Upping the Tempo

Concern about the future of New Orleans music has spawned relief agencies dedicated to helping some of the city's most valuable resources.


It's happy hour on a Friday afternoon at Tipitina's, but the crowd isn't drinking. The bar isn't even open. The 75 or so people seated near the stage and milling around the fringes of the semi-circle of chairs have gathered for the inaugural meeting of the New Orleans Music Coalition. Tipitina's General Manager Adam Shipley forgot to set up a microphone, so the attendees speak loudly when they introduce themselves as club talent buyers, magazine publishers, lawyers and representatives of one music-related organization or another. Some represent classical music, others ballet, but all are at Tipitina's because they share concerns about New Orleans' indigenous music culture.

As the attendees introduce themselves, they explain what they can offer musicians and the coalition. One does Web design and can offer computer support to those who need it. Another teaches and can provide students as interns. The conversation is extremely genial; no one seems to be pushing his or her own agenda. Instead, the crowd seems united behind the notion that the city's second-line culture and musical traditions are an integral part of New Orleans' future.

The concern is how to help those responsible for keeping the traditions alive.

One of the first and largest organizations in the hurricane relief effort is MusiCares, the national charitable arm of the Recording Academy, which sponsors the Grammy Awards. The Recording Academy set up the MusiCares Hurricane Relief Fund to meet the needs of Gulf Coast musicians affected by the storm. Many of those musicians were already accustomed to having to scrape by. MusiCare's assistance came just in time.

"I was pretty flabbergasted when MusiCares sent me a huge check so I could get some basic stuff so I could play some shows in Lafayette," Bailey Smith of the Morning 40 Federation says. He had evacuated to Grand Coteau and didn't have any amplifiers. "I needed a PA. I heard about it at the (New Orleans) Musicians' Clinic, signed up, and they sent me this huge check in two weeks. It was amazing."

Local agencies were less prepared for their new mission and had to adapt quickly. When Michelle Gegenheimer introduces herself at the Tipitina's meeting as the administrative director of the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic (NOMC), she says that the clinic's mission has changed since it temporarily relocated to Lafayette. The clinic still provides medicals referrals and helps musicians fill their prescriptions, but for the most part Gegenheimer has turned her attention to helping musicians meet other needs. After the hurricane, the NOMC presented musicians with checks for $200 for immediate living expenses, and it recently distributed Wal-Mart debit cards (also valued at $200 each) to musicians to cover the costs of Thanksgiving dinners for their families.

While the NOMC started in 1998, a host of local agencies emerged in the wake of Katrina to help musicians. The new groups include Project HEAL, the Backbeat Fund, and the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund (NOMHRF). The latter was created less than 72 hours after Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29. Preservation Hall director Ben Jaffe applied for 501(c)(3) status for the fund and gained approval within a week.

According to chief administrator Jordan Hirsch, the NOMHRF provides immediate financial assistance for New Orleans musicians. The group has provided checks for $300, but has also established the New Orleans Community Leader Grants with an eye toward helping the music community grow. That program provides an initial payment of $3,000 (and possibly more money later) for musicians and businesses that the fund's board of directors deemed essential to maintaining the city's jazz, R&B and second-line traditions. Big Chiefs Bo Dollis, Monk Boudreaux and Donald Harrison have all received this grant to help keep the Mardi Gras Indian tradition alive; the Louisiana Music Factory and Ernie K-Doe's Mother-In-Law Lounge have also received grants because of the roles they play in the community. NOMHRF budgeted for 50 Community Leader Grants initially, but hopes to fund another 25 by the end of the year.

"We've given out in the neighborhood of $250,000," Hirsch says. Some of the money has come from selling "Renew Orleans" T-shirts online, but the majority has come from private donations from foundations and individuals. Many benefit shows targeted NOMHRF as a beneficiary, and one benefit in Atlanta brought in $25,000. There have been events as far away as England, Australia and Florence, Italy.

Gegenheimer says the NMOC has likewise received donations from all over the world, including a recent benefit in Paris. "I think I have fielded over 600 emails all from people saying, 'I did a fundraiser last week. Where do I send the money?'" Gegenheimer says.

Some well-meant offers of help have been harder to use. Donna Santiago is the general administrator of the Backbeat Fund, a relief effort sponsored by the Backstreet Cultural Museum. She recalls people getting in touch with her expressing interest in "adopting" a band.

"When I asked about housing, they said, 'We have a house' as if the whole band lives together," Santiago says. "That's not realistic. They have kids and families."

In general, though, Santiago's experiences have been encouraging: "Papa Mali called and asked, 'How can I help you?'" The Telluride Blues Festival donated $10,000, and local group Brotherhood of Groove toured the North and gave half of the tour's proceeds to the fund. Others gave what they could. Someone found out that the Treme Brass Band's Charles Joseph had lost his trombone, so he was sent a new one.

Santiago, who is on the board of directors for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, fell into the hurricane-relief business. She evacuated to Dallas, but soon started getting calls from musicians who had also evacuated to Texas and needed gas money or a place to stay. While helping them, she asked herself, "If New Orleans is recreated as a modern American city like Dallas, what can we do to make sure that doesn't happen?"

For these and other charities dedicated to musicians' relief, the challenge is how to adjust to a constantly changing landscape. Project HEAL (Helping Employ Artists Locally), for example, started in Lafayette a week after Katrina in association with the Acadiana Arts Council to help meet musicians' immediate needs. Project director Matthew Goldman -- who also serves as the press and advertising director for Jazz Fest producer Festival Productions Inc. -- and the Project HEAL staff are debating how best to continue to help musicians. Part of that decision includes whether to remain in Lafayette or relocate to New Orleans. It's not an easy decision; like the musicians they have been helping, the staffers are also displaced New Orleanians who have houses and jobs they hope to go home to.

Project HEAL helped musicians by getting them back to work, setting up gigs in the Lafayette area, including performances in evacuation shelters in the first weeks after Katrina. Because there weren't enough club dates to keep everybody employed, Project HEAL arranged gigs in schools and other non-traditional venues. It also made sure the musicians were paid a living wage for their labor.

Along those lines, the NOMC has started partnering with music venues to ensure that musicians are paid better. In Lafayette, the clinic underwrote shows at Club 307 to match whatever the club pays the musicians. The clinic's Michelle Gegenheimer hopes to bring the underwriting program to New Orleans, but right now it is working solely with the Palm Court Jazz CafŽ on Decatur Street.

As Goldman says, these days there are more questions than answers, the most important question being how best to help musicians. Circle Bar manager Lefty Parker had a grant-application party in the club one Sunday afternoon to help musicians fill out applications for money offered by Jazz at the Lincoln Center. At Project HEAL, Goldman realized that one of the best things he and his staff could do was give evacuees a chance to talk about their experiences. "A lot of this has been therapy," he says. "In ways, that has been as important as putting $150 in their pockets."

Part of Tipitina's first foray into musicians' relief included converting its Web site ( into a forum to find out what musicians lost. Ivan Neville lost his Clavinet when his father Aaron's house in eastern New Orleans flooded. "Some guy heard through Tipitina's Web site that I had lost my Clav and said, 'Wow, that's unheard of, Ivan Neville without a Clav,'" Ivan says. "He bought it and shipped it to me. Mint condition Clavinet, actually better than the one I had. I'm forever grateful for things like that."

The club has also become a drop-in center. Though it is presenting live music occasionally, for now the Tipitina's Foundation is focused on using the club as a way to help musicians return.

"It's almost an obligation to do something with the space," foundation director Bill Taylor says. That meant moving the Musicians Co-op into the second floor of the club since its Fountainbleu location in Mid-City was flooded. The Co-op still gives musicians access to computers and the resources necessary to do everything from checking email to making posters and burning CDs. The club now has instruments and equipment musicians can rent, and Taylor hopes to expand the center to better serve musicians' needs.

Even though Tipitina's will slowly return to its primary function as a live-music venue, "As long as it makes sense to have the drop-in center here, it will be here," Taylor says. The club isn't giving out cash grants but is looking for other ways to help musicians -- whether it's assisting them in replacing instruments or opening a line of credit for displaced Mardi Gras Indians to buy beads and feathers so they can sew new suits.

These are by no means the only groups working to help displaced New Orleans musicians, and new initiatives are starting weekly. After visiting New Orleans two weeks ago, U2 guitarist The Edge launched Music Rising to raise money for Gulf Coast musicians who lost their instruments in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It's a testament to New Orleans' indigenous musical culture that so many people want to help it return, even when it's easy to get pessimistic about the city's future.

"I have a lot of faith in New Orleans," Matthew Goldman says. "New Orleans is different, and people are dying to get back there because the culture is so unique. You may be treated well in San Antonio, but you miss red beans and rice. Nobody says, 'Only in Phoenix,' but people do say, 'Only in New Orleans.'"

Musicians Co-op technology director David Cole helps - Cowboy Mouth's Rob Savoy get access to information. The - Co-op was moved from a flooded Mid-City building to - Tipitina's second floor. - FRANCISCO LOPEZ/DONN YOUNG STUDIO
  • Francisco Lopez/Donn Young Studio
  • Musicians Co-op technology director David Cole helps Cowboy Mouth's Rob Savoy get access to information. The Co-op was moved from a flooded Mid-City building to Tipitina's second floor.

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