IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Musicians trickle back into the Big Easy

Crowds are smaller, streets are darker and pay is minimal for artists
/ Source: The Associated Press

Roland Guerin’s standup bass helps break the silence that enveloped this city for weeks, offering evidence of New Orleans’ renowned music scene coming back to life.

Yet the birthplace of jazz remains a shadow of its once vibrant self — where music poured from block after block of the French Quarter and beyond late into the night.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the crowds are smaller, the streets darker, the venues limited and pay for musicians often minimal. Guerin, who returned for his first gig since Hurricane Katrina, took a cut in pay to play and said some musicians are performing for tips alone.

“Folks are so happy just to see something familiar,” he said. “That’s what matters right now.”

In the weeks after the Aug. 29 hurricane, New Orleans music could be heard just about everywhere but in New Orleans. The city’s musicians have entertained with borrowed instruments in Louisville, Ky.; reunited at a Manhattan TV studio; toured in Mexico; played a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” at a jazz festival in Detroit; even had crowds hopping to zydeco in Los Angeles.

But back in the Big Easy, club and bar owners have had a hard time getting in touch with musicians scattered across the country. Like most of the city’s residents, they’ve been slow to come home.

“They’re suffering like everyone else,” said Dave Facer, a manager at Maple Leaf Bar in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. “Many of them have lost their homes. Some are debating whether to come back.”

Not until recently have they been seen or heard around here.

‘I could not wait to get back’
When Old Point Bar in Algiers Point reopened a month after the hurricane, musicians soon followed, “walking in off the street to play,” said owner Warren Munster.

Maple Leaf Bar also had live music, “but sporadically,” Facer said. Some nights there’s only a musicians or two, some nights there are full bands, he said.

“It just depends who’s around.”

Blues guitarist-singer Jesse Moore is the only one of his five-member New Orleans-based band back in town.

“I could not wait to get back,” Moore said. “I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My apartment was fine ... A lot of guys can’t come back.”

Guerin, commuting from Baton Rouge, appeared on a morning show at a New Orleans TV station, then performed Saturday night at Snug Harbor, his band reduced from a quintet to a trio. He greeted the few regulars strolling Frenchmen Street with big hugs and handshakes as he talked about how he longed to return and how important it is for other musicians do the same.

“There are components that make New Orleans what it is,” he said. “Music is one of those components. Looking at the news, knowing so many musicians were gone, there was a sense the heart and soul of the city was gone.”

For club owners, strict curfews have been a stumbling block. Under the current curfew, streets in the city’s recovering neighborhoods remain off limits between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Business owners say the curfew, while an improvement from the earlier 6 p.m. and midnight curfews, still puts a damper on the city’s nightlife.

“We’re trying to piece it back together,” Facer said.