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Katrina Blues

Of all the unsettling images generated by Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, perhaps none struck closer to home than this one: A man with a tuba slung over his shoulder, marching down Interstate 10, bound for anywhere other than the ruined city of New Orleans. The exodus of New Orleans’ fabled music community is a tragedy within a tragedy. New Orleans is, or was, a repository of American music history, going back to the slaves who drummed and danced in Congo Square. Jazz pioneers Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, gospel great Mahalia Jackson, rock & roll legend Fats Domino, funk masters the Meters, million-selling rappers Master P and Juvenile — the city boasts a musical legacy unlike any other.As the music critic for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper, death and destruction are not topics I typically cover. But when rising floodwaters forced the Picayune to abandon its offices and evacuate 80 miles northwest to Baton Rouge, I was among a small group of reporters and photographers who stayed behind to chronicle Katrina’s devastation. Our fleet consisted of a Picayune delivery truck, two cars, bicycles, a kayak and a canoe. We migrated from one sweltering home to another, fleeing waters, seeking out functional phone lines, and dodging downed trees, power lines and looters as the city descended into chaos. In those first, terrible days after the storm and catastrophic flood, the poorest citizens were locked in a desperate struggle for survival. Every person encountered told a tale more harrowing than the last. I cried more than once.Given the life-and-death atmosphere, pondering the fate of the city’s music community seemed trite. But if New Orleans is to rebound, it must rekindle its carefree spirit and once again seduce the tourists and conventioneers who account for a significant portion of its economy. Music will play a vital role.Possibly.Touring the Uptown neighborhood on a bicycle, I was cheered to find Tipitina’s, the city’s flagship music club, largely unscathed on a swath of high, dry ground along the Mississippi River. A few blocks away, the only damage to legendary funk keyboardist Art Neville’s meticulously restored home was to the wooden fence that surrounds it. But many others weren’t so lucky. Iconic jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain lost homes in both New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Singer Charmaine Neville, Aaron Neville’s niece and the featured Monday-night act at jazz bistro Snug Harbor, survived a brutal attack by marauders. As water surged into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Fats Domino’s memorabilia-filled home in the city’s lower 9th Ward, he was finally rescued by boat. Eighty-one-year-old guitar legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, already battling emphysema, lung cancer and blocked arteries, now has additional woes: His home on a bayou outside New Orleans was destroyed. The Picayune ran a photo of his trademark black Cadillac parked in a pile of debris, including a sodden guitar case. The marquee acts that still call New Orleans home — the Neville Brothers, Better Than Ezra, Cowboy Mouth, the Radiators, Nicholas Payton — will continue to make money on the road. Major touring acts can return once the arenas are repaired. But the working musicians who populate the neighborhood clubs, second-line parades and jazz brunches, are more vulnerable, often living gig to gig. Cheap housing has been swept away along with the clubs and convention jobs.And New Orleans will be unplugged for months, not weeks. Preservation Hall’s Web site says the venerable jazz club, open since 1961, is closed “indefinitely.” Musicians must find work elsewhere. The backbone of New Orleans’ music community is shattered and scattered.In the short term, other regions will reap the rewards of this musical diaspora. Trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield and singer/songwriter Theresa Andersson landed in Baton Rouge. Clarinetist Michael White retreated to Houston. Keyboardist Jon Cleary is in California, preparing for a tour with Bonnie Raitt. Guitarists Eric Lindell and Chris Mule, saxophonist Tim Green and sousaphonist Kirk Joseph joined forces for an impromptu gig in Hermosa Beach, California. I’ve embarked on my own rambling, post-Katrina odyssey. Living out of a backpack, I’ve spent nights in Houma, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Houston. Yet a renewed, defiant New Orleans pride is already manifesting itself. Since the storm, I’ve worn only New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival souvenir shirts (partly a practical matter — rayon is compact, thus conserving space in the backpack). I’ve drunk mostly from plastic Mardi Gras cups. Driving to Houston, my wife cranked Better Than Ezra and Cowboy Mouth, outspoken ambassadors for our hometown. We are displaced for the foreseeable future, but we are still who we are. Aaron Neville, who appeared alongside Harry Connick Jr. and Wynton Marsalis for a hastily organized Sept. 1 storm-relief telethon, has moved to Nashville along with his brother Art. Sibling Cyril is in Austin, son Ivan in Los Angeles. Aaron has heard reports of bodies floating in his eastern New Orleans neighborhood. He can’t imagine when he might return.“Right now, it doesn’t even look possible,” Neville said. “They’ve got to clean that place with a fine-toothed comb. People walking through that water are getting sick. And I don’t know if I want to go back, because it could happen again. If they don’t build it back above sea level, it’s still vulnerable.”John “Papa” Gros, leader of the hard-working funk band Papa Grows Funk — the sort of dependable, instantly accessible band that populates local clubs — is more optimistic. He returned from a Japanese tour just before Katrina struck. Instead of orchestrating a triumphant homecoming at the ramshackle Maple Leaf bar, home for his band’s weekly Monday-night gig, Gros moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, 200 miles west of New Orleans. His bandmates are in Dallas, Montgomery, Alabama, and Lutcher, Louisiana. He says Papa Grows Funk will tour as much as possible in the coming months and establish weekly residencies in Houston, Lafayette and Baton Rouge.“We have New Orleans musicians in all these places, and they all need work,” Gros said. “If I can put money in their pockets and play some New Orleans music, that’s what I can do.”But he’s only marking time until he can return to New Orleans. “As long as politicians don’t steal the money for the rehabilitation, the city will come back,” Gros said. “The neighborhood bars, the neighborhood groceries, will come back. And I can’t wait for the songs that will come out of this.”Harry Connick Jr. has praised his fellow New Orleanians’ “freakishly strong” spirit. And even if the Nevilles and hundreds of their peers live in exile, Aaron is confident they will maintain some sense of community and continuity.“New Orleans is in us,” Neville said. “That’s all we know. We might be relocated somewhere else, but New Orleans is always in our hearts and souls and minds.“Especially the music.”

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