It's not a news flash that -- Marsalises and Nevilles aside -- being a New Orleans musician isn't the most lucrative or secure gig the world can offer. The impact of Katrina on many artists' already teetering existence was catastrophic in a laundry list of ways both profession-specific and general, from flood-ruined instruments to the disappearance of affordable rental housing. In the months that followed the storm, the organizations that already provided a support network for local musicians, like the Tipitina's Foundation, WWOZ-FM and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, retasked themselves to cope with the emergency. New groups, like the Preservation Hall-based New Orleans Musicians' Hurricane Relief Fund, also formed, shaping their missions out of the needs that became apparent day to day. If Aug. 29, 2005 marked the first day of a post-Katrina Year Zero, we're now on the verge of Year One. After a year of trial and error, New Orleans' nonprofits are starting to see a clearer map of needs in the musicians' community, and ways to address them. NOMHRF in particular, which was formed specifically to deal with post-Katrina New Orleans, has seen its mission defined, literally, with each passing day.
"The nom-hrf -- it's the world's most awkward acronym," says Jordan Hirsch, who administrates the fund, along with Preservation Hall director Ben Jaffe and Ben's wife Sarah. Hirsch speaks glowingly of the de facto partnership multiple organizations have created in the year since the storm, and the individualized, case-by-case, problem-by-problem approach groups have taken to keep the music scene rolling. "It's been a lot of information sharing," Hirsch says. "A social worker in New York finds medical care in Dallas for a New Orleans musician. The mission is just to get musicians here and get them working, from tracking down instruments to financial help." Sharing resources, he says, has been the key to getting problems solved and it is an immediate way for local groups to be more nimble than larger national organizations.
"Health care, schools and gigs. It's a complex equation," Hirsch says. "The idea is to address these needs in a more holistic way." One success story so far for NOMHRF has been the return of legendary producer Wardell Quezergue, who performed this past Saturday at Preservation Hall. Quezergue had evacuated to Houston and stayed briefly in the Astrodome. His rental home in New Orleans East was damaged too badly for him to return to it; he's now living in a facility in New Orleans "with 24-hour staff, near his church, near public transportation," says Hirsch.
NOMHRF, which formed in New York City days after the storm, spent its first few months locating musicians, and raising and distributing cash assistance through Preservation Hall's formidable network. Upon returning to the city, most local groups found themselves reaching outside their former purview. The Tipitina's Foundation opened a community center for musicians during the day, providing Internet access, a brief free-lunch program, and space for everything from Habitat for Humanity Musicians Village information sessions to one Mardi Gras Indian practice. The New Orleans Musicians Clinic began distributing grants to help local galleries, schools and churches book live music.
Now that the first, most confusing year is over, the general state seems to be a return to original missions. Tip's is focusing on their longstanding internship program, as well as Instruments A-Comin', the program through which they donate instruments to New Orleans public schools. In fact, the club is holding it's presentation ceremony of $500,000 worth of instruments on Tuesday, the anniversary of the storm. NOMC, in partnership with Daughters of Charity, recently opened a clinic in the underserved Bywater neighborhood.
NOMHRF, for its part, is focusing on a new partnership with all of the previously mentioned groups; a separate nonprofit to be called Sweet Home New Orleans, which will focus solely on musicians' housing needs but hopefully maintain the flexibility that served the post-K incarnations of NOMHRF, NOMC, Tip's and others so well.
"We've seen progress on a scale that, for an individual family, means a tremendous amount, but for music in the city is just a drop in the bucket," Hirsch says. "This is a coalition of just about every musicians' advocacy group in town, and it's designed to be a clearinghouse for housing needs for tradition bearers."
"Right now it's great that so many musicians are touring and finding new venues, but we want to make it so that brass bands are back in the streets, back in neighborhoods that are still recovering," says Hirsch. "We have a long way to go toward getting people entrenched, getting those neighborhoods back."
- Celeste Marshal
- The New Orleans Musicians' Hurricane Relief Fund helped legendary producer Wardell Quezergue come home to New Orleans.