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Musical New Orleans lost more than buildings

City has a musical heritage, but will future musicians have a place to grow?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Filmmaker and New Orleans native Michael Murphy spent the last few years taking cameras through his hometown’s most hallowed musical sites, paying tribute to the place where jazz was born, the blues blossomed, zydeco took root and even rap found a new voice.

But as “Make It Funky” hits theaters this month, Murphy worries that instead of a tribute, the film may stand as an obituary.

“What has made my heart tear apart is that I would hate to think I made a film and the city is no longer there,” Murphy said.

Nashville is the Music City. Chicago is world renowned for jazz and blues. New York is one of the world’s premier artistic stages. Yet no city is as critical to so many musical genres as New Orleans, where the colorful and complex mix of people, from African to French and Creole to Cajun, has created an international music mecca.

Now, as authorities struggle to determine the extent of Hurricane Katrina’s damage, the music community is pondering the future of the places — and people, many of them poor — who make up the Big Easy’s creative soul.

B.B. King, a fixture for decades, perhaps inadvertently used the past tense as he discussed the tragedy. “New Orleans had a sound ... that no one has completely captured,” he said in a telephone interview from Detroit.

“Obviously, New Orleans, from a musical standpoint, is the melting pot when we talk about America,” Wynton Marsalis, whose family of musicians is synonymous with their native city, said from his home in New York.

A special place for musicIt’s where Louis Armstrong was born and where Jelly Roll Morton became a legend. Fats Domino, who was rescued by boat this week from his flooded home, pioneered rock ’n’ roll. Randy Newman may love L.A., but he’s from New Orleans, as evidenced by the famous “they’re trying to wash us away” flooding chorus from “Louisiana 1927.” Harry Connick Jr., Dr. John, Mahalia Jackson, Pete Fountain, Terence Blanchard and the Neville Brothers are just a few other talents the Big Easy has produced.

For more than a century, it’s been a constant party, from Canal Street to the tiny dives only a native or true aficionado would know.

Mark Samuels, co-founder of Basin Street Records on Canal Street, home to artists such as Kermit Ruffins, Jason Marsalis and Theresa Anderson, talked about the vibrant scene — how greats will pop into a clubs not to listen, but to perform with house acts. How you might catch a musical “battle” on any given night.

“Having lived in New York City and San Francisco and Austin and Atlanta, Georgia, New Orleans is at the absolute top of those cities to me,” he said, “and I hope one day it will again be.”

He talked about an insider’s haunt called Vaughn’s Lounge. “Kermit Ruffins played there every Thursday night that he was in town for the last 11 years or so, and everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Harry Connick Jr. to Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes would come.”

These are the type of performances in Murphy’s documentary, which will open in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 9 (the date was planned before the hurricane) before being released on DVD.

Murphy, who fled his New Orleans home for his Los Angeles rental before the storm hit, is worried about the fate of landmarks such as Preservation Hall, the museum and performance venue that opened its doors in 1961.

“I woke up this morning extremely emotional about an area of town called Treme. Treme is the cradle of jazz within the cradle of jazz,” he said. “Treme is that hallowed ground where Louie Armstrong ... and all the greats walked and played their music. It’s right outside the French Quarter.”

Will future musicians have a place to grow?Master P, a native who helped fuel the Southern rise in rap, wasn’t only concerned about physical places: “We don’t know who we lost, we might have lost a lot of great new people for the future.”

And for the present.

“So many of the great musicians of New Orleans and so many people of the cultural heart of the city were poor people,” said Chuck Taggart, a native who produced last year’s historical CD set “Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Great Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans.”

“How do you maintain the character of the city?” he asked. “How can you rebuild it?”

Samuels of Basin Records said most of his artists have the means to rebuild their lives. “There are a lot of people though, a lot of street performers in New Orleans ... who are going to be in absolute dire straits and don’t know how to do it any other way.”

But Marsalis, who is planning a Sept. 19 fund-raiser at Lincoln Center in New York, where he is artistic director of the jazz center, said the scene will survive.

“Our city is still alive. It’s generations of us who are still here, and we’ll get our city back together,” he vowed.

“There are things that are tragic losses that will never be recovered, but I feel like the most valuable thing is the people, the spirit of the people, the will of the people, the mind and the hearts ... that’s not lost. That’s not even close to lost.”