This month marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. With the media coverage and memorials on the near-death of an American city, we do well to appreciate musicians who led the recovery.
Barely two weeks after the numbing failure from the White House to Baton Rouge and local City Hall, clarinetist Dr. Michael White, displaced in Houston, flew to New York City for a PBS music telethon organized by Wynton Marsalis, the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
White’s home in Gentilly backed onto the London Avenue Canal; when the liner walls collapsed, water filled the house and rendered his 4,000 books, 5,000 CDs and library of sheet music into mounds of muck. Thousands of people came back to devastated homes; imagine all that artistic capital wiped out.
My wife and I landed in Lafayette with two other couples in the empty nest home of Conrad Comeaux and his wife Jackie Lyle, whose generosity gave “outreach” new meaning. Most people from New Orleans, like us, scattered across the country that once put men on the moon, wondered when or if we would make it back.
Watching the musicians play New Orleans music that night was spirit fuel to the diaspora. A few days later I got in, with help from an off-duty cop paid for his help. The city smelled like the oldest outhouse, but the water had stopped midway up our front steps. Knowing our place was intact, I returned to Lafayette with clothes, laptop and valuables (including the manuscript of a novel published a year later). The city was an open question.
In early 2006, Wynton Marsalis disseminated checks raised by the TV concert – $15,000 grants to artists who had lost instruments and homes; $100,000 grants to the CAC, NOMA and other cultural institutions. A musician provided public support as elected officials dawdled.
There is a classic scene in Aaron Walker’s documentary Bury the Hatchet when the slender, silver-haired Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Alfred Doucette of the Flaming Arrow Warriors, a master carpenter and a vocational race car builder, walks through the Claiborne-Interstate 10 underpass amid cars lodged like cadavers. The scorn on his face and disgust in his voice said it all.
Doucette was bringing his tradition back despite the urban wreckage.
It is easy to dump on Ray Nagin now that he’s in prison; the dead cars were an issue in the 2006 mayoralty, which he won by appealing to raw emotions of blacks who came back to vote from Atlanta, Houston, Baton Rouge, and wretched FEMA trailers to secure City Hall for the man who promised a Chocolate City.
Big Chief Doucette was on the right side of history. As Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission held sessions in which visionaries endorsed the smaller urban footprint (bravely supported by a Chicago Tribune editorial), a river of tradition-bearers – people who didn’t fit the model of a smaller, more prosperous footprint – were heading back.
Sylvester Francis reopened the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé that fall, before NOMA, CAC and the Ogden were able to gear up.
As Nagin began crab-walking away from the smaller footprint to run for reelection, musicians were making it back, giving the city a new lease on life.
On Nov. 25, 2005, with most of the town from Claiborne to the Lake dark and off the grid, Tony Dagradi and Astral Project played Snug Harbor. Johnny Vidacovich was on drums, his wife and daughter still in Houston. Of Frenchmen Street, wrote Tulane Hogan Jazz Archive director Bruce Boyd Raeburn, “The entire block was vibrating with people reconnecting, swapping stories of forced exile.”
Scenes like that multiplied as the recovery rose from the life force of music. When Dr. White finished his Blue Crescent CD after a Studio in the Woods residency, the founders Joe and Lucianne Carmichael hosted a dinner for him. A genial potentate seated by me confided his hope that Nagin “might take a package like Eddie Jordan,” the D.A. who quit, reportedly paid well by civic leaders for doing so.
I smiled. I shrugged.
There followed a toast to the musician.