Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots have the crowd at the House of Blues rocking as the group pounds out “Iko-Iko,” a New Orleans standard with Creole lyrics and an irresistible beat.
The first night of Carnival is under way in the French Quarter, and the club is filling up for a long evening of music, with three more acts to follow. In the less touristy Marigny neighborhood, jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis is starting a slightly more sedate set at popular Snug Harbor.
Four months after Katrina hit, New Orleans is making music again. “So far, it's gone better than I would have thought, given the total lack of tourism,” says Barry Smith, proprietor of the Louisiana Music Factory, where CDs and vinyl records of New Orleans artists account for some three-quarters of the stock of jazz, blues and gospel artists — both world-renowned and known only to locals. “I've definitely experienced a big increase in the number of local customers coming to the store, and a lot of the people who came here to work — from construction workers to Red Cross volunteers.”
Legendary jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis is a popular performer in Old New Orleans, which was largely spared by the flooding. (Courtesy www.ellismarsalis.com)
Few if any places in the United States come even close to New Orleans as an incubator of musical style and talent. As far back as 1819, a visitor wrote about the African music being played at Congo Square. And by the early 20th century, a musical tradition had formed in which Louis Armstrong — arguably the century's most influential musician — came of age.
“All American music in the 20th century was profoundly shaped and influenced by New Orleans music,” Tom Piazza writes in Why New Orleans Matters.
The career of famed musician/producer Allen Toussaint illustrates the city's musical power. Toussaint wrote such 1960s hits as “Mother in Law” and produced and arranged the 1973 hit “Right Place, Wrong Time” for fellow New Orleans resident “Dr. John,” as well as the disco standard “Lady Marmelade.”
“He helped invent things we take as everyday in music — certain beats, certain arrangements,” his partner in a record label said recently.
Toussaint fled New Orleans after Katrina and has spoken optimistically of the city's future prospects. But away from the club scene and music stores, the future looks less bright.
That's because the city's music springs from the very streets that Katrina emptied — the fabled “social aid and pleasure clubs,” fraternal organizations that sponsor the Mardi Gras “Indian tribes,” as well as the brass-band funeral processions that nourished jazz. All these influential institutions are maintained by people who mostly live paycheck to paycheck, says Michael White, a clarinetist and music scholar who holds an endowed chair in arts and humanities at New Orleans' Xavier University.
The New Orleans establishment recognizes the problem. “Financial losses for social aid and pleasure clubs, Mardi Gras Indian tribes and [brass band] second-line companies are conservatively estimated at over $3 million,” the Bring New Orleans Back Commission reports.
“These were poor people, but people who spent a lot of money on these events,” says White, a New Orleans native who comes from a long line of musicians. “The thing of money is serious. If people don't have jobs, they're not going to be able to participate.”
White himself suffered another kind of loss — his vast collection of vintage instruments and memorabilia that included a trumpet mouthpiece from jazz saint Sidney Bechet; 4,000 rare CDs and even rarer vinyl recordings; photographs of New Orleans musical legends and notes and tapes of interviews with musicians who have since died. All were stored at his house — and it's all gone.
Is resurrecting an entire popular culture any more possible than restoring White's collection? “It's not like there's a central entity that can be rebuilt,” says Piazza. “What steps can be taken to repatriate as many members of the African-American community and other communities — people who don't have the same kinds of resources as others to come back and rebuild, or who lived in areas where logistical challenges to rebuilding are all but insurmountable? That is the most difficult question about cultural renewal.”