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Life Far from Easy for New Orleans Musicians
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Life Far from Easy for New Orleans Musicians

Katrina & Beyond

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

When you talk about musicians in New Orleans post Katrina, the number fifteen hundred comes in handy. Fifteen hundred musicians are said to be in town doing reasonably well. Another fifteen hundred are back, but unstable, crashing with relatives or cramming into trailers. And there are another fifteen hundred who may never come back. Those figures are from Sweet Home New Orleans, a foundation setup to coordinate help for musicians.

NPR's Noah Adams has the story of some New Orleans players from the first group, those who were doing okay: a veteran pianist and two college students.

NOAH ADAMS: Here is a scene that could stay with you like it's from a movie. A nursing home in Slidell, Louisiana, a band has come out from town to play. The wheelchairs rolled into the hallway. It's rhythm and blues, a full band, and they play it loud.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Eddie Bo is in the house. His roadie wears a t-shirt that says, legendary pianist, Eddie Bo.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: He has been well known in this part of the Gulf Coast, and some of the residents in this home surely danced to Eddie Bo hits decades ago. Songs like "Funky Jam" and "Check Your Bucket."

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: I'm watching one man who doesn't have any expression. But then he gets up from his wheelchair - I'm afraid he'll fall. He's wearing a t-shirt and maroon pajama pants and slippers, and he shuffles out and starts to dance. One of the workers delighted takes his hands and joins him. Eddie Bo behind the keyboard calls out, all right, I see you. As if, yeah, we got to be reminding ourselves this is what music is for.

Eddie Bo, the last name is Bocage. And here's what he sounds like in the studio these days. He was on a New Orleans tribute C.D. after Katrina - a sweet older voice, strong piano.

(Soundbite of song "When the Saints Go Marching In")

Mr. EDDIE BO (Musician): (Singing) When the saints go marching in. When the saints, yeah, yeah, go marching in. Lord I want to be in that number, yeah. When the saints, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, go marching on in.

ADAMS: Eddie Bo was born in 1930. And he says when he was in the womb, he was listening to his mother play the piano.

Mr. BO: She played while I was in there. She played a style of junker, like Professor Longhair.

ADAMS: Junker piano, they called it, the banging around Creole sound Professor Longhair - James Booker. Eddie Bo added later touches of Art Tatem and Oscar Peterson. He tells me he had a wonderful childhood. He made his first dollar playing at age nine in church. At weekend house parties in the neighborhood, people would line up to get on the piano.

Later, there was one special club, The Dew Drop Inn. He and his friends wouldn't leave, he says, Friday, Saturday and Sunday until the sun came up. The Dew Drop had a hotel upstairs and famous musicians would use it as a home base.

Mr. BO: Yeah. I remember Ray Charles singing, and he was crying, and his mother had just died maybe a year or so. And he was crying. He was playing, "If I Could Only Hear My Mother Pray Again." And I said, I really got to get - the things he was doing and the chord progressions. And it was from his heart, not from any school. You can't learn things like that in school.

ADAMS: Eddie Bo went on to release more '45 records than any other New Orleans musician except Fats Domino. He worked with Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, Irma Thomas. He even had his own place called the Check Your Bucket Café. Now, his regular venues are gone or overbooked. Musicians in town often now work for far less money, sometimes just for what shows up in the tip jar.

Eddie Bo does get paid for the nursing home gigs. Funding comes from a jazz foundation out of New York. He's played eight of these dates since the storm. And this fall, he's off to Europe and Australia.

Mr. BO: The people love us in Europe. They love the New Orleans musicians. And when we go, we'd to make money. We got to eat.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREG AGID (Musician; Student, College of Music and Fine Arts, Loyola University): It's different just in the sense that you don't have the same opportunity to see the same things that they were before the storm. You don't have the same opportunity to walk down Rampart Street and go into the Funky Butt.

ADAMS: Greg Agid is from New Orleans. He's a part-time waiter, teacher, clarinet player, full-time jazz student at Loyola University here.

Agid says something refreshing has come from the Katrina evolution. Says you can see it at the downtown club called Snug Harbor.

Mr. AGID: Before the storm, the clubs like Snug Harbor, there were certain set, 20 musicians who played. And since the storm, it's a new 20 musicians that played, it's a new scene, it's a new group of people.

ADAMS: One of Greg Agid's housemates is Meghan Swartz, a pianist from Seattle, also in the jazz program at Loyola. Both she and Greg will most likely leave the city after graduating, leave for the bigger modern jazz markets of Los Angeles or New York. Both will treasure, though, their time in New Orleans. Meghan loves getting up to play in the clubs after the last set is finished.

Ms. MEGHAN SWARTZ (Student, College of Music and Fine Arts, Loyola University): Everyone really does want to pass the tradition on here. People who don't have this attitude that everything always needs to come across perfectly at the performances and stuff, it's - at the end of the night, it's just the matter of everyone having fun and showing each other what they've got. And I think that's awesome.

ADAMS: And Greg Agid tells the story of his spotlight chance on stage with a longtime teacher, the late Alvin Batiste.

Mr. AGID: At school one day, he goes, hey, I got, I got a, I got to play tonight, so bring your horn. So I've brought my horn. I'm sitting upstairs. And he, you know, he just introduces - he gives this big introduction to me, and I was so scared.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGID: And we, you know, he loved me and he brought me up. But I feel like if you live to New York and he brings - someone brings you up on stage, they're doing it to show - they can show you how immature and how young you are.

ADAMS: Greg Agid, Meghan Swartz, jazz students at Loyola University. For these two and others looking ahead, there's also the uncertainty of New Orleans.

Eddie Bo told me at the end of our talk with the songwriter's gleam in his eye, you know Katrina has a sister. He meant another storm is coming. And he said, she's worse than Katrina.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIGEL: You can hear more music from Eddie Bo including his song "Check Mr. Popeye" at npr.org.

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