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Katrina Scatters New Orleans' Musicians

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Katrina Scatters New Orleans' Musicians


Katrina Scatters New Orleans' Musicians

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For New Orleans, music is both a way of life and an industry, and like everyone who had to evacuate because of Katrina, the people who made up that industry are now scattered in different parts of the country. Some of them lost everything, including their instruments, and without their base of operations, many of them fear they'll be without income in the months to come. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.


New Orleans' large extended family of musicians has been trying to stay in touch through e-mails and Web sites. There's a photograph that's been making the rounds. It's of blues musician Vasti Jackson in his back yard in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He's standing with his shiny red guitar, and behind him is a monstrous tree that almost looks like a slain dragon.

Mr. VASTI JACKSON (Blues Musician): The huge tree that fell in the back actually fell from our neighbor's property, and it destroyed our rehearsal studio.

BLAIR: Vasti Jackson has seen hurricanes before. He survived Betsy and Camille, so he had more than enough experience to write "Hurricane Season."

(Soundbite of "Hurricane Season")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) The air gets still, y'all, and the noonday turns to night, yes it does, now. Say, the air gets still, noonday turns into night. You know the squirrels start acting crazy and the birds, they won't take flight.

BLAIR: Vasti Jackson knows he's been very lucky with Katrina. His house and family are more or less OK, but it'll be hard for him to work for a while. He had quite a few gigs in New Orleans over the next couple of months that have been canceled. But for the moment, making music isn't his top priority.

Mr. JACKSON: Right now I'm trying to get this tree out of my back yard.

BLAIR: Whenever you talk to someone that's part of the New Orleans music scene, they ask you if you've heard any news about such-and-such musician, or they're eager to tell you who they've heard from.

Mr. JACKSON: Lou Freddie King is fine; he's in Dallas. Henry Butler's fine. (Unintelligible) fine. Raymond Weber is fine. And these are just people that I'm hearing from. ...(Unintelligible) Thomas King is safe. Kirk Bruner's--I'm still--I have a lot of anxiety about a lot of people that I haven't heard from, honestly, people I've worked with for 20 years or more.

BLAIR: There are few places to go to find information about musicians affected by Katrina. Sites like, run by the New Orleans club, and, run by a music historian, are giving status reports as the news comes in. These lists are a who's who of American roots music.

(Soundbite of "Time is On My Side")

Ms. IRMA THOMAS: (Singing) Time is on my side, yes, it is. Time is on my side, yes, it is...

BLAIR: Among the reports on these Web sites, Irma Thomas, the first one to sing The Rolling Stones' hit "Time is On My Side," is OK, but her club, the Lion's Den, is said to be flooded. Singer Charmaine Neville of the famous Neville family had a harrowing experience trying to evacuate and for a while was staying in a shelter. And the Dixie Cups, famous for songs like "Chapel of Love" and "Iko Iko," were not in New Orleans when the storm hit, but they lost just about everything.

(Soundbite of "Iko Iko")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) My grandma and your grandma were sittin' by the fire. My grandma told your grandma, `I'm going to set your flag on fire.' Talkin' about hey now, hey now, hey now, Iko, Iko unday. Jockamo feeno ai nane. Jockamo fee nane.

BLAIR: The big-name musicians from the Gulf region make most of their money touring. But there are many others who depend on the New Orleans music scene for their livelihood. All nine members of the Rebirth Brass Band lost their homes. They fled to Houston, Baton Rouge and Dallas. They managed to regroup to go on a national tour that was scheduled months ago. But Rebirth bandleader Philip Frazier says they earn 75 percent of their income in New Orleans.

Mr. PHILIP FRAZIER (Rebirth Brass Band): People just don't understand, we don't play just in clubs. In New Orleans we have this thing called second lines. We used to do them every Sunday. We play at parties, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, jazz funerals. I mean, at the drop of a hat, you'd have a brass band out playing for anything. This is going to hurt a lot.

BLAIR: Several groups are working to help musicians by finding them clothes, housing, instruments and gigs. One ambitious proposal comes from a musician in Boulder, Colorado. Scott Messersmith, who's originally from New Orleans, wants displaced musicians to relocate there. He went to the Boulder mayor and then to a local housing organization and convinced them to provide more than 25 units for these artists. Messersmith thinks a kind of New Orleans-in-exile would be good for Boulder.

Mr. SCOTT MESSERSMITH (Musician): I know that New Orleans musicians are going to want to stay there, but in the meantime, we've got lots of great venues. We've got lots of great musicians here. We're centrally located. This is a place where, you know, I feel like musicians could come and be quite successful.

BLAIR: Even a New Orleans fixture like deejay Mike Gourrier is trying to imagine a life outside of the city. For 24 years, he's hosted a jazz show at public radio station WWOZ and is known throughout the region as Mr. Jazz. Gourrier's elderly father died at the VA hospital during Katrina. His mother was taken to a hospital in Arkansas. He himself is in Natchez, Mississippi.

Mr. MIKE GOURRIER (Deejay): Because I lost a 30-year collection of music when my house went underwater. I had over 7,000 LPs and almost 10,000 CDs that I've collected over that 30-year period, and it was the meat of my presentations. Unfortunately, things happen. But I'm very optimistic, and the great alto saxophonist Charles McPherson sent me two of his CDs, so that's going to be a start for a new record collection.

BLAIR: Benefits for Hurricane Katrina victims continue. There's one this Saturday at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The concert features celebrities like Bette Midler and James Taylor, alongside such Gulf region musicians as Terence Blanchard and Buckwheat Zydeco.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MONTAGNE: You can hear more music from the artists and links to the Web sites mentioned in this story at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep will be back tomorrow. I'm Renee Montagne.

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