New Orleans' Signature Sound Struggles to Recover
TONY COX, host:
It's been nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina, and the city of New Orleans is still recovering. That includes the Big Easy's once vibrant music scene. Among its most famous labels Basin Street Records, formed in 1997. Basin Street reps some of the city's best R&B, funk and jazz artists. So how are they faring now?
I'm joined by Mark Samuels, president of Basin Street Records. And with him is Dr. Michael White, a music historian and jazz clarinetist who's made several albums with Basin Street. Dr. White also teaches at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Welcome to the both of you.
Dr. MICHAEL WHITE (Music Historian, Xavier University; Jazz Clarinetist): Excited to be here, Tony.
Mr. MARK SAMUELS (President, Basin Street Records): Thank you.
COX: Let's start, Dr. White, with you. As a musician and historian, let's talk about music on the ground. Now, we know that the annual Jazz and Heritage Fest is just over. Does that tell us anything, that event, about the state of the music biz in New Orleans in general right now?
Dr. WHITE: Well, we had a lot of local musicians working as we usually do, but a lot of the fans seemed to really support the local music, and that's what really makes the festival, you know, the variety of local musicians and music styles.
COX: Well, you know, Mark, you need a place to hear the music. You need a place to buy your favorite tunes. And so with Tower Records in the French Quarter - a famous venue for its in-store performances - shutting down late last year, that leaves the city without a major record retailer. A Virgin Megastore left the city soon after Katrina. And according to a Wall Street Journal article, it says that you've been working hard to try to establish mobile Web pages for some of your artists. Have you had to think differently about how to use technology since Katrina for both making music and for selling it?
Mr. SAMUELS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we already faced challenges without Katrina as far as, you know, Tower Records and their the bankruptcy and, you know, the various forces that are on all of us who are in the music industry wherever we are in the world. But, you know, here in town, Louisiana Music Factory was - has always been a popular place, and we had our in-store performances there.
Normally, we would have gone to both Tower and Virgin and had in-store performances during Jazz Fest. Of course, right after the storm, we also - we got a nice shot from the digital distribution of music, you know, the - from iTunes and so forth. It was very nice to be sitting at a coffee shop in Austin, for example, where I was evacuated, and simply be able to communicate with people, point them in the direction of digital distribution and know that we were going to be able to have a, you know, a wire transfer from Apple to our bank account with not having to worry about any inventory or anything else that may have been flooded.
COX: Talking about changing technology is one thing, but talking about the changing sound of music is quite another. Dr. White, we associate a certain sound with New Orleans' music. There's no secret to that. Do you hear, though, anything different in what's being created since the disaster, and how would you describe the music now?
Dr. WHITE: Well, you know, a lot of things are different. A lot of musicians have not returned, and some of them are commuting back and forth to New Orleans. I think, in general, there's a more - sense of greater importance given to the music heritage of New Orleans by local musicians. And I think since so many people suffered different degrees of loss and tragedy as a result of Katrina, I think that's affected the music, and some of the music is more passionate and more focused.
And I think - and if there's any good thing to come out of this horrible experience, I think that's one of the things that, for the art of the music, I think we're going to see a growth of new and interesting things in the New Orleans sound in all different genres.
COX: You know, people would assume - I think, understandably so - that perhaps that sound would be a little more dour given what's been going on down there. But what you're describing doesn't sound like that at all.
Dr. WHITE: Well, you know, New Orleans' music encompasses a variety of human passions and emotions, and I think that in every sense of the word. I mean, we're going to see changes. But you know, one of the things that New Orleans' music does is it's really like a way or philosophy of life that teaches us to triumph and celebrate in the face of adversity. So that's one of the things that I think we're going to see coming out of that.
COX: You know, Mark, since Katrina you've been outspoken on social and environmental issues. What price has that cost you, and how has it affected Basin Street and its artists?
Mr. SAMUELS: Well, I mean, I - whenever I speak up, I'm certainly speaking not necessarily for our artists, but I'm speaking with the idea that I want New Orleans to be the great city that it can be - a greater city than it was before. You know, I have to mix my - you know, I have three children, a girlfriend and a dog all living on the upstairs of my house, you know, using a toaster oven and a microwave for the past school year. Well, I'm a fortunate person because I did not have to live in a trailer.
Michael, on the other hand, his house backs up to the London Avenue Canal. He cannot rebuild it at this point. He doesn't know whether he can. So he's had -been forced to commute between Houston and New Orleans. And some people have -you know, have jobs where they have to be in one place. You know, if you're a -you know, your training is something that requires you to be in one spot and you can never go check on your property or never do anything and you're stuck in Houston or Atlanta, you might not have a chance to come back.
So I speak up because I can, because I can run my company from a computer in a coffee shop anywhere in the world. And you know, we do have a physical product and I do have to keep an eye on that periodically and make sure that it's, you know, it borders - or wherever it might be. But I do have the opportunity to do that, and I speak up because I can.
COX: Really quickly. I've got about 10 seconds or so. Do you both maintain a certain hope, not just for the city, but for the sound of the music coming from New Orleans?
Dr. WHITE: Oh definitely. I think it's one of the most important musics in the history of the world, and I think it will triumph.
COX: You feel that way, too, Mark?
Mr. SAMUELS: Yeah. I feel that there is - you know, we have to get people home. We have to get - we have to - and it will be okay if we can get people back to their homes. And that's going to - and improve their education and so forth.
COX: Dr. Michael White is a music historian and jazz clarinetist who's made several albums with Basin Street Records. He joined us from member station KUHF in Houston. Mark Samuels is the president of Basin Street Records, and he joined us from Audioworks in New Orleans.
Gentleman, thank you very much and good luck down there.
Dr. WHITE: Thank you, Tony.
Mr. SAMUELS: Thank you very much. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.