Members of the Treme Brass Band gathered in Phoenix a few weeks after the hurricane. Still, the place doesn't feel like home, says bandleader Benny Jones Sr.
"When I see the cactus, I think of the Western movies and the cowboys that we used to watch on TV," he says. "It feels pretty odd to me."
Jones was staying in Dallas when he received a phone call from the head of an Arizona-based group, the Jazz Refugee Project. The man had gotten Jones' name and number from a bandmate who had evacuated to Phoenix.
The Refugee Project promised six months of housing and gigs. Jones found the idea appealing, but implementation might be tough, he said. "I told the man, 'My band is scattered out like a checkerboard.'" But after two days, Jones had reached three guys. Two days later, a few more. Within a week, he had an entire band -- but no instruments.
Of the group that moved to Phoenix, only Eddieboh Paris escaped with a horn -- his trombone. "That's because the other guys had to think about themselves, not their instruments," says Paris, who evacuated early, on Sunday. Most of his bandmates didn't leave. Three -- bass drummer Anthony Bennett and saxophonists Elliott "Stackman" Callier and Frederick "Shep" Sheppard -- spent the storm in their homes, then left by boat and chopper. Tuba player Jeffrey Hills weathered the hurricane in the Lafitte housing project, then walked across town in chest-deep water with his two small children on his shoulders. (Longtime Treme bass drummer and singer "Uncle" Lionel Batiste also sat out the storm in the Lafitte and evacuated a few days later by bus. He opted to return to New Orleans rather than travel to Phoenix.)
In late September, the Jazz Refugee Project dispatched a van that started in Mississippi and wound its way through Texas, picking up musicians. It was 120 degrees and sunny when they arrived in Phoenix. "Oh, Lord, it was hot," says bass drummer Bennett. "I was wearing shorts and flip-flops, and it felt like the flip-flops were melting off my feet."
At first, the Refugee Project supplied loaner horns. Soon, donated horns came via overnight delivery from members of the Jack Brass Band in Minneapolis, the Tipitina's Foundation and national charitable organizations.
The band has now settled into a routine, playing a few gigs a week and traveling around town in a Refugee Project van. But it's taken a few adjustments. The 2 a.m. bar-closing time has prompted at least one bandmember to carry a flask. The band plays a significant number of gigs in Phoenix's retirement communities, where the band is less apt to perform contemporary numbers like "Gimme My Money Back."
Treme's presence has also bolstered the city's traditional-jazz community. "There are 47 venues in Phoenix that play jazz, but it's mostly modern -- bebop and fusion," says Phoenix clarinetist Joe Hopkins, vice president of the Arizona Jazz Society. "Yet the Treme band has made inroads into clubs and with people who've never listened to this music. I think that's significant."
How long Treme will remain in Phoenix is still unclear. But on Tuesday, Nov. 22, the CBS' The Early Show, as part of its "Week of Wishes," featured Minnesotan Pat Lindgren saying that she'd seen Treme play at Donna's Bar & Grill. Her wish was to see them perform again in New Orleans. In response, the program marshaled weighty resources: temporary housing for band members in the French Quarter courtesy of Hibernia Bank, $60,000 worth of home furnishings from Sam's Club, and -- from the Jazz Foundation of America -- employment playing jazz in Louisiana schools, some new instruments, and first-month's rent and security deposits.
In Phoenix, band members sat and watched, speechless. Jones, certainly, plans to return home as soon as FEMA gives him a trailer. Trombonist Eddie King also plans to go back. But others aren't sure. They talk about the sputtering New Orleans economy, hard-to-find housing, and gigs that pay half as much as Phoenix gigs. Saxophonist Sheppard says that he misses friends but has no other reason to return to what he calls "The Big Raggedy."
Not surprising, says New Orleans cultural advocate Morgan Clevenger. "Most musicians that I know, they love New Orleans and they want to come back. But if you don't have the necessary quality of life, they're not coming back."
Final decisions have yet to be made. In the meantime, music is the perfect distraction. "Often I sit around thinking about how my homeowner's insurance has not come through or wondering what my children are doing," says Bennett. "The only time I get any peace is when I'm playing music."