Every year in June, several score musicians leave the city for the European concert tour, playing the circuit of festivals from Scandinavia to Nice, France. This diaspora had no great significance in the Old World, pre-Katrina, because the talent pool kept pumping players to bridge the gap for the clubs here. Now, as the first summer since the great flood bears down, everyone wonders if there will be another mass evacuation. Small businesses in the cultural economy wonder if enough tourists will come.
Many musicians are hungry to leave. “The European dates provide a relief,” says Michael White, the clarinetist and composer, with fatigue in his voice, by phone from his office at Xavier University. “When you’re working abroad, you’re on vacation from Katrina fatigue.”
White reckons that 60 percent of the musicians he used to call for gigs with his Original Liberty Jazz Band are now displaced.
His mainstay trumpeter, Gregg Stafford, who leads the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, (in which White also performs) spent part of the winter in Denmark and Finland, where bandstands that pay welcome a hot jazz soloist from New Orleans. One of 7,000 Orleans Parish public school teachers who was let go, Stafford was lucky in that teaching was his second job. He returned to New Orleans in late April, telling White, “Count me in” on whatever he was booking.
“Detroit Brooks is in Baton Rouge,” White says of the banjoist and guitarist he has called on for years. “He had a barbershop on North Claiborne and St. Bernard that was wiped away. He drives in, but he has issues he’s dealing with, too. All my bass players are gone. Bill Huntington is in Arkansas, Kerry Lewis in Georgia. I’ve been using a young guy, Roland Guerin, who plays regularly with [keyboard modernist] Marcus Roberts. I’m always looking for converts to a traditional style of jazz.”
The time investment on a cell phone to find musicians to make a gig is draining, White explains. Driving to Houston most weekends, where his elderly mother and aunt have relocated, is part of Michael White’s new world. So is dealing with insurers over his flood-wrecked home in Gentilly, and waiting for federal funds to cover the loss.
In these matters, musicians are like the majority of Orleanians who have not returned, at least to what used to be their homes.
“In keeping its jazz history alive, New Orleans has become an acutely nostalgic place, looking back and looking in on itself,” writes Louise McKinney in New Orleans: A Cultural History, a new book in the Cityscapes series by Oxford University Press. McKinney, a freelance writer who lived in New Orleans for many years, finished the book before Katrina. Although she made revisions to account for the devastation, the text largely looks back on the city that was, rather than the city struggling to be.
McKinney’s book is not a history per se, but a respectable addition to the shelf of historical guidebooks. Her sense of cultural geography is worth considering amidst the painful transition for the musical community, mirroring the city as a whole.
In a chapter titled “Mid-City: The New Bohemia,” she writes that the “real New Orleans” is a “very real jigsaw of neighborhoods, from which arises the close connections between the people.” She reflects on “neighborhood spots that no longer exist, but live on in some people’s memories, namely, Dorothy’s Medallion, a small juke joint on Orleans Avenue off Bayou St. John that closed in 1987.
Dorothy’s Medallion featured black women who danced in cages, including “Mona,” who wrapped a live snake around herself. Big Linda “took the idea of plus-size beauty, weighing approximately 350 pounds, wearing a string bikini, to the limit,” reports McKinney. As one who saw Johnny Adams (aka “the tan canary”) sing there, I can attest that Dorothy’s Medallion did stretch the limits.
As the more successful musicians pack off for Europe, and we mere mortals brood about the late flashes on the Weather Channel, there is comfort in the realization that across the 288-year history of this exotic, maddening, beautiful and battered city, locals made a culture that the great mainstream has come to savor. Thus does New Orleans limp toward new self-definition. No one wants the criminals back. In the manner of the ancient Greeks, I shall pass over the names of certain politicians. But in the aftermath of a mayoral race where debate moments rivaled “Saturday Night Live,” Mona dancing with her snake at Dorothy’s Medallion leaves me with an aching sense of the past.