MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Two weeks ago, when the streetcar lines and the shotgun shacks in New Orleans went under water, so did the music.
The brass-band funerals stopped when the levees broke. Preservation Hall went dark. The Maple Leaf Bar and Tipitina's, the juke joints along Frenchmen Street—suddenly all was quiet on American music's Southern front.
But within days of the flood, the music began to tread water 400 miles up the blues lifeline of Highway 61, in New Orleans' sister city of soul.
One by one, the bluesmen and jazz artists pulled into town, crashing in cheap hotels or shoehorned in with in-laws, a good stretch of the South now separating them from instruments stranded and rusting in the New Orleans muck.
Hurricane Katrina scattered fiddlers and sax players from Austin, Texas, to New York City. But the largest group seems to have landed in Memphis, as word spread that the city had its arms wide open.
"It's like we're doing musical triage," said Carson Lamm, a club manager on the fabled music mecca of Beale Street. He's led an effort to find gigs and instruments—along with housing and clothing—for dazed and displaced musicians stumbling into Memphis.
Only four of the first 27 musicians who contacted him had their instruments. With help from local music stores and pawn shops across Tennessee and Mississippi, the tools of the trade started to pour in.
Sometimes, when Lamm hands over a donated horn or drum set to displaced players, "they break down," he says, "and you realize this is the only thing in the world they can use to make money. You've got to have whatever you express yourself with or you'll go crazy."
With an estimated 5,000 working musicians, New Orleans was a place where live music was played in laundromats and bowling alleys, under bridges and in cobblestone streets.
Likewise, Memphis knows something about music that longs to spill out onto the sidewalk. From gutbucket blues to polished brass, Elvis to tourist-bus pablum, its music scene is hip-high in legend, much of it coming from the Mississippi Delta and starting, according to local lore, in the grand lobby of the famed Peabody Hotel.
Two blocks away, outside the King's Palace Cafe on Beale Street, longtime New Orleans saxophonist Rasheed Akbar can be found busking with a tip bucket from 2 to 5 p.m. His house in the Carrollton district in the Big Easy is sitting in water. So is his car, just when he'd paid the darn thing off.
"I'm trying to figure out where to set my roots until things get straightened out," says Akbar, 53, playing solo sax with a sign that reads "New Orleans is my home. I'm a survivor. Thank you for your help."
Like his fellow homeless musicians, Akbar considers himself a guardian of his city's musical legacy. Now he's taking it on the road.
"I want to continue the New Orleans vibe," he says. "So I'm bringing the R&B sound of New Orleans up here to Memphis."
New Orleans may be soaking in silence, but Louisiana guitarist Reid Wick says its music has simply been transported temporarily to higher ground. The regional chapter of the Recording Academy has retained the bandleader and Loyola University New Orleans music professor to help dole out $1 million that the academy has collected to assist needy musicians. The first checks for food and temporary housing were shipped out this week.
"I was playing in four different bands in New Orleans and had a lucrative fall of 30 gigs set up," says Wick, who was rescued from a flooded hospital on a fishing boat. "Now it's all gone. Members in one of my bands are scattered from Shreveport to Baton Rouge to Little Rock to Birmingham. We're hoping to get together here for a gig this weekend, but it's heartbreaking to see the city's music scene so fragmented."
New Orleans guitarist Jimmy Robinson, who'd normally be fronting his acoustic-fusion band Woodenhead, now finds himself squeezed into a Memphis hotel with his four sisters, mother, wife and son.
But with a donated amplifier, he's been plugged into a three-night engagement at the Tap Room, one of several Beale Street clubs that created early evening music slots for out-of-town players.
"It sucks being displaced," Robinson says. "But I love being able to play and to work. Sitting around, not knowing what to expect next, was awful. Thanks to the folks in Memphis, we're starting to have hope."
Memphis benefits, too. With more top-drawer New Orleans musical stylists showing up every day and musicians from the two cities starting to cobble new bands together, Lamm suspects that the music of Memphis could be changed forever.
"We might see a whole new sound style develop out of this if these musicians stick around while New Orleans gets back on its feet," he says. "Maybe we can call it `Memphis Cajun.'"
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-MUSIC
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