New Orleans Gets Its Groove Back

Hurricane Katrina wove a destructive path through New Orleans six years ago today. But the city's lifeblood — its music — remains strong. Host Michel Martin speaks with Keith Spera, author of Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal and the Music of New Orleans, and Irvin Mayfield, who played jazz at a city-wide benefit concert more than a month after the hurricane. At that point, he wasn't aware that he had lost his father in the storm.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up: As the Islamic holy month draws to a close for this year, we've asked one of our regular contributors to share his reflections on what it means to him to observe Ramadan. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to reflect on an event that profoundly changed one of this nation's distinct cities. Six years ago today, Hurricane Katrina wove a destructive path through New Orleans. After the hurricane and the failure of the levees, entire neighborhoods were demolished, lives were lost, livelihoods were ruined. It seemed that the so-called birthplace of jazz became the setting for a city-wide jazz funeral. So if you want to understand just how New Orleans got its groove back, you will want to listen to its music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MO' BETTER BLUES")

MARTIN: That's "Mo' Better Blues," with Ellis Marsalis on piano and Irvin Mayfield on the trumpet. And Irvin Mayfield joins us now. He is an official cultural ambassador for the city of New Orleans, trumpet player, as you heard, and the founder and director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Also with us, Keith Spera. He's the music critic for the New Orleans Times Picayune. He's the author of the new book "Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans." Gentlemen, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

IRVIN MAYFIELD: Thanks for having us.

KEITH SPERA: Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: Mr. Spera, you call your book "Groove Interrupted," not groove gone or groove ended. Make your case for us.

SPERA: As the title says, it was interrupted, certainly. The city was silent for a number of weeks and months after the storm. I think it was not until October of 2005 that an act from out of town actually came back to play in New Orleans. But now, fast forward six years later, if you were to walk along Frenchmen Street or stop into any of the clubs, you'd be hard-pressed, I think, to know that anything happened. I mean, music is as vibrant and as omnipresent as it was before the storm.

MARTIN: Is it your argument that music is the revival, or that music led the revival?

SPERA: Hmm. It's both. It was certainly the soundtrack to the revival. It was something for folks to rally around. You know, Irvin Mayfield played a gig at Christ Church Cathedral here in New Orleans in November of 2005, just a couple of months after the storm. And I remember being there for that show. And there were maybe a thousand people in the cathedral. And the collective expression of sadness and joy and resolve that was in that room was incredible to feel. I mean, you felt it wash over the audience. Early on, in some of the somber pieces, folks didn't know whether or not they should applaud or not. It didn't feel appropriate. But then as the momentum built, as Irvin and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra built toward the up-tempo pieces, the applause came in waves.

MARTIN: I think you make a good point, Mr. Spera, and I think many people may forget just what a difficult and emotional time that was on a personal level for so, so many people. Mr. Mayfield, you know, you were certainly a part of that. And as Mr. Spera mentioned, you were leading this concert at the very time your own father was missing. And I just - forgive me, but I just have to ask you how you got through it.

MAYFIELD: Well, you know, people get through things. I think the real question is not, you know, in terms of getting through it, really, you know, how we get through it. There's so many different options. And I think for New Orleans, I think we're really an example for getting through something using the tools that are really available to us. You know, the music is a tool. Music gives us an opportunity to share beautiful experiences. So when you have those beautiful experiences, like I had with my father, you get through challenges by going back to those moments. And when the loss of my father occurred, I became even more resolved in making the city celebrate with beauty that is true to New Orleans.

MARTIN: Do you mind, though - I was just wondering what was going through your mind. Do you remember?

MAYFIELD: Yeah. Well, you know, at that point in time, you know, we didn't know what the situation was. I played the concert, and we found out he was a victim of drowning the very next day. And it...

MARTIN: Do you mind if I say I'm so sorry?

MAYFIELD: I appreciate that. It was a large moment for everybody, because whether you lost a father or person, the tremendous loss, community loss is very hard to verbalize. But it's interesting. Although you lose a lot - and I wonder if Keith would agree with this - I think you do gain something. And we - it's interesting, we have gained something. And I think the thing I would say I gained from the loss of my dad is that I understand what the value of our relationship really is because it will never ever go away. It's permanently inside my heart forever.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, do you mind? I have a short clip from the performance. Would that be okay?

MAYFIELD: Oh, please.

MARTIN: All right. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Wow. Keith Spera, you write that accompanied only by his old friend Ronald Markham on piano, his touch and tones, speaking of Mr. Mayfield, were subdued, reverent and gorgeous. More than one listener cried. I can certainly understand that.

SPERA: I think I may have been one of them, actually. You know, that's the thing I mean Irvin and many other musicians in the city were able to tap into that emotion and help the rest of us express it and gather resolve around ourselves to press on. And, you know, talking about the theme of, you know, what was lost and what was gained, I think Irvin would agree with this, you know, there's no amount of career and commercial advancement that can make up for the personal loss that a lot of folks suffered.

But on the flipside, in the storm's wake, so much more attention was paid to music in New Orleans that it proved to be an enormous really boom for a lot of musicians here in town.

MAYFIELD: The only thing I would add to that is that I agree. But I think that the real attention was paid by the musicians. We've always historically been a city that didn't believe enough I truly believe in ourselves. And when the fight of whether or not this city should be reopened because maybe it didn't make sense to have a city in this place, the resolve from the community, the neighborhood people, the night ward folks, the "Treme" folks, the musicians, the artists, the everybody was like we're going to live here. We don't give a damn whether there is a levee breach. We don't care if there - bring five other hurricanes, this city is important to us. And I think when people saw that it became important to America.

MARTIN: In a way Mr. Mayfield, you seem to be saying it's not that the music led to recovery, the musicians led it.

MAYFIELD: I believe that truly what has made New Orleans a great city in the first place has never really been the architecture, the food or the music; it really is the individuals who are doing it. I mean as much trumpet as Louis Armstrong played and as many films - I mean it's something about that personality that people just have always gravitated towards. And he would be kind of the spiritual embodiment of what the city is about.

MARTIN: That's jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. We're also speaking with - we're speaking with him and music critic Keith Spera. He's the author of the new book "Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal and the Music of New Orleans." Keith, one of the points you make in the book is New Orleans isn't just one style or genre of music. People want to often say it is this, it's Fats Domino, it's Aaron Neville, it's Mystikal, Juvenile. But you're saying it's all. Certainly, the Jazz & Heritage Festival is known for showcasing the diverse lineup of musicians. But in the book you have a whole chapter on the scramble to pull off the Jazz Fest the April after Katrina. Why are you laughing?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPERA: Because it was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPERA: That was Irvin. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: That was Irvin?

SPERA: Yeah. It was an incredible effort. You know, normally they start booking the acts for the next year's Jazz Fest in September of the previous year. So you think about it, September of 2005, New Orleans was empty, like literally, it was closed. So for those guys to start thinking about having a jazz festival the following spring and putting literally millions of dollars on the line, it was a huge risk. And remarkably, you know, they pulled it off. Some corporate sponsors stepped up to help and they started getting some big names to commit. They got Jimmy Buffett to sign on and they got Dave Matthews, Dave Matthews Band to sign on. And in a huge coup, they got Bruce Springsteen to use the jazz fest as the debut American performance of his Seeger Sessions Band.

And as I write in the book, you know, that performance that spring was a watershed moment literally in the city's recovery.

MAYFIELD: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, unfortunately, I'm sorry, I wish I had that clip. But what I did want to point out is the way in which many people, artists, musicians, not just closely identified with New Orleans, but many artists rallied to support the festival because it was a way to say what New Orleans means to us and what it means to the country. Just one example of that I do have a clip of is that Fats Domino was supposed to close out the festival but he couldn't do to illness. So Lionel Richie jumped into the breach and amped up the crowd with an old favorite, not necessarily identified with New Orleans, but here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRICK HOUSE")

LIONEL RICHIE: (Singing) She's a brick - come on - house. Say what? Hey. She's mighty-mighty, just let it all hang out. She's a brick - oh my god, house. Like the lady's stacked, that's a fact, ain't holding nothing back, y'all. Aw. She's a brick...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MAYFIELD: Oh, we all remember that girl from high school.

MARTIN: I was going to say who - but you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPERA: No. You're right though, Lionel stepped into the breach and filled in for Fats Domino as the culminating act of the landmark 2006 Jazz Festival, and it was a lot of fun. I mean that, you know, Fats was on the commemorative poster. Everyone would've loved to have seen the New Orleans legend close it out but, you know, God bless Lionel for doing a good job.

MARTIN: Six years from now Irvin, what do you think we'll be talking about?

MAYFIELD: I think we'll be talking about one of the greatest periods in America's art history. I think that the level of art that is being created in New Orleans right now is unparallel in my opinion, in terms of coming out of the community - people living in a city and writing about a city, loving a city and creating new songs about a city, challenging the 300-year tradition of a city. I can't even imagine, maybe times 1,000 in terms of creativity six years from now.

MARTIN: Well, spoken like the cultural ambassador you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Go ahead, Keith, you had a final thought?

SPERA: Well, I tell you it is. It is an exciting time to write about the creative arts in New Orleans, I mean for me covering it at the paper and also in the book. I mean there is so much going on. And as you said earlier, it takes on so many different forms - from rappers to rockers, to rhythm and blues guys. It's all part of...

MAYFIELD: Jazz guys.

SPERA: Jazz guys, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPERA: There's a couple of trumpet players here and there. All these people in the book, you know, they've all faced challenges - including Katrina - but they've all kept on making music.

MARTIN: So Irvin, before we let you go, can you suggest, maybe suggest a piece of music that we could go out on? What do you think?

MAYFIELD: You know, I would select one of the tunes that is a part of a new record I released called "A Love Letter to New Orleans." And my suggestion would be a track called "The Mardi Gras Second Line," with Kermit Ruffins, myself, Los Hombres Calientes, Bill Summers, Trombone Shorty, the Rebirth Brass Band. It's like 50 million people, everybody and their mom on that one session. Keith might have even been in the back somewhere singing. I don't...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPERA: You don't want that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Irvin Mayfield is a trumpet player, so we hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And the founder and director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. He is also a cultural ambassador for the city of New Orleans. Keith Spera is a music critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is the author of the new book "Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal and the Music of New Orleans." And they were both kind enough to join us from the Crescent City, New Orleans. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

MAYFIELD: Thanks for having us.

SPERA: Thank you, Michel.

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