JazzFest Sings New Orleans Home

By Jim Cullen

In New Orleans, the cars that were wrecked in the flood are gone from under the elevated freeways, the highwater marks are cleaned off the walls of buildings along the thoroughfares and the trash is picked up. Many, if not all, of the landmark restaurants, clubs and hotels downtown and in the French Quarter have reopened. You can once again get coffee au lait and beignets at any hour at the Cafe Du Monde. And the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on the last weekend of April and the first weekend in May, in its 38th incarnation, celebrated the Big Easy's continued recovery.

Some of the highlights of the opening JazzFest weekend included New Orleans stars such as Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Charmaine Neville, the subdudes and the New Orleans Social Club, which featured Willie Tee, Leo Nocentelli, Ivan Neville and a rotating cast of the funkiest players in town, including pianist Henry Butler and crooner John Boutté. Headliners included national and international stars such as Van Morrison, Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Rivers and Rod Stewart. Old favorites included Richie Havens, Mose Allison, Pete Fountain and Jerry Lee Lewis. A highlight was supposed to be a set by reclusive south Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles. When he failed to show, either because of illness or shyness, it became a tribute featuring Dr. John, Lafayette slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth, swamp rock pianist Marcia Ball and other Louisiana luminaries. Relative newcomers who impressed included blues singer Shannon McNally, Swedish-American fiddling singer Theresa Andersson and accordionist Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys. With 10 stages, plus a kids' tent, there were, of course, many bands I had to miss.

The second weekend included headliners from the Allman Brothers to ZZ Top, who kept the crowds rocking despite several inches of rain Friday afternoon, and local legends such as the Dixie Cups, Snooks Eaglin, the Iguanas, the Radiators, Ellis and Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Walter "Wolfman" Washington and Allen Toussaint, who appealed from the main stage in the closing set, "Come home, everybody come home ... Come home to a shrimp po-boy, dressed," according to the Times Picayune. Sunday was dedicated to Alvin Batiste, a jazz clarinetist, composer and educator who died at age 74 of a heart attack the morning of May 6 when he was to be honored by Branford Marsalis, Connick, drummer Bob French and others at the Jazz Tent that afternoon. Instead Batiste got a jazz funeral.

After the JazzFest sets finished at 7 p.m. the music moved downtown to clubs like the House of Blues, Tipitinas and Howlin' Wolf. Other clubs are just getting back on track. The Blue Nile on Frenchman Street in the Fauburg Marigny put on 18 shows in 11 days during JazzFest, and clubs in the French Quarter were busy all week but plans are uncertain after the fest.

With a few exceptions restaurants that used to stay open past midnight now close at 9 or 10 p.m. and bars that used to stay open all night now shut down at 2 or 3 a.m. -- mainly because there are not enough service employees to keep them open. Jobs are unfilled because low-wage workers have no place to stay. Just a few miles away from the tourist district, neighborhoods are still devastated.

Many corporations and chains have fled town, leaving the mom and pop operations -- who had nowhere to go -- to take up the slack. Perhaps most galling to locals, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, which got its start in Mid-City New Orleans, moved its corporate offices to Florida.

This year's JazzFest attendance was put at 375,000, the biggest since 2003. Hotels were at 92% capacity for the first weekend. The culinary culture has reached it's pre-storm level, as Tom Fitzmorris of New Orleans Menu Daily (nomenu.com) has noted 812 restaurants were open as of May 2, surpassing the 809 on its pre-storm index. (The Louisiana Restaurant Association claims 1,800 restaurants are open, still down from 3,414 before the storm, but that counted all food preparers who had health permits, including hospital and school cafeterias, grocery store delis, take-out and delivery operations, gas stations with hot dogs and other fast-food servers, according to Fitzmorris. His list includes only restaurants that cook and serve on premises, measuring the part of the New Orleans eating-out business that the city is known for.)

In 2004, the last full year before Katrina, the city hosted 10.1 million visitors, who spent $4.9 billion. March was the first month for which convention business exceeded pre-Katrina numbers, bolstered by the NCAA regional basketball tournament and two big medical conventions. But convention bookings are down for the summer and fall.

So it will be a long and uncertain summer for New Orleans businesses. On the bright side, it is easier to get into some of the best restaurants in the Southern United States. You can see the sights tourists would have seen before Katrina and you will help some good people keep their doors open. (You might help some charlatans, too, but that is also part of the New Orleans experience.)

You don't have to go to the Lower 9th Ward. But if you do want to see what happened there, stop by the Common Grounds Community Resource Center at 1619 Deslonde St. Volunteers will be glad to talk with you. If you have building skills they might put you to work. See commongroundrelief.org or call 1-888-396-5236 for information.

Don't let them be forgotten.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2007

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