Will the Jazz Band Play On?

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A worker finds a trumpet near a house and gives it a blow as demolition teams work at leveling as many as 6,000 homes in St. Bernard's Parish damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Of all the things about post-Katrina New Orleans that weigh heavily on the souls of New Orleans musicians, it's the city's silence. It was the first thing legendary jazz pianist Henry Butler noticed when he returned to his hometown after Katrina. Blind, Butler relied on friends to detail the devastation of his Gentilly home, but his other senses served up a potent picture of what had befallen the city.

"You can smell it for miles. Months after it is still there — the stench, the odor of decaying animals, mold from houses, oil and gas, all that fecal matter, all that in the air," Butler said. "One day in December I wound up staying too long and just after dark you could hear the varmints scurrying around. I realized at that moment this wasn't my home anymore."

Butler is now living in Colorado and is just one of an estimated 4,000 musicians and artists — some well-known, others not — who are part of the New Orleans cultural diaspora. Literally blown by the winds and water to the four corners of the compass, they have left their hometown behind, and the question hanging over the city is, how many will return?

The storm has certainly bolstered international interest in the city's greatest cultural asset, already strong in Europe and Asia, and New Orleans musicians are being invited to jazz festivals in Chicago, New York and Washington. But it has also exposed a dark side of the Big Easy, a place critics say where leadership was lacking and corruption endemic, where sustenance for the arts was nonexistent, and it's not at all clear that authentic New Orleans music will survive the storm in the long run.

Those community groups that kept the flame alive, the social aid and pleasure clubs, the Mardi Gras Indian bands and brass bands that played at jazz funerals, have been scattered. Even before Katrina, New Orleans music was in danger as venerable nightspots in the French Quarter were replaced by tourist bars. Music was touted, "Disneyfied," Butler said, but not supported, and Katrina blew apart the social fabric that kept the traditions alive. Michael White, a clarinetist and musical historian at Xavier University, said it was shameful that so many valuable musical collections, like his own, were in private homes and never given pride of place in the city.

The "collective improvisation" that worked to create New Orleans jazz is not a model for the new city, Butler said. "What happens in music doesn't always translate positively and constructively to the rest of life," he said. The city should nurture the arts like other cities do — Chicago's jazz festival, Austin cable music channels, tax incentives for club owners — Butler said.

Efforts are under way. Wynton Marsalis is heading up a major push, dubbed Rebuild the Soul of America. But even before Katrina, New Orleans had only one major Fortune 500 company in town, Entergy, and a subsidiary of that company is now bankrupt. (Critics say new development, like the casinos, has failed to support the arts.) There are well-intentioned volunteer groups like Habitat for Humanity, which is building a musician's village, and clubs like the famed Tipitina's are aiming their musical revival efforts at the city's children, but the city's African-American residents have been the lifeblood of the music, and they have been scattered.

White is one of those, driving a now familiar road between a temporary base in Houston and his shattered ancestral home in New Orleans, when the anguish pours out of him like the summer Gulf Coast rainstorm he is navigating. "The music of New Orleans you hear in the language, the rhythm in the way we walk, the way we gesture. The smells of the food, the way people sit on the stoop, the looks on the faces of the old people as they tell stories, the eccentricities of the way they dress," White said. "But you smell that smell, hear that silence, it speaks of death and doom."

White and Butler were neighbors in Gentilly. Like many of their fellow musicians their homes were temples to their art, filled with tapes and CDs, musical notes and instruments, many cherished after years of restoration and loving care. When word came that Katrina was heading to the city, White said he went to the shores of Lake Pontchatrain. "I spiritually communed with the lake and asked it what should I do and it said, you had better run," White said.

So he went home, gathered up a few of his treasured clarinets, including one depicted in a large painting on the Superdome walls, and evacuated. Like Butler and so many others, when he returned he found his home had stood under nine feet of water for three weeks, and its contents churned and whirled into oblivion.

"I saved myself," he said laughing, but then adds darkly: "But the jury is still out on that." His music has changed and he senses more passion in his work and a greater urgency to speak out about the need to nurture and protect New Orleans jazz.

He is not alone in his newfound sentiments. Pain and anger are running though the veins of many New Orleans musicians these days. Ivan Neville, a member along with Butler of a newly formed group, The New Orleans Social Club, chose to sing an angry Vietnam-era antiestablishment anthem, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," when the group converged in an Austin studio this spring along with several noted New Orleans names. While Ivan has settled in Austin, his father, Aaron Neville, who lost his home, is living in Nashville and cannot go home to his native city yet because he suffers from asthma.

Of course, the bright side of the New Orleans diaspora is that musicians like Neville are enriching the nation's music. Butler expects the disapora to influence sounds across the country. "Maybe five, ten years from now you are going to hear more street beats in their music," Butler said.

Silas Lee, a Xavier University sociologist, has written that New Orleans has a "troubled soul" where racism and poverty hide behind a mask of serenity. White illustrates that reality with the story of a simple ritual he adopted when he sought haven in Houston with his elderly mother and aunt. Before Sunday dinner, they would take a drive and tour the city's schools. "My mother and aunt would end up in tears," White said, "even the worst of the Houston schools were ten times better than any in New Orleans."

For many of New Orleans scattered residents, musicians among them, it may come down to a choice between a city that cares about the daily lives of its residents and one that speaks to its soul. "If I didn't have New Orleans music in my gut I would leave and never come back. My problem is, it is part of my soul, and if I have to go down with the ship, so be it," White said.

An earlier version of this story was incorrect in saying that the parent company Entergy was bankrupt. One of five utility companies owned by Entergy, Entergy New Orleans, Inc. filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 in September, 2005, weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit.