On a Different Coast, New Orleans Jazz Plays On

On a Different Coast, New Orleans Jazz Plays On

Berlau Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal
September 06, 2005

"Well I had to come out and work, because there was housing." That's what <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />New Orleans resident Banu Gibson said half-jokingly at the annual Sweet & Hot Music Festival here. Ms. Gibson, a '20s-style jazz and cabaret singer, kept her commitment to perform near the Pacific Coast less than a week after fleeing the Gulf Coast. She was one of the top acts at the annual Labor Day weekend gathering, which pays tribute to classic jazz and allows musicians to build a following through one-on-one relationships with audience members and peers. But this year, the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city that was the birthplace of the genre obviously put a damper on the celebration.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

A slender redhead in her 50s, Ms. Gibson strongly believes in the saying "the show must go on" and once sang with bronchial pneumonia when she could barely stand. This gig, however, was her hardest by far. "I almost have survivor's guilt being here," she says. "I see all of my city underwater, and I see so many people dead, and I'm sure I know some of them. So it's very difficult to go and perform like this. But there's a great healing power in music."

 

Unlike other musicians at the festival, she had no CDs to sell at her four performances. "When you're evacuating for a hurricane, unless your ego is unbelievably larger than reality, you don't pick things like that up to leave." She had fled New Orleans on Aug. 27 with her husband and two adult children during the evacuation Louisiana organized with Mississippi. She described it as efficient, unlike the bungled federal-state effort after the levee broke. They eventually made their way to St. Louis, where they stayed with friends. Ms. Gibson was planning to return to Missouri after the show.

 

For her first number, she marked recent events with wry humor. "It seemed like I needed to acknowledge that I was working under duress," she says. As she sang the opening lyrics to "There'll Be Some Changes Made" -- "Change in the weather. Change in the sea. From now on, there'll be a change in me..." -- the audience burst into applause.

 

In between shows, many performers and audience members offered assistance to her and other displaced musicians. "Many people have come up and offered their homes and places to stay and money and support and unconditional love, which helps a lot too," Ms. Gibson says.

 

Organizer Wally Holmes, a trumpeter and writer of the '70s soul hit "Rock the Boat," thought there might be a dropoff in attendance because of the New Orleans events. But about 15,000 showed up at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott over the four days of the festival, 1,000 more than last year, he said.

 

Sweet & Hot, in its 12th year, is dedicated to the music of the pre-bebop era, when jazz was synonymous with dancing. Though the festival is not exclusively focused on New Orleans jazz, that city's music has always played a prominent role. As in previous years, a garden area by a ramp that goes to the hotel lobby was renamed "Rampart Street" after the historic jazz center in New Orleans. This year, people were roaming the halls wondering about the fate of musicians such as Fats Domino and Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain -- Mr. Domino is safe -- and taking up collections for the victims.

 

And throughout the performances, there were acknowledgements of the disaster and of New Orleans's contributions to jazz. Herb Jeffries, age 93, who had been a singer with the band of the great Duke Ellington, urged audience members to give and told about meeting New Orleans jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet and hearing about how the music was created. In one of the audience-organized "lobby jams," pianist Brad Kay dedicated "The Pearls" by Jelly Roll Morton to "our friends in New Orleans."

 

Yoshio Toyama, a 61-year-old Louis Armstrong-sound-alike who performs at Tokyo Disney, said that meeting Satchmo in the '60s, after seeing him give a performance in Tokyo, changed his life. Mr. Toyama's good works on behalf of New Orleans started years before Katrina, as he has sent hundreds of instruments to inner-city children in the neighborhoods where Armstrong grew up.

 

Although they keep late hours, jazz musicians can be the most businesslike people around. New Orleans developed as a center of jazz at the turn of the last century precisely because it was a thriving shipping port. More commerce meant more parties and parades and more demand for performers. "Musicians came there, because that's where the work was," says cornetist Jim Cullum, host of NPR's "Riverwalk" and one of the festival's performers. The musicians jammed together and developed what came to be known as jazz.

 

But in the decades since bebop and "modern" jazz emerged in the late 1940s, music snobs have derided New Orleans jazz as unsophisticated. Ms. Gibson hopes one effect of the tragedy will be more respect for those men and women who are continuing the city's musical heritage. "I don't think it's going to be the ugly stepchild attitude toward a lot of musicians, anymore."