New Orleans Without Music

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S1: If you were already on a world tour in 18, you must been playing harmonica for some time already.

S2: Yes. I started working on about 13 years old.

S1: This is Patrick Williams. He’s in Orleans. Guy through and through. Grew up here. Never left the city until his band went on tour in Japan.

S2: There was a culture shock because I know I’ve been out in the country who swore that was my first time leaving the city of New Orleans. Growing up in the housing projects in Hawaii, all that and being treated like royalty. You know, it was a culture shock and a good experience.

S1: Patrick plays in New Orleans with Rock and Doxie Junior and decided Akko Twister’s up until March. Things were going just fine.

S2: We had three to four gigs a week. Man, you were doing weddings to doing corporate events, private parties. So I really didn’t have enough time for the wives. You know what she understands?

S3: And then the pandemic hit down here in New Orleans, that’s what we thrive on. We travel and conventions to tourism here. So if there’s not a major convention in town of 30 of 40 thousand people, then we’re not really. At a standstill.

S4: I met Patrick through an organization called Feed the Second Line. It’s run by one of the Mardi Gras crews. The crew of red beans feed the second line started as feed the frontline for nurses and other exposed workers. Now it hires musicians like Patrick to buy and deliver groceries to cultural elders who might not be up for the trip. It brings meals to those who need them and gives musicians some much needed work. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards closed the state’s bars for a second time a couple weeks ago. But even before that, Patrick really wasn’t playing much at all.

S3: When hall players play, when they’re Bloy into the hall, particles of saliva comes out of their hole. Or when you’re saying that you have to code it, people are breathing that the virus is actually in the music.

S2: Yeah. Yeah. That are actually in the music. A lot of bands won’t return. Won’t return. Some clubs are shutting down because they can’t meet the financial obligation as far as rent and holding employees. There’s a lot of musicians that probably won’t ever play music in the city of new ones again because of this carone of ours.

S1: Some of those musicians are already gone. Like Ellis Marsalis Jr., the legendary New Orleans pianist who died from complications of Kovac, 19, in April. Around the world, the corona virus has had an outsized impact on jazz. Elders bassist Henry Grimes, trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophone as manager Dibango, to name just a few of the best known players, have all died from complications related to Koven 19.

S4: New Orleans isn’t just famous for its music more than any other American city. It banks on it. Musicians like Patrick are part of a culture industry, from restaurants to festivals to parades that draws in tourists. They, in turn, support a host of other jobs. Hotel workers, airport baggage handlers, cab drivers as a share of the workforce. New Orleans has about twice as many restaurant workers as the average city. The rule of hotels in the economy is four times as large for going on for months. That entire pyramid has been collapsing because people just aren’t coming to New Orleans anymore. And worse, there’s no sign that they’ll come back. Crowded, sweaty bars in the quarter might be the last part of pre pandemic America to return until there’s a vaccine. An entire musical ecosystem is in suspended animation and with it the rest of the city.

S5: It is hard to think of a part of American society that feels more fragile right now than the arts. Broadway is closed until 2021 at least. Hollywood has stopped production. Big city theaters are starting to close permanently. Art galleries are empty. And a recent survey found that one third of all museums don’t believe they’ll survive this pandemic. To make matters worse, laid off artists are finding their second jobs have also vanished. What is happening in New Orleans is happening in your city, too.

S1: I’m Henry Goodbar and this is the fourth episode in our six part series on the future of the city during and after Kovik 19. Today on the show, the music has stopped. How long can Orleans hold its breath?

S4: Hello. Hello. How are you doing? I’m good, how are you? I’m very good today. Thanks. This is Jessie Paige. He’s a percussionist. 20 years ago, he got a job working the door at a Frenchman Street club called the Blue Nile. He worked his way into management and many instant ramen noodles and cans of tuna fish. Later, he had saved the money to buy the place. New Orleans has more than one hundred and thirty live music venues. And what makes them special is their size. The median venue here is smaller than in almost every other American city.

S6: I mean, when you think about our venue, specifically the Blue Nile, the musicians that have been raised in that club.

S7: We’re talking Trombone Shorty started in the Blue Nile when he was probably 13 or 14 years old, filling in for Kermit Ruffins one night when he got laryngitis and he sent me this kid that I was like, are you kidding me? We have almost sold out show. I don’t. Who is this? Trombone Shorty. He killed it. Crowd loved him. And then he started working on his stage show with us. And he’d come in I’d have come in early on Sunday and just given this age for him to practice with his band. Now, look at who he is. He’s a worldwide phenomenon. That doesn’t exist in Clear Channel, that doesn’t exist in these monster financial, financially bad corporate places. It’s like the the nursery of the whole music community where we’re raising musicians in to where they get too big for us. And they. And they become these worldwide superstars and give joy to everybody all over the world. But they start someplace and they start in small music venues like the Blue Nile.

S4: That cultural infrastructure, as much as the music itself, is a unique thing about New Orleans. I’ve spoken to several people who run venues and all of them say that even in good times, it’s a labor of love. And perhaps the evidence of that is that they’re all local musicians. They’re not private equity guys and they’re not Clear Channel.

S6: My main strategy right now is to secure funding and hold off until we can reopen, because if I open those doors, I’m losing more money by being open than being closed. And I would lose it rapidly. It costs me about eight or nine thousand dollars a month to have the doors closed.

S8: Let me play devil’s advocate for a second and ask if the musicians are all still in New Orleans and they find a way to get by, then. What does it matter if the buildings close or change ownership? Won’t they just find places to perform and people will find ways to see them?

S6: To a degree they can. But, you know, a music club provides a safe venue for somebody to actually make money in instead of going out and busking. If you have a concentrated place where a musician can play in a safe area, you can collect a good amount of people. The government is getting their tax money off of all it, which ultimately supports to safety because you’re talking about police services, ambulance services, you know, all the all the community functions that you need.

S4: That’s interesting. So you’re saying that these clubs are almost like they’re each club is a structure that converts music into money for musicians.

S6: I think it’s a structure that converts music to security for musicians. So it’s not just buildings and it’s not that the venue is making a lot of money. We’re we’re providing a lot of jobs for a lot of people. But nobody’s walking away from these music clubs, Rich, at least not in New Orleans. I don’t think it’s really creating a safe place for musicians to have security in their art.

S1: This conversion from music to security, as Jesse puts it, relies on visitors. New Orleans puts on eighty five shows a day. By one estimate, which is far more than its residents can support on their own.

S6: There are just so many music clubs in New Orleans and so many musicians in New Orleans. They have been supported by people coming from all over the world to see and support that music and that art. So without the tourism, then these places will disappear. There is not enough local support to support what we have going on in the city.

S4: When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans 2005, it devastated many juke joints, especially in the city’s black neighborhoods. The Blue Nile was closed for months. So when Jesse bought the club, he set up a rainy day fund to make sure it could take a hit.

S6: I’m not a man of a lot of money, but I have enough because I’ve made those cuts and made the sacrifices. I honestly, I don’t have a family. I’m married, but we never had children. And that was one of the sacrifices that I made for my passion and my love of music in the music club, that the club is my baby. And I think I have enough to last 2020. It’s gonna get sketchy in 2021 as to how long we can survive.

S8: Tell me a little bit about the period after Katrina. Does that now feel like a dry run for what you’re going through now?

S6: The difference between Katrina and coded is that with Katrina it was just us. But we had great advertisement from a lot of great musicians on television every night. People like David Letterman saying on his show every night, we need to go down in New Orleans. Put your money into New Orleans. We can’t lose this treasure. And so we had a lot of people from all over the country coming to support New Orleans and New Orleans music and the culture. But in this case, obviously, everybody’s in the same boat. San Francisco’s in trouble. Chicago’s in trouble. New York’s in trouble. All the music venues across the nation, we are all in the same boat because we don’t really know how to navigate this one.

S1: After Katrina, displaced musicians found gigs in places like Houston and Chicago, but now their clubs are close to performance, is at a standstill nationwide. New Orleans is unique, but it’s also representative of the way that city culture, the food, the performance, the art has grown reliant on visitors. In New York City, for example, 24 percent of all credit card sales at restaurants and bars come from tourists. So even if New York restaurants are able to open without tourism, there are long, long way from normal. Same thing in New Orleans, reopening alone is not going to make the city hold again.

S9: As I said, and I say it’s kind of like a black mama, you know, you just have to get it out of that and that’s it.

S4: A solid Darvon Ecclesiastes runs the Oshi Cultural Center in New Orleans Central City institution that does a bit of everything, residencies, performances, summercamp. She works with artists all day.

S10: They know my number. They know my email. I consider myself artistic first responder.

S4: I wanted to talk to Assali because she understands the challenges local musicians faced in New Orleans before the pandemic. It was hardly a golden age. In 2016, the average annual salary in the entertainment sector was thirty four thousand dollars. Nearly a third below the metro average.

S10: Our tourism industry in New Orleans in the past. I want to say three years has increased by three billion dollars. It’s gone from seven billion to 10 billion. Yet the workers make the same amount of money.

S4: Before she got to Shea, Assali ran the Congo Square Arts Market, an event that typified the relationship between tourism and the arts in New Orleans.

S9: New Orleans is a city that’s largely tourist driven, and we get about 50 percent of our sales tax revenue from tourist dollars. And so many artists make at least 50 percent, some as many as 75 to 100 percent of their income during these festival seasons, largely because, like no one is Jazz and Heritage Festival and Essence Music Festival and voodoo festival. Those big events provide a big source of income and opportunity for artists or, you know, they sell at the festival. Yes. But they make contacts that, you know, might give them commissions for the rest of the year.

S4: But now, of course, there are no festivals and tourist attractions like jazz bars have all gone dark.

S9: A lot of the art that we create is for ourselves.

S10: So there will be I think there can be a new normal that, you know, still creates a wonderful and, you know, beautiful art. But the ability to make a living as an artist changes.

S9: This is not a sustainable system. Right. And, you know, it just isn’t. And that should be clear to everyone at a time like this.

S4: Assali is worried about the city’s cultural infrastructure, but she’s also confident that what New Orleans offers to the world is not something that could close.

S10: People will never stop wanting to go to Venice. They’re never going to want to start them on the gondola. They’re never going to want to stop seeing the Eiffel Tower or ancient pyramids, whatever. New Orleans will be one of those places people will always want to come here.

S11: What was different about what brings people to New Orleans is not a structure, right? Nobody’s coming to see the Superdome, no matter how slight is right. Nobody’s come in to see the Mississippi River Bridge. They are coming to experience the culture of New Orleans. And that is what its people, they come in to hear the music. They’re coming to eat the food. They’re coming to hear people say, yeah, baby, come on, I am your mom. And I’m like, that’s what book coming for.

S1: Sally has some ideas about how to make this more sustainable. She wants more diversity on the city’s cultural boards and more revenue sharing across the city’s neighborhoods.

S4: But her point is bigger than that. The system by which so many cultural creators in the city and in the country live hand to mouth, work odd jobs to survive and depend on the flighty spending habits of the rich, didn’t get broken by the pandemic. It’s been broken. Many musicians didn’t have health insurance here until Louisiana expanded Medicaid in 2016, and thousands still depend on nonprofits for health care.

S1: The top musicians, the ones whose names, you know, probably will make it through. It’s the up and comers, the sidemen, the restaurant singers, the second line players and the buskers who will get knocked down. The ones who need part time jobs and lost them. It’s their presence in New Orleans, not the name on the marquee, but the clarinet. Heard from a balcony that gives the city its spirit. Patrick Williams, the harmonica player whom you heard at the beginning of the show, is for the time being focused on the next generation. His part time job starts next month.

S3: I’m an assistant band director at a high school. George Washington Carver High School. Wanted to do something, give back to the community life. Some people did for me when I was in elementary, middle and high school.

S4: It’s one band in New Orleans that doesn’t need an audience.

S12: And that’s the show. Thanks to Patrick Williams, Jesse Page, Steve Richardson, Robbie Havens, Sally Darvon Ecclesiastic and Devin de Wolfe, the version of Sunny Side of the Street you heard was by Kermit Ruffins. Thank you, Kermit. If you want to help musicians in New Orleans get through this, you can donate to feed the second line, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks, Derek John and Allison Benedicte helped with editorial direction for this series. Thank you, Alison and Derek. TBD is part of the larger What Next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Henry Goodbar. Thanks for listening. Mary will be back on your feet on Monday.

S4: Jesse, have you gotten a chance to play at all during this whole thing?

S6: No, I have not called my drums out and I think that’s a good idea. And I’m glad you actually said it. I’ve been so worried about trying to maintain the club, and that has been my main focus in all my hours spent on the phone and computer and trying to acquire grants and loans and working on all of those sorts of things to make sure that I could survive and the club could survive. But you’re right. I should pull my drums out. I should definitely do that.