NEW ORLEANS—At the Palm Court Jazz Cafe, it sounds as if people ought to be dancing. Glasses should be clinking against plates of jambalaya. Laughter should be bouncing off the white floor and pouring out into the French Quarter.
Instead, the quartet on stage is playing for half its normal wage to a polite crowd of about 20 perched mostly at the bar. The music stays the same, but the sounds and sights of a Crescent City jazz show have changed since hurricanes rocked the city.
It's a regular sight at local jazz clubs since hurricanes rocked the city, tossing jazz musicians around the country. They're in Houston; Austin, Texas; Atlanta; Memphis, Tenn; Portland, Ore.; and New York. They're playing for jazz-starved crowds and making good money. And while the city slowly rebuilds, it isn't clear who'll come back to rebuild the cradle of jazz.
"The ones who can find a way back, will," said Palm Court owner Nina Buck, who reopened the club within weeks of Hurricane Katrina. "Some might not, and we're going to miss them."
New Orleans isn't just the historic home of jazz; until last August, it determined the future of jazz. Young musicians came here to get their start and learn from old masters. Its schools, such as the University of New Orleans and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, taught them skills. Its clubs taught them how to perform. Its streets were friendly to musicians trying to make a buck.
"This was the greatest place in the world to play music," said Jim Markway, a bass player whose home near the 17th Street Canal was destroyed. "I lost everything—my community, my instruments. My neighborhood looks like Hiroshima. How do you reconstitute that? A culture?"
Club owners and musicians say the first step is to find moderately priced housing for musicians. The Jazz Foundation of America, a New York-based nonprofit that works to find housing, employment and health care for jazz and blues musicians, has taken hundreds of calls from displaced New Orleanians. The rental market is tight, and services are limited, so most are seeking homes elsewhere, said Eleanor King, the foundation's office manager.
"The opportunity before Katrina was to come here and learn from the old guys first hand," said Jay Christman, the manager at Snug Harbor, a world-renowned club outside the French Quarter. "If those guys don't come back, can't afford it, there won't be a reason to be here."
Many clubs, including major tourist draws such as Preservation Hall and Tipitina's, are still closed or open only some nights. At Snug Harbor, musicians are playing four nights a week for 10 to 70 people.
"New Orleans will always be sentimental stomping grounds," said George Brumat, the club's owner. "I expect all this to work itself out, but this could be serious."
With clubs in other cities paying top-dollar for authentic New Orleans jazz musicians, there's less reason to come back. Some musicians—notably, Cyril Neville, the drummer from the famed The Neville Brothers and Uptown Allstars—have already said they won't return.
"I've kind of made up my mind that I'll buy a house in Houston and keep a house in New Orleans. I'll probably go back and forth the rest of my life," said trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, who's renting in Houston. "You've got to support your family, and I'm getting so many gigs here, it's ridiculous."
So New Orleans waits—for housing to become available, for musicians to return, for clubs to reopen, for tourists to visit, for jazz schools to open, for mentoring to resume, for music to fill the streets again.
WWOZ-90.7 FM, the local public jazz station, is waiting to get back on the air full time. Station manager David Freedman said the future of jazz in New Orleans will work itself out "just like the levees worked out."
"People are saying the musicians can't just leave New Orleans?" he said. "Like hell they can't."
He wants promises that local character and neighborhoods will be preserved. He wants mobilization from arts organizations to draw back musicians and their students. He wants jazz back before it settles into pockets around the country.
"We need a common place and critical mass," Freedman said. "We're going to lose some, but our job is to minimize the loss, before they lay roots wherever they are."
Wherever the musicians have gone may change the sound of jazz. Whatever the dominant sounds and techniques are in Texas, Oregon or Georgia, you can expect to hear that in the music, local jazz watchers say.
"When you get bands playing club gigs, concert halls, they lose that primitive vitality after a while," Freedman said. "They've gotten slick, but lost their touch of growing up in New Orleans."
Still, some musicians say New Orleans has survived wind and flood, and jazz will survive, too. In the 1920s, Chicago was the hot spot for jazz, but the legacy remains in New Orleans. Even now, they say, New York makes jazz stars; New Orleans makes history by sending people to New York.
At least audiences around the country might grow interested in New Orleans culture and music, said Leroy Jones, a trumpet player who's working the New Orleans circuit with his girlfriend, trombone player Katja Toivola.
"The future of jazz is still here," said Jones, who performs often at Palm Court in the French Quarter. "It's different from every place else. After people like us get it re-established, everyone else will come back."
So, Jones and his quartet climb back on stage at the Palm Court—one of the few open clubs—and take requests for dollar tips. Just before the set ends, he steps up to sing on a local favorite, "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?," and hears small but vibrant applause.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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