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New Orleans has few homes for musicians

Some return for Jazz Festival, but housing options limited and expensive
/ Source: The Associated Press

When George Porter Jr. finishes a late-night gig here, he can rarely muster the energy to make the lonely drive to his post-Hurricane Katrina refuge 60 miles west.

Instead, the bass guitarist and singer bunks in the upstairs of his New Orleans home, the part spared 4 feet of floodwater and another 2 feet of mold. The house has no kitchen, barely has drywall. The third-floor studio that was his creative inspiration — the place where he recorded albums with his two New Orleans bands — has been converted to a storage area where plastic bins full of salvaged photos, CDs and posters are stacked wall to wall.

"I can sleep here, but that's it for now," said Porter.

He's not alone.

Many of the city's displaced musicians are returning home for the first time since Katrina for the two-weekend New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The first weekend wrapped Sunday, and the second, which begins Friday, includes performances by natives Irma Thomas, Fats Domino and Pete Fountain, as well as Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffet and Lionel Richie.

"I like playing and recording in the city of New Orleans," said Porter, 58, best known for his work with The Meters, which played the festival on Sunday. "It makes sense to me. It affects me, being here."

Charlie Sims, co-owner of Donna's Bar and Grill, a jazz club that caters to the city's brass bands, says musicians like Porter are commuting to New Orleans from all over Texas and as far away as Atlanta. He can't believe what they're going through.

"There's nowhere to live here," Sims said. "They have to get somewhere for people to stay, something, anything."

Eighty percent of New Orleans flooded when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and broke the city's levee system. Large tracts remain uninhabitable, and the limited housing is often too expensive for a working musician, Porter said.

Harry Connick Jr. and members of the well-known Marsalis family have partnered with the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity to build a "Musician's Village" with affordable housing for displaced musicians, but it could be months before any of that space is ready.

Porter's home is being repaired. Once his studio is reassembled, he plans to continue writing and producing music there. But he's disheartened that so many of the city's musicians may not return, including his friend Aaron Neville.

"Your life is inside your home. He lost everything. When you lose like that, that's got to weigh heavy on you," Porter said.

Porter himself was without a place to call home for months. Besides getting water in his own home, his daughter who lived next door with her husband and 13-year-old daughter also flooded. When Katrina hit, Porter and family landed in a relative's home in Donaldsonville, La. The family eventually bought a second home in Darrow, La., where his wife is staying.

"Darrow is my sanity," said Porter's wife, Ara. After losing precious family photographs and letters George wrote her early in their 40-year marriage, Ara says she can't bring herself to keep anything of sentimental value in their Uptown home.

"I love it here, but I am scared here," she said on a recent visit to the New Orleans home.

In the early months after the storm, George Porter served as a voice for the city's musicians, performing at benefit concerts with different bands, including the original Meters with Art Neville, the eldest of the Neville Brothers and the only Neville brother living in New Orleans since Katrina.

Inspired by the musicians' plight, Porter recorded "Sing Me Back Home" from a studio in Austin, Texas, with keyboardists Ivan Neville and Henry Butler, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Raymond Weber.

Calling themselves the New Orleans Social Club, they released "Sing Me Back Home" on April 4 under Sony's Burgundy Records label. New Orleans bluesman Dr. John contributed to the project with his version of Fats Domino's "Walkin' to New Orleans."

Also on the album is "Loving You Is on My Mind," which Porter originally recorded with The Meters in 1974. He says it was included in the project to reflect the musicians' love affair with New Orleans. "We all love this city. It's what we were feeling."

Porter has had a difficult time getting his lesser-known groups together to play in New Orleans because the musicians are scattered.

"Most of these guys are trying to make their way back, trying to regroup," he said.

But Porter is convinced New Orleans will remain a musical cradle for the nation. He says he can't imagine it any other way.

"It will always be," he said. "It always was and will always be."

The Meters, formed in 1966, performed Sunday at the festival.