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Big Easy's Hard Recovery

A music writer's pilgrimage to New Orleans finds devastation and hope.

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But spend time in New Orleans these days and you learn that media coverage of the flood disaster is the tip of the iceberg. Pictures and words fail to convey the destruction and abandonment. This part of the world has changed forever; the storm six months ago sealed that deal. Drive out from the French Quarter or parts of Uptown, out to Lake Pontchartrain, out to the poor rural eastern communities, through the deserted rubble of the Lower Ninth Ward and down through Mid-City, and you'll find nothing but heartbreak. The town lies rotting, block after block, mile after mile. Gutted houses stand desolate and night brings an eerie darkness to much of the city.

Now is the time positive citywide changes could be made, but there appears precious little financial help in the offing. Political leadership is a well-acknowledged joke. Time has stopped in this ravaged town — not in a merry way like it did in days past, but in desperate, overwhelming confusion.

Jan Ramsey, publisher of New Orleans' OffBeat music magazine, is devastated as she describes the trauma: "It's really frustrating. Things are still very insecure here. You just can't get a clue until you actually see it. We really need help here."

But amidst the sadness, there are signs people are pulling together. Some lucky enough to have homes are slowly returning to them. Restaurants are reopening, though most operate with shorter hours, clueless waiters and one-page menus. Clubs are open, and though many musicians were forced to leave town, those who remain have a curiously positive outlook. Musicians and club owners say they are starting the long haul to restore the magic the town has lost.

Reggie Scanlan, bass player in tonight's house band and member of the long-running New Orleans party band The Radiators, is upbeat about the future. He's not soft-pedaling the horrors that engulf this city, but he roots for his beloved town.

"Even people who have lost a lot of stuff, they want to come back," Scanlan says. "There's a lot of people who are very positive. … It's going to take a lot of work. Nobody's kidding themselves about that."

Scanlan also explains that younger players who had a tough time breaking into the club circuit pre-Katrina are now working. He also says crowds may be smaller, but the hard-core locals who show are ready to party.

"The scene is picking up," he says. "Obviously, it's not like it used to be, [but] they're ready to dance and they want to have music. It's like anything that's healing. It's a slow process."

On the flip side, Scanlan acknowledges that club gigs don't pay well, and the lack of conventions and society parties means a musician's take is slim. With landlords doubling their rents, long-term housing for musicians — or, for that matter, the waiters, cooks and hotel housekeepers this city traditionally depends on — is a huge problem.

But club owners and players say they're hoping Mardi Gras and the Jazz and Heritage Festival in April and May will be economic and spiritual turning points. These traditional events will give the world a chance to see that this city by the Gulf is not finished.

Over in Mid-City, in a flood-ravaged area, businessman John Blancher is one of those who predict a "huge" Jazz Fest. For 16 years, Blancher has booked zydeco and rhythm-and-blues shows at his Rock 'n' Bowl bowling alley/music club. He's confident that the Fest will help fill the empty French Quarter streets and give the town a boost.

"By springtime, there's going to be a curiosity factor," Blancher says. "I know there's so much love and respect [for Louisiana music] from people around the world. If they think they can come and lend a hand they will."

Blancher says he's seen positive signs at his venue since its November reopening. For one, there's a better racial mix at his zydeco dances because the Ninth Ward neighborhood clubs were unfortunately destroyed. He also says there are signs that a stronger New Orleans brass band tradition is taking root with young blacks now that "the urban [gangsta] culture that was engulfing New Orleans tradition is gone."

But he says hard decisions remain: "I think they're making strides, [but] politics is going to determine if we can pull out. This is a freakin' mess. Drastic things need to be done, [and] people need to let go emotionally. You can't just keep holdin' on. Honestly, [Katrina] accelerated by 50 years what was going to happen."

Like Blancher, Jason Patterson, longtime booking manager for Snug Harbor, a venerable neighborhood jazz club near the Quarter, thinks Jazz Fest will work. He agrees that critical housing issues "will be with us for a while," and there is no quick fix to this mess. But Patterson believes tourists are ready to return even if hotels and eateries are struggling with the basics.

"I think people want to come down … and be supportive, and a lot of others are just curious," he says. "I think accommodations will be maxed out [for Jazz Fest]."

OffBeat's Ramsey remains hopeful as well despite her frustrations. She recalls a recent awards show sponsored by her magazine that brought musicians back to town to celebrate and describes it as a memorable night that reunited old friends.

"I think people are hopeful," she says. "But I live in a kind of strange world. I live in a music world."

Later this Wednesday night, across town at the d.b.a. bar near the Quarter, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, a local music scene staple since the '70s, ends another gig. Washington knows well that strange musical world Ramsey speaks of, and he too believes that somehow the power of community and music will help New Orleans forge a new day. He's on the same page as many in his world.

"It's gonna be fine," the guitarist says quietly. "Cats come back and do what they supposed to do: Just to let you know there are nice people here in New Orleans. It's like a new beginning in New Orleans. A new beginning." S

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