Preserving the musical spirit of New Orleans

Boston Globe, October 15, 2006

Six of the seven musicians lost their homes to the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. A year after the storm, only two of the seven have been able to move back to New Orleans. Yet compared to many other New Orleans musicians, the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are the fortunate ones.

They have work.

The band is the touring outfit of Preservation Hall, a 45-year-old New Orleans institution devoted to nurturing and promoting the city’s musical tradition. The hall, a tiny, unpretentious venue in the French Quarter, only reopened in May. But the band has been touring all along, bringing to its regular circuit of prestige theaters not just the music of New Orleans, but testimonial to the Crescent City’s perseverance and hurt.

Today, the band opens the Bank of America Celebrity Series season with a Symphony Hall extravaganza that also features Ellis Marsalis, the pianist and New Orleans musical family doyen, and an after-party with Jeremy Lyons, a New Orleans rockabilly musician displaced by Katrina and now living in Cambridge. The show promises something of a Mardi Gras atmosphere, with part of Symphony Hall converted into table seating. It will raise funds for the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund.

Preservation Hall bandleader and trumpeter John Brunious, who was displaced by the storm, separated from his wife without news of each other’s safety, and now resides with her in temporary lodgings in Florida, accentuates the positive when describing the band’s year.

“It’s been going pretty good, considering what happened,” he says. “We’ve been working and traveling a lot. [Audiences] are a little nicer than normal. Everyone says they’re very sorry about what happened with Katrina.”

Back in New Orleans, the band’s artistic director, Ben Jaffe, has retired from touring to devote himself to rebuilding Preservation Hall’s business, and with it the New Orleans musical community. Jaffe’s parents founded the hall in 1961; soon after the storm, he and his wife launched the relief fund, which is helping musicians return to the city and rebuild their lives.

Not surprisingly, conversations with Jaffe and Brunious quickly turn away from the music proper to focus on the plight of the musicians and their fellow New Orleanians since the hurricane.

“It’s been very slow going,” Jaffe says. “This has been the most difficult year of any of our lives.” He estimates that far fewer than half of the city’s musicians have been able to return thus far. At Preservation Hall, which is functioning largely thanks to charitable donations, revenue is down 90percent from a normal year.

Of course, “normal” scarcely characterizes New Orleans now – or its prospects any time soon. The destruction, minimal in the French Quarter and some well-off neighborhoods but crippling in the areas where most musicians lived, remains largely unaddressed.

“There’s nothing to come back to,” Brunious says. “No houses, no gas, no water pressure.” He believes the city will come back eventually, but changed forever – smaller, wealthier, and whiter. It’s too soon to know the fate of the music, but he worries.

“I wonder about that myself,” he says. “I’m told that a lot of musicians are in Houston and working. Are we going to have little spots of jazz throughout Texas? I hope that all of it comes back to New Orleans.”

In Jaffe’s view, the dire warnings of the imminent demise of the New Orleans musical tradition are entirely warranted.

“I think people are downplaying the potential loss,” Jaffe says. “When in school we studied the fall of the Inca or Mayan civilizations, we never thought of it in terms of our own traditions. But traditions do change, and they do get lost. I do believe there are traditions I grew up with – jazz funerals, the second line, big-band parades, Mardi Gras Indians, corner nightclubs with great R&B bands – traditions that I value and that have given my life meaning, that will be lost for no other reason than that our country’s government failed us and continues to fail us. It’s embarrassing and disgraceful.”

Jaffe fears that the long-term disruption to the city will end the organic transmission of musical traditions that have never been codified or school-taught in the first place.

“What about musicians in their 60s, 70s, 80s, who have lost their homes? They have something to teach, but not without children seeing them marching past their doorstep, or sitting next to them in the church pew. New Orleans music is not taught from books.”

For now, many New Orleans musicians are getting by with assistance from relief organizations like Jaffe’s and through an outpouring of support from artists around the world, which Jaffe calls “overwhelming” and “heartwarming.”

But for the long haul, absent the kind of massive federal support to the city that they feel has not been forthcoming, the musicians hope for a revival of the tourist business – both to spark the economy and to spread awareness of the extent of the catastrophe and the city’s current predicament.

“Tourism was the financial lifeblood of the city,” Jaffe says. “But there’s still something off about people being comfortable coming to New Orleans.”

Brunious agrees: “I think it’d be better if people came here and saw for themselves, to understand why this condition exists.”

But this is a culture with a bittersweet view of matters of life and death, where funerals are occasion for dirges but also for dancing. The news from New Orleans may be sobering, but the message in the music – and the one the Preservation Hall band has taken on the road – remains joyful and uplifting.

“Whenever I start to feel that I can’t live in New Orleans anymore, I go to a show,” Jaffe says. “You go out to a parade on Sunday, with a couple of thousand people marching for five hours, and it brings life back. And you no longer question why you’re doing what you’re doing.

“You no longer question why it’s important that New Orleans come back.”