Copyright © Jennifer Odell 2007
1. How things were before Katrina:
a.) Jazz as pop; compared to other local music scenes in the U.S., like NYC: late night crowds for jazz shows; younger audiences; more venues for improvised music; affordable covers; support for local music retail and live shows (WWOZ FM has been the most listened-to station in NOLA, playing almost all local music and featuring the tag line: “go hear some live, local music,” while stores like Louisiana Music Factory are nuclei for local retail)
b.) Problem then was all of this wasn’t just local, it was insular and the small size of the city put a low ceiling on the degree of renown and financial success many artists could achieve
c.) Problem for a reporter there: Artists weren’t touring, so there was little interest in local music from national magazines like Rolling Stone
2. Changes since Katrina:
a.) Improvements: More interest in booking NOLA artists, even after the initial spate of benefit concerts fizzled out (Ponderosa Stomp at the McCarren Park Pool, NOLA series at the Lion’s Den, Gibson stepped up and The Edge became a talking head for Preservation Hall’s rebuilding efforts; Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews became a national act); hasn’t seemed to spike record sales yet but there’s not much happening in jazz A&R or album sales right now anyway
b.) New problem: Preservation Hall Director Ben Jaffe pointed out in a 2005 interview that there’s an interest in bringing back the musicians, but not their families, many of whom may bring with the social problems that plague impoverished people. He’s right: the largest public housing projects have been razed and there are no plans to replace them. Artists who lost their homes and jobs can lean on programs like the Tipitina’s Foundation, which has set up a public office of sorts for musicians, so they have resources like computers to do their own PR and manage their bands even if they lost everything. But their families may still have no resources to lean on if they were to come home, not to mention, no homes.
c.) The city isn’t back on its feet, especially in areas like the bywater and 9th ward where a lot of musicians live. In a 2006 interview singer songwriter Alex McMurray said, “Getting a gig is easy. Getting groceries, that’s hard. We mostly get our vegetables from the Shell station.” Much of the city is still without basic city services, and if you’re living on a musician’s wages, you can’t necessarily afford to get around problems like being without regular garbage pickup in your area
3. Support for local music:
a.) This year, The Jazz and Heritage Foundation is handing out $350,000 in community arts partnership grants, more than they have even given before. In part, this increase is due to having had a series of financially profitable Jazz Fest seasons, according to Foundations spokesman Scott Aiges (stay tuned for a DownBeat story on the grants in the next few months)
b.) The Tipitina’s Foundation may be ultimate the centerpiece for the re-building efforts of local culture in New Orleans, sponsoring a vast variety of programs to help musicians do their jobs and support themselves, as well as to educate young people (for example, Instruments A Comin’and the TIPS Intern program among others)
c.) Preservation Hall’s and the (newly renamed) Renew Our Music Fund have also been key to rebuilding efforts
d.) As far as regular support, many of the venues local players relied on pre-Katrina remain important and popular venues today, including those on Frenchmen Street and the Maple Leaf uptown. However, there are also plenty of obstacles: Jazz Fest continues to pay artists like Rob Wagner, who evacuated after Katrina, the local wage even though he’s now an NYC taxpayer. Complaints abound about the fact that the Jazz Tent this year moved even further out to of the center of activities at the Fairgrounds (it’s in what was previously the blues tent). And perhaps most newsworthy is the new requirement that second line parades obtain expensive parade licenses from the police, which has put another dent in the freedom of local music to happen in the streets the way it has for almost two centuries.
4. New audiences
a.) Plenty of the volunteers helping to rebuild are taking their new love of local artists back to regions of the country where these players don’t necessarily tour. The result is potentially more booking of funk, brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians as well as more albums making their way outside of the city (for example, Sunnyside’s great new reissue of the Wild Magnolias’ two seminal albums and the Marsalis Music Honors album series).
5. So what is the role for journalists in placing these ideas before the public?
As a diplomat for NOLA culture, my role was once to help show that there’s more to local music than Bourbon Street clubs. Today, with the spike in violent crime, the continued stasis of the local and federal government regarding problems that still plague the city, and the constant financial hardships that make it tough (or near impossible) for New Orleans culture to continue growing in a natural way, hard news and arts reporting have virtually become one.
Writers who focus on New Orleans music still want to bring to light information about music the rest of the world might not have otherwise known, to get people to understand who these “unsung heroes” of blues, jazz and funk are. But now we need the attention of more readers and more people in positions of power. Especially given the current global climate regarding the Bush administration, we as writers suddenly have an amazing opportunity to contribute to rebuilding efforts by delivering information to the right people. We might even help get funding to protect and expand the local music scene there-if not because our next leaders are DownBeat readers, then maybe because we finally will prove that this essential and unique component of American culture cannot be left to disintegrate in the streets. It’s our role to find an audience who is willing to take action to protect the culture. Covering the local New Orleans music scene in 2007 means using “soft” arts reporting to foster hard, necessary change.