When New Orleans musicians lost their instruments following Hurricane Katrina, many feel as if the city lost its soul. But culture wasn't the only thing at stake for the city and its kin. Musicians also lost their incomes along with trumpets, pianos and banjos. Fearing for their musicians' well-being and desiring to rekindle the spirit of the Big Easy, four friends started a grassroots organization called Katrina's Piano Fund (www.katrinaspianofund.org).
"We provide instruments for displaced New Orleans musicians so they can get back to work and restore their livelihoods and begin the long journey home," says Katrina's Piano Fund (KPF) founder John "Klondike" Koehler. "It's about repopulating New Orleans with the people who matter most to her recovery."
So far, the charity has spent between $200,000 and $300,000 in donations on equipment -- impressive considering KPF started by collecting small bills from individual contributors. Awareness of the group spread through email contacts and phone calls, eventually leading to large cash donations from nightclubs such as the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., and institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
The idea for KPF sprang from the minds of Koehler and his longtime associate Juan LaBostrie. The two have worked together for more than 20 years as audio director and audio assistant, respectively, at Jazz Fest. When LaBostrie evacuated to Wendell, Mass. -- where Koehler runs his audio company, Klondike Sound -- the two initiated a discussion on how they could help other New Orleans musicians. Soon the pair invited the help of two additional acquaintances, Michael Paz of Pyramid Audio in New Orleans and Tom Bensen of RF Productions in New York City. The quartet decided on KPF's mission because of their connections to equipment makers.
"We are not producers; we are sound guys," says LaBostrie. "What we can do is maybe not give a show to get them instruments, but get the instruments for them ourselves because we know a lot of manufacturers. We deal with these manufacturers on a regular basis."
The first musician to be served by KPF was bassist Mark Brooks, an acquaintance of LaBostrie's through many years of playing at Jazz Fest. Brooks was on the road with Don Vappie at the time of the storm and returned home to Gentilly to find his studio flooded and his electric bass destroyed. Within two weeks of contacting LaBostrie, Brooks had another bass and was ready to work again. Brooks Family Project is scheduled to play Jazz Fest on May 5.
"The people I could have reached out to borrow instruments from were in the same position," says Brooks. "Financially, no one was in the shape to buy an instrument, either. There are a lot of charities that have promises, but these guys had instruments in their hands."
Celebrity involvement has also helped provide instruments for KPF. Herman Ernest, drummer for Dr. John, has helped KPF strike a percentage deal with Taye Drums. In addition, Ernest gives a speech about the organization before every encore performance. Another well-known musician, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco -- who frequently records and lives in New Orleans -- has offered assistance through the Web site of her record label www.righteousbaberecords.com. Through her efforts, the site has raised $20,000 for KPF.
But it's not just money. Stephanie Haynes found out about KPF through the Righteous Babe email newsletter and donated a Bach Stradivarius Bb trumpet, which had been sitting idle in her attic for years. Raised in Texas, Haynes frequently visited New Orleans on her way to and from the University of Miami, where she studied music. When she read about KPF from her current residence in Philadelphia, it seemed the perfect way for her to help.
"I think a lot of people wanted to do something more personal than write a check," says Haynes. "Especially with all the news coverage, it felt like a really personal thing that was happening."
Haynes emailed KPF, and within a few days Koehler called her with an address for Marcus Hubbard of the Soul Rebels. To their surprise, the trumpet was a replica of the $19,500 horn Hubbard lost during Katrina. "Everything else didn't really matter to me," Hubbard says. "It was really my horn because I had that horn for years. To lose that was the worst thing about it (Hurricane Katrina). The horn that they got me is an exact match. It definitely did help a lot. It made it a little brighter after going through all of this."
More relief came on April 21 when Koehler arrived with a horde of large instruments, including a crop of pianos at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in the Seventh Ward. The church/school offered to store the instruments until they could be distributed. On Friday, April 28, they plan to complete their load when benefactress Maureen Fitzpatrick of Minnesota is scheduled to arrive with 30 more pianos and various tubas, clarinets and upright basses. That should bring the KPF closer to reaching its goal of serving all 244 applicants before Jazz Fest.
They are approximately 60 orders away.
Julie Pinsonneault is the music editor for Syracuse New Times. For more on DiFranco, see the feature in the cover-story package in this issue.
- John Koehler