As New Orleans’ jazz community goes through crisis after crisis, the music rises
This report is part of “America Strong,” an ABC News series highlighting stories of strength and resilience across the country.
When Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on New Orleans, it swept away a jazz landmark that Louis Armstrong once considered a home from home.
The Karnofsky Sewing Workshop and Residence, which was built in 1913, collapsed after water collected on its roof. According to the National Park Service, a young Armstrong worked for the family that owned the store and loaned the future jazz legend money to buy his first cornet, a brass instrument that looks like a small trumpet.
“Insult to injury”
Before Ida, the jazz community was already reeling from the ongoing pandemic, which has closed concert halls, canceled shows and left many members of the music community with no income or lifeline.
âNew Orleans is really a concert city, you know, people work performance to performance, concert to concert, so a lot of our musicians don’t have a safety net,â said Robinson.
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Robin Barnes Casey, known as the Songbird of New Orleans, lost all of her reservations and all of her international tours as the city’s cultural ambassador were canceled.
At the time, she and her husband, musician Pat Casey, who play the LoveBirds duo, had just become new parents to baby Riley.
“All of a sudden all we could do financially [to support our family] just been arrested, âBarnes Casey said.
âIt was definitely a mentally and emotionally draining time and then as new parents we had a challenge and a blessing,â she added.
As COVID-19 vaccines became widely available this spring, some musicians were once again able to book concerts. But amid an upsurge in cases in Louisiana and the emergence of the delta variant, the city has again had to step back.
Governor John Bel Edwards reinstated the mask’s tenure in August, and large gatherings like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which was due to take place in October, have been canceled again this year.
For New Orleans saxophonist Derek Douget, Ida added “insult to injury.”
“COVID took away all the concerts, [and] then the hurricane comes, not only taking away the concerts or the prospects of concerts, but it destroys your property, âDouget told ABC News as he helped his parents deal with the hurricane damage to their home .
The Jazz Foundation of America has deployed teams of volunteers to assess needs and have provided financial assistance to thousands of musicians – from direct payments to meeting needs-based demands, more recently providing those who have lost l electricity during the Ida generators and fuel tanks.
âWe have a long, long and painful history of working with musicians in Louisiana and across the South during these natural disasters,â Jazz Foundation of America executive director Joseph Petrucelli told ABC News.
The Jazz Foundation of America has raised more than $ 2 million for its COVID-19 relief fund, while the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation has supported more than 2,500 members of the Louisiana jazz community through grants.
âDuring 2020, we have helped more musicians and more families across the country than we did the year before,â said Petrucelli. “It is because we face such widespread deprivation, devastation and loss of work that the need was truly universal.”
“We celebrate life”
When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Barnes Casey was 17, and as she left her New Orleans home amidst the destruction, she found hope in music.
âMusic has always been my salvation, my therapy and my happiness,â she said. “I mentally survived thanks to Katrina because I listened to music all the time.”
That’s why, despite all the roadblocks in front of them, the Caseys – along with thousands of other musicians – were determined to keep the music going, despite the pandemic and despite Ida, through uplifting virtual performances.
And according to Petrucelli, many have been able to raise relief funds to support the music community through their efforts. âThere has been so much, so much goodwill and kindness,â he said.
âIt was such a blessing for us, because we could still do what we liked, we could still play and make people happy,â said Barnes Casey. “[Music] can make people mentally check and think about the beauty of the world and forget the sorrows of the world. “
And the sorrows for the jazz community in the midst of the pandemic have been immense. The human toll of the virus has touched every corner of the jazz world as dozens of musicians and jazz producers have died from COVID-19, including New Orleans jazz legend Ellis Marsalis.
For Douget, the death of Marsalis in April 2020 was particularly painful.
Douget was a member of the Ellis Marsalis Quintet for 25 years and first met Marsalis at the age of 17. He saw him as a mentor and a friend.
âHe was a real intellectual, just intellectually curious until the end of his life. Losing him was devastating,â said Douget. “He was like a father figure to me and to a lot of musicians, especially those who played in his band.”
As recently as last week, prominent New Orleans musician Bennie Pete, founding member of the Hot 8 Brass Band, became the last member of the city’s jazz community to die of COVID-19.
Even in the midst of a great loss, Barnes Casey said the resilient spirit of New Orleans and its music community continues to soar.
“Despite all this, [New Orleans] is such a unique place, because we celebrate life so much. We even celebrate, you know, funerals, but it’s more about celebrating the life that we send, âshe said.
And with that in mind, Douget continues to teach the next generation of musicians, carrying on the legacy of greats like Marsalis who have dedicated their lives to the education of jazz.
âThey have had a profound influence on my life,â said Douget. “They showed me that, of course, learning your instrument and learning the trade, all that is important, but just as important to pass it on to the next generation of young people. And that’s what it was. their life, that’s what they and I tried to model my life on theirs.