A pandemic, then a hurricane, brings New Orleans musicians 'to their knees'

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A pandemic, then a hurricane, brings New Orleans musicians 'to their knees'
Damage from Hurricane Ida at Preservation Hall, a jazz venue in New Orleans, Sept. 4, 2021. A few historic jazz sites were damaged in the storm. But the bigger blows struck artists and clubs struggling to get back to business after COVID-19 shutdowns. Johnny Milano/The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Hurricane Ida swept through New Orleans late last month, it took a piece of history with it. The Karnofsky Tailor Shop and Residence, a decrepit red brick building that had served as a kind of second home for Louis Armstrong during his boyhood in the early 1900s, was reduced to rubble.

At the Little Gem Saloon next door, where some of the first jazz gigs were played, a three-story-tall mural paying homage to pioneering cornetist Buddy Bolden was also ruined.

Most of the city’s active music venues fared far better, suffering minor roof and water damage. But the storm was only the latest in a series of blows to the people and places that make up the jazz scene, in a city that stakes its identity on live music.

“We’ve been without work for over 18 months now,” Big Sam Williams, a trombonist and bandleader, said from his home in the Gentilly neighborhood. “It’s a struggle and we’re just barely making it.”

Doug Trager, who manages the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood, said that after 446 days of shutdown because of COVID-19, “we were just getting going” again before Ida hit. Now that the storm has created another setback, he said, “we’ll just try to keep waiting it out.”

It has now been a year and a half since the pandemic first prompted a citywide moratorium on indoor performances. On Aug. 16, the city imposed a mandate requiring all patrons at bars and clubs to be vaccinated or recently tested for COVID-19, seeming to open the door to a new phase of reopening.

But as the delta variant surged, the city’s two major jazz festivals, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and French Quarter Fest, both already pushed back from their usual springtime schedule, were called off. That meant that, for the second year in a row, musicians would have to do without the most active period of their work year, when hordes of tourists arrive for the festivals and spillover gigs at clubs often provide enough work for area performers to pay the rent for months.

A week and a half after the storm, many in the city’s live-music business say they will not be resting easy, even after things come back online.

In interviews, local advocates said that zoning laws had long made small venue operators’ lives difficult, and that neighborhood clubs have run into needless red tape during the pandemic as the city has sometimes enforced strict permitting regulations around outdoor entertainment.

“They’re counting on the continued presence of the culture bearers and the musicians, and they’re mistaken this time,” said Ashlye Keaton, a co-founder of the Ella Project, which provides legal assistance to and agitates on behalf of New Orleans artists. “The storm, coupled with COVID, has brought musicians to their knees.”

While some venues have survived since March 2020 with substantial help from federal grants, including the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, other small and vulnerable clubs, particularly those nestled in the city’s working-class neighborhoods, often lacked the capacity or the wherewithal to apply. Many have held on largely thanks to fundraisers and whatever performances they can safely pull off without raising the hackles of regulators and neighbors.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the city will continue to enforce permitting for outdoor live entertainment events on a temporary basis, pointing out that the mayor had lifted its usual cap on those permits during the pandemic.

“The Department of Safety & Permits fully supports and is actively working with partners in the City Council to enact legislation which balances the desire for outdoor entertainment, supports local artists and venues as well as preserves the quality of life for the neighbors and residents of each community,” the statement says.

Preservation Hall, the 60-year-old landmark in the well-protected French Quarter, appeared to have suffered minimal damage in Hurricane Ida, and is slated to reopen once power is restored. Tipitina’s, a concert hall uptown, located closer to the water, will require some repairs to its roof.

The New Orleans Jazz Market, a stately performance center in Central City, appears to have held up well, but it was forced to significantly postpone its programming nonetheless — just days after what was supposed to have been a triumphant reopening for its fall 2021 season.

“This is very reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, and what we went through during that time, and I know a lot of New Orleans musicians are displaced,” said drummer Adonis Rose, the artistic director of the Jazz Market and leader of its resident big band, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. He called the storm a “tragedy, when we were just starting to see some glimmer of hope.”

Kermit Ruffins, a renowned trumpeter who runs Kermit’s Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge, said Monday that the electricity had just come back on at the popular neighborhood club, and he planned to get the place ready to rock.

During the pandemic, Ruffins' club served as a gathering spot and a kind of improvised community cafeteria. He moved concerts outside to the club’s patio, and cooked free meals of red beans and rice for residents of the surrounding Tremé neighborhood, and for musicians who were out of work.

“I figured if I cooked for myself, I’d cook for the neighborhood,” Ruffins said.

Howie Kaplan, the proprietor of the Howlin’ Wolf, a venue in downtown New Orleans, also began providing meals and other services to musicians in the early days of the pandemic. The program was subsumed into the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic earlier this year; he restarted it at the Howlin’ Wolf last month, in response to Hurricane Ida.

“We’ve got a James Beard Award-winning chef on the grill right now, making these fantastic steaks that came from who knows where,” Kaplan said, adding that restaurants had come to donate food that they wouldn’t be able to prepare because of the power outage.

Shortly after Hurricane Ida passed over the city, Jordan Hirsch — the editor of the online resource A Closer Walk, which provides detailed information on New Orleans' heritage sites — set out to determine how the city’s most vulnerable music landmarks had held up.

When he got to the Karnofsky shop, on South Rampart Street downtown, he saw that the building had become wreckage and the Bolden mural nearby had crumbled. But other equally old jazz landmarks along the block, the former Eagle Saloon and the Iroquois Theater, had miraculously pulled through. All four structures are on the national historic register; it’s safe to say that no single block in the United States today houses more early jazz history.

A Cleveland-based developer, GBX Group, recently bought out most of the addresses on the street, and plans to rebuild it into a center of commerce that will also trumpet its role in jazz history. After the storm, GBX hired workers to collect the Karnofsky shop’s bricks, said its CEO, Drew Sparacia, hoping to at least partially rebuild the structure using the original materials.

But Hirsch asked why the city had not done more to demand that the owners of these historic places, which to the outside observer appear to be mostly abandoned, keep them protected from the elements.

“Tropical storms and hurricanes were sort of a constant threat for those buildings,” Hirsch said. “People have been sounding that alarm for 30 years.”

Some other sites that made it through Hurricane Ida remain deeply endangered, according to preservationists. John McCusker, a jazz historian and photojournalist who has worked to preserve historic buildings in the city, said that Bolden’s former home in Central City and the old Dew Drop Inn — a midcentury music venue, hotel and community hub — were both in states of relative disrepair.

McCusker lamented that the sites’ landlords hadn’t been compelled to restore and preserve the buildings.

“We have this wealth of these buildings connected to the birth of this music, and the mechanisms of government have just proven maladroit at protecting them with the same vigor that they would enforce an inappropriate shutter in the French Quarter,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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