said it is imperative to understand that New Orleans “is not a theme park” and shouldn’t be rebuilt as one. “When I heard Dennis Hastert say it could be bulldozed, those are people who are not thinking about the culture we’re going to lose. Sure, we’re going to lose jobs, but it’s the culture that will suffer the most,” he said.

There is also the fear of living history being lost through the possible deaths of elderly musicians. Meanwhile, conservationists are mobilizing to preserve archival material such as sheet music, instruments, photographs, documents and buildings such as historically significant buildings like Preservation Hall, a French Quarter jazz room that dates back to 1750.

“I think it’s the biggest thing we’ve seen,” said Eryl P. Wentworth, executive director of the American Institute For the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, located in Wash. D.C. She said her organization is seeking grants and working with Southern conservation organizations to determine what collections might be lost and to plan where and how to store sensitive material.

“The fact that it’s extensive water damage, that’s very harmful, particularly to music instruments,” she said. “It’s horrifying for everyone involved.”

Chicago connects

It is not uncommon to bump into Chicagoans on the streets of New Orleans and any musician there will tell you that they play to bigger audiences here than in their home city.

The reason for the music’s rise in popularity with Chicago audiences over the last 25 years can be directly traced to FitzGerald’s, the Berwyn roadhouse that opened in 1980. Marcia Ball was the club’s first out-of-town act and the club hosted the Neville Brothers’ first Chicago date when they were opening for the Rolling Stones. Since those days, the club helped expose a long line of cajun, zydeco, R&B, blues, folk and traditional jazz performers from the deep South to Chicago audiences.

Owner Bill FitzGerald said the connection between both cities is due to where they sit on the opposite ends of the Mississippi River. “You really felt you were traveling somewhere, it’s very different and very romantic. It just has a lot of power,” he said.

Of course the flow of music paralleled the migration of musicians from Louisiana over the last century, from King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, who made their seminal recordings here, to current blues guitar great Buddy Guy.

FitzGerald’s is hosting a benefit for relief victims Sept. 15 that will feature pianist Buddy Charles, the Chicago Cajun Aces, the Red Rose Ragtime Band, the BS Brass Band and the Chicago Salty Dogs, a traditional jazz band. At press time, owners of several Chicago clubs like Metro, Double Door, the Hideout and others are planning a widespread series of relief shows that may involve each club adopting their counterpart in New Orleans.

Adcock went back into New Orleans Friday to help a friend retrieve computer hard drives and other recording equipment. “It was an apocalyptic thing going on, people walking around like day of the dead,” he said. “The good news is the French Quarter was very well intact. Not an inch of water.”

He said it confirmed that, for “people who love that place, there will be a time in the not-so-distant future” when it will come back to life. “That was consoling,” he said.

FitzGerald shared the hope. “The blue sky and the warm weather is always going to be there,” he said. “And the grass is going to grow.”

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