Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 101 - An Ode to New Orleans
Story filed September 23, 2005

"Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans and miss it each night and day?"

The last time we visited the birth-place of jazz, we met a street musician at the corner of Decatur and St. Ann’s Streets at Jackson Square playing that ancient anthem on his soprano saxophone. At the time, this musician had no idea that his song of longing would some day become a song of mourning for one of the world’s great cities. He was simply playing a song he had heard on records by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory.

That street musician could not imagine that on August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina would force Lake Pontchartrain to the north to break through its levees and drown the below-sea-level city with countless deaths, unimaginable destruction, and toxic chemicals. In a catastrophe that ranks with the 1889 Johnstown Flood, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the 1900 Galveston flood, the city of New Orleans, about the same size as Cleveland, was almost literally wiped out.

On top of the many deaths, unimaginable human suffering, and the tragic relocation of half a million people, the drowning of New Orleans left an enormous cultural void, particularly in the jazz world. The city has been called "the spiritual home for anyone who feels the pulse of jazz," and was proud of its standing as the birthplace of jazz, the city where Armstrong and many others grew up and began playing.

New Orleans was much more than a living piece of American history or even a popular tourist attraction. It was powdered sugar on the beignets at the Café DuMonde, Mardi Gras, splurging on breakfast at Brennan’s, raw oysters at the Acme Oyster House and of course live traditional jazz at the Maison Bourbon, Fritzels, the clarinet of Pete Fountain, the trumpet of Al Hirt, the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Olympia Brass Band playing for street parades.

Among the leading musicians working in New Orleans were Duke Heitger from Toledo, John Royan (who has played frequently in Cleveland), and Jamie Wight, who moved from Port Clinton to New Orleans a decade ago. Wight has said, "You don’t just come to New Orleans to play music. You come to New Orleans to live in New Orleans, to work with the musicians of New Orleans, to eat the food that they prepare here in New Orleans, and live this life style." Wight was in Seattle at the time of the catastrophe and we are told his family is alright. But others were not as lucky. Seventy-seven-year-old singer Fats Domino was rescued by boat from his flooded apartment and lost all his belongings.

The disaster of course means, among many other things, that hundreds of New Orleans musicians will be out of work. A number of organizations quickly established relief funds to help New Orleans musicians.

There is only minor consolation in the fact that the French Quarter, including Bourbon Street, where there was always music almost everywhere, was apparently spared of massive flooding. Even when most of the city was still under water, a few street musicians appeared in the French Quarter ghost town, and within a week, there was even a small parade down Bourbon Street. Some people even began talking about some type of scaled-down Mardi Gras celebration next spring and even a Jazz and Heritage Festival somewhere some time next year.

Preservation Hall, the citadel of traditional jazz, run by former Cleveland area musician Ben Jaffe, survived the hurricane winds and flooding, but, like almost everything else in New Orleans, was closed indefinitely. Jaffe "rode out" the storm in New Orleans, but later fled when he said he was afraid of looting. The old U.S. Mint Building which housed the jazz museum assembled by former Clevelander Don Marquis, was damaged. Part of the roof of the building was blown off by the hurricane and parts of the jazz collection were damaged. Bruce Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University, said there was only minor damage there, but the university had to cancel its fall term.

Cleveland clarinetist Ted Witt, who has made annual pilgrimages to New Orleans to play with that city’s musicians, remembered his first visit. He recalled, "On each corner there was a jazz band and people were dancing and singing and drinking beer and having a wonderful time. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! I love New Orleans."

Hopefully, Witt says he believes jazz in the French Quarter will return in a few months. But, many others are not as optimistic. They realize that even if and when the jazz clubs re-open, there will be virtually no customers until the 278-year-old city is cleaned up, rebuilt, and manages to convince the world that it is again a vital tourist destination.

President George Bush, standing just a few feet from where we met that street musician playing "Do You Know What It Means," promised "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." He said, "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans and this great city will rise again."

Despite the determined promises to rebuild, nobody really knows how long that might take, or what shape it might take. Optimists point to the rebuilding of Atlanta after it was burned and evacuated during the Civil War. But, even then, it took five years to rebuild a much less complicated city. The rebuilding of New Orleans certainly will not happen quickly. It could take many years. And even then, the new New Orleans will probably not be the same place that, for more than a century, has been the spiritual home of jazz.

"Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans and miss it each night and day?"

Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook


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