NOLA Amidst COVID: Learning From A Tough Past To Cope With An Uncertain Future
Debbie Davis deleted most of what was on her Google calendar over the first weeks of April. "It was too depressing," she says, on a long phone call she likely wouldn't have had time for under normal circumstances.
Spring in New Orleans marks the start of the city's packed calendar of events that keep local musicians like Davis, a singer and occasional ukulelist, hopping for months. These concerts and festivals draw millions of residents and tourists out to celebrate, and bring with them a flood of adjacent gigs like private parties, destination weddings and conventions, all scheduled to take advantage of the balmy weather and active entertainment schedule. There's the Buku Music and Art Project, the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival and Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday in March, the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April, Bayou Boogaloo in May, the Creole Tomato Festival in June and the Essence Festival of Culture in July — just to name a few of the largest and longest-standing events. Thousands of musicians and other hospitality workers bank tens of thousands of dollars in South Louisiana in the spring, all the better to make it through long, hot summers when tourism drops and the threat of hurricanes looms.
Davis has to scroll back to early February to find a normal week's schedule for herself and her husband, Matt Perrine, a bass and sousaphone player. Between the two of them, she says, they averaged 15-20 shows per week. "You tuck all your nuts away," Davis said. "But now there are no nuts, and it's already winter somehow."
New Orleans festivals and concerts began to be canceled or postponed in early March, as the looming impact of the new coronavirus became apparent. The approved size of public gatherings in the city shrank quickly, from 250 people on March 13 per a statewide proclamation by Gov. John Bel Edwards, revised down to just 50 people four days later — the same time that bars, casinos and theaters were ordered to close and restaurants were limited to take-out and delivery service only. On March 20, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a shelter-in-place order. During a press conference on April 14, she recommended that no 2020 festivals, some of which had already revealed new fall dates, should take place at all.
"My opinion is that all of that should be pushed back, period," she said. "Absolutely no large events as it relates to the year of 2020." The next morning, the Essence Festival – which reported more than half a million had attended its 25th anniversary events in 2019 – announced it would cancel the already-postponed 2020 festival. Around noon on April 16 Jazz Fest, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, officially canceled the 2020 event. The next day, the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience festival, which would have taken place Halloween weekend, well after the rescheduled October dates French Quarter Festival had floated, also canceled for the year.
Perrine and Davis have been working full-time as musicians in New Orleans since the late '90s. They've bought a home and raised two sons, ages 12 and 16, the older of whom now has a band himself — which also recently experienced its first canceled gig. Their situation isn't unusual.
"I don't know any other city, certainly in America, that supports this many full-time musicians through a gig economy," Davis says, noting that in other urban musical hotbeds, like Nashville or Los Angeles, working musicians tend to have more diversified revenue streams through studio work, songwriting, or even selling their own recordings. Like a lot of New Orleanian performers, Davis had self-released a new album in preparation for festival season (that she titled, with unintentional irony, Interesting Times). But the point of these albums, mostly, is to sell them at gigs, when the artist will make the most money off the direct sale and fans, caught up in the throes of festival-fueled joy, are most likely to want a souvenir of the experience.
The plan was actually to put out two albums this spring, but Davis decided to hold one back for release in the fall, when the French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest (which combined, according to their own estimated numbers, draw more than a million fans) had initially suggested they would return. Some musicians, though, were already questioning whether a fall "make-up" season could deliver the same economic boost that artists expect in the spring; potential visitors might choose not to travel after having lost income themselves as a result of the pandemic.
"Where are we going to find people willing to visit the city, especially now that Mardi Gras was painted as a center of the outbreak?" asks Brice Miller, a trumpeter and leader of the Mahogany Brass Band, just a few days before several postponed festivals decided to skip the year entirely. Cantrell and Gov. Edwards have been criticized for allowing the celebrations to happen, though both have pointed out that Mardi Gras concluded weeks before alarms were raised.
Regardless, "who's going to say, 'I want to go back to New Orleans now?' " Miller wonders.
Miller has been playing music in New Orleans since his childhood in the '80s; his dad, Dwight Miller, Sr., was a member of the Original Pinstripe Brass Band. These days the younger Miller leads several projects of his own and performs with groups like the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and Delfeayo Marsalis' Uptown Jazz Orchestra, as well as booking musicians for lucrative gigs like conventions and weddings.
"We would have been slammed from March through June," he says, estimating that all told, the lost earnings for himself, his own band members and the other artists he books totals about $55,000. "A lot of people depended on me for income, and I can't support them anymore."
The New Orleans live music scene also supports a range of workers and businesses suffering from the shutdown. Publications like the 32-year-old music monthly Offbeat depend on spring issues thick with ads for (now-canceled) gigs at (now-shuttered) clubs, many of which are posting online fundraisers to hopefully replace the festival-season tips a city full of bartenders and servers relies on. Independent record stores, like the locals-focused Louisiana Music Factory, expected to be welcoming a flood of music tourists, and are now trying to drum up mail-order business. The Music Factory shares a building with Offbeat's offices, at the corner of Frenchmen Street, a strip of bars, clubs and restaurants that's usually one of the busiest in the city. Now it's a ghost town: When Debbie Davis and her regular piano player, Josh Paxton, went to take some photos for the new album a few nights before the mayor's stay-home order was issued, the pair was able to stand in the middle of a street full of locked doors, completely unlined by parked cars.
"Things were boarded up, and I don't know what's going to get unboarded," she says. "It won't be returned to us the way we left it. We're not getting it back."
Of course, there was another time in the collective memory when New Orleans businesses were boarded up and friends and bandmates were stuck far away from each other.
"It was unbelievable when we put the lock on the door of Preservation Hall," says Ben Jaffe, the Hall's creative director, whose parents co-founded the storied French Quarter venue in 1961. "Talk about opening an old wound. But Katrina was physical. We could see the damage with our eyes. This thing is invisible."
The lessons of Katrina, he says, are serving him well when it comes to the pandemic response. It began with checking in with the 60 performing musicians and other staffers who work for the Hall. This time though, instead of being scattered around the country after evacuating, they were mostly at home.
"There was concern over our community of legacy musicians, these guys who are cultural pillars – many of them are in their 70s and 80s," says Jaffe. After health concerns came income. The Hall itself, of course, remains closed. Meanwhile, its nonprofit foundation, which does education and outreach in schools and juvenile correctional facilities as well as archival work, has lost its biggest annual fundraiser, Midnight Preserves – a run of late-night shows during Jazz Fest that pairs Hall musicians with big-name festival performers. Unlike after Katrina, musicians can't travel to play for audiences in cities that weren't affected — everyone, everywhere, is affected. There's also the worry that unlike after Katrina, lovers of New Orleans music elsewhere won't be able to send the same huge waves of support to the city — because everyone is affected.
Jaffe applied for a Small Business Association loan for the Hall, and set up the Legacy Emergency Relief Fund as a portal for donors to contribute directly to musicians. So far it's been fairly successful; some large early donations had the foundation set up, at the time we spoke, to disburse about $60,000.
Even Preservation Hall, despite being a venerable and world-renowned brand, has been left scrambling without revenue from live performances. Many other local musicians, and people who are referred to here as "culture bearers" – Mardi Gras Indians, for example, or the members of the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, who throw huge second-line parades on Sundays and don't make a living from their works – are facing even more tenuous situations.
After Katrina, Jordan Hirsch directed the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund (NOMHRF), a nonprofit set up by Ben Jaffe to help identify sources of funding and direct them towards musicians and culture-bearers in immediate need. Since the onset of the pandemic, he's been consulting with other local aid groups on coordinating similar relief efforts, and some of the landscape of that work has changed for the better, he says.
"There's definitely a much higher level of awareness around the phrase 'gig economy' — which was just not in the popular lexicon in 2005 — that has made it easier for organizations to help musicians navigate a system that might not be set up for them," he says, noting that after Katrina, there were fewer resources for renters as opposed to homeowners, for example. Or independent contractors versus W2 employees. "There's a lot more people paying attention to the gaps between the systems and the community."
Paperwork remains a challenge for people who work in a largely cash-driven economy, he says. And then there is the question of whether to take a chance on entering the system at all. "If you put in for assistance and didn't file taxes in 2018, will you be on the hook for a big tax bill that may be outstanding," he points out. This is something that occurred to Brice Miller as well: "A lot of musicians got burned," he says. "They had to provide all the paperwork, and they hadn't filed taxes correctly, and the IRS came after them."
In the years after Katrina, NOMHRF morphed into another nonprofit, called Sweet Home New Orleans, which pursued much of the same work until dissolving in 2013. Its closest existing analogue is probably the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), which had been mostly focused on policy-based work, like advocating for musician-friendly noise and zoning regulations. Founded in 2012, it had no disaster-aid plans in place, saysprogram director Hannah Krieger-Benson. But it pivoted fast.
"We got a small seed grant to do a pilot round of microgrants," Krieger-Benson says. With the initial grant and a few private donations, MACCNO was able to give 11 people grants of $250 each by the first week of April. The plan was to get money out quickly – rents were coming due – and avoid any bureaucratic worries by asking only brief intake questions. "The idea was immediacy," she said, "and a low barrier to aid." Both MACCNO and Hirsch are also working with the newly formed Culture Aid NOLA, a coalition of nonprofits collaborating to help culture and hospitality workers access a range of aid, from food pantries to medical care.
"What's really come up is the need for case management," Krieger-Benson explained. "Who can we partner with who's knowledgeable about filing for 1099 unemployment? If we can get a cohort of folks that are fluent in different things, we can act as a clearinghouse for information." That clearinghouse will be busy: According to the New Orleans Business Alliance, a local economic development organization, gig economy workers – including stagehands, rideshare drivers and arena workers, as well as artists – make up 8% of the workforce in metro New Orleans.
"I've applied for MusiCares, Jazz Fest, New Orleans Business Association," says Debbie Davis. "And I go to the unemployment site, which looks like AOL in 1992, and so far there's nothing there that even implies that someone who makes music or waits tables might lose their job through no fault of their own, and still want to eat food and live indoors."
MACCNO is also part of a coalition of 21 local organizations, including fair housing advocates and a union representing workers at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, endorsing a call for the center's governing authority to create a fund for hospitality workers. On March 31, the local nonprofit news organization the Lens reported that the entity, which collects hotel, food and beverage taxes, has somewhere between $185 million and $215 million in unrestricted funds. A petition calling for releasing $100 million from those cash reserves in that way had 1,500 signatures as of April 20. That day, the Lens also reported that the AFL-CIO-affiliated Communications Workers of America would consider relocating its planned New Orleans convention in 2021 if the Convention Center doesn't address the coalition's concerns. On Wednesday, the convention center introduced a resolution to consider donating $500,000 each to two funds supporting hospitality workers in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, many nonprofit organizations, both locally and nationally, have moved relatively quickly to at least start the process of getting cash aid out. ("We're what, four weeks into this?" Hirsch said, "and we're definitely doing better, at least, than we were a month after the levees broke.") The Recording Academy's MusiCares, which had donated a million dollars towards Katrina relief, established a similar fund for music professionals affected by coronavirus; NOLABA, an economic development organization, initiated its own fund for gig economy workers on March 16, with a reported average award of $500. On March 30, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation established a statewide relief fund for musicians, initially set at $250,000 and later opened to all music-industry workers affected by the virus's impact on the season.
Kia Robinson was used to administering grants for the Jazz and Heritage Foundation in her role as its programs and marketing coordinator. The Foundation gives out close to a million dollars every year to small festivals and concerts, archival and documentary projects and educational programs that work with Louisiana music and culture. "But this is new territory," she says. The demand was so high when the fund opened that after about a week, it had to temporarily close just so Robinson and her three-person department could make some headway with the first 1,500 applicants.
"And people need it right now — they need to fill their fridges right now," she said.
Beyond managing the new grants, Robinson is also working on what the rest of the Foundation's programs will look like. The Heritage School of Music after-school program that pairs musicians with young students is continuing through videoconferencing, though its annual festival showcases are, like everything else, on hold. "There's excitement and buzz all year long, and it's an incentive to do their best," she said. "I'm thinking of ways to try to make that up to them."
She's also thinking of ways the Foundation can expand its purview to serve the musical community's current and unprecedented needs.
"I want to see what kind of mental health services we can support, because I assume a lot of people are reliving" post-Katrina fears, she says.
New Orleans and South Louisiana define themselves by their singular cultural practices, qualities, quirks and attitudes. And the region's ability to tweak those to fit, in defiance of disaster, has asserted itself yet again. (It has had plenty of practice.) DJs on the beloved community radio station WWOZ have been taping shows remotely, as some did following Katrina, and the station recently unveiled a plan for a simulated Jazz Fest broadcast, using archival recordings, on the days it would normally have aired festival sets live; the station has also been streaming performance video from previous French Quarter Festivals on its Facebook page.
The whole, live city is going digital. Ellis Marsalis, the modern jazz legend, educator and musical patriarch, had performed regularly at the Frenchmen Street jazz club Snug Harbor up until only a few weeks before his death, at age 85, of coronavirus-related pneumonia on April 1. A couple of weeks later, the venue began streaming tributes online. The hip-hop DJ and Cash Money Records veteran Raj Smoove has streamed multiple isolated parties, Trombone Shorty broadcast himself playing "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" on Facebook, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins advertised (socially distanced) birthday pop-ins, standing across the street from the birthday person's door and playing. Big Chief Juan Pardo of the Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians shared video of a Zoom call between four Indians, singing and playing drums and tambourines to a new chant: "Hooray that morning when corona gone." And on Holy Thursday, Dooky Chase's restaurant sold its traditional gumbo z'herbes by the pint – many locals and regular visitors make that lunch reservation months in advance – for curbside pickup.
Other virtual events are being structured for the purpose of giving back. Essence Fest is holding a "virtual festival," with proceeds to benefit the city, over its normal Fourth of July weekend, and Jazz Fest is a sponsor of the Band Together Fest, a virtual concert that will stream on what would have been the fest's first Saturday in order to raise funds for local musicians. Preservation Hall is considering the possible mechanics of virtual Midnight Preserves collaborations. WWOZ and Offbeat have begun listing livestream information on their websites and on air, instead of their usual lengthy club listings.
New Orleanians have adapted as much as they can. But one thing they can't do right now is gather. That's a practice that's been solace before – the first second line, the first Jazz Fest after Katrina have taken on magical auras in historical hindsight for their curative properties – in clubs and bars and restaurants, any of the venues where the city's gorgeous and singular personality has gone head to head with the latest threat. And another arena where it does that, sadly relevant to the current crisis, is at funerals.
Beloved figures died in March and April due to the new coronavirus: Ellis Marsalis, the jazz giant; Ronald Lewis, the chronicler and keeper of street culture history at his House of Dance and Feathers museum; Theresa Elloie, owner of the popular Uptown bar and second-line stop Sportsman's Corner; Leona "Ms. Chine" Grandison, owner of Treme's Candlelight Lounge. All of them merit a big funeral celebration, with family, friends and fans coming out to dance and mourn behind a brass band, accompanying the hearse. So would plenty of people whose passing didn't prompt news obituaries. But the tradition is on hold now; organizers of two separate funeral parades, held after the stay-home order in defiance of restrictions on social gatherings, have been arrested.
The restrictions are necessary. But they still hurt. Cherice Harrison-Nelson is queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society Mardi Gras Indians and along with her mother, Herreast Harrison, the longtime steward of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. For more than a decade, the organization honored practitioners and also lobbied for respectful practices in documenting them, like fair use of photos of the Indians' painstakingly sewed and breathtakingly colorful feathered and beaded suits. In early April, she was concerned about possible vectors of infection from Mardi Gras, which took place before anyone knew much of anything.
"During Carnival, you do what's the tradition – you get in someone's face to tell them you're pretty, you talk with force. It's a warrior tradition," she says. It's not lost on her that Mardi Gras Indian culture is an African-American culture, and that throughout the country both infections and deaths have been disproportionately high among black people. As a cancer survivor, she has experienced implicit racial medical bias firsthand, she says.
"As an African-American woman who is amply sized, I've had doctors not call me back — just total disrespect," she says.
Harrison-Nelson was also well into planning a funeral for Counsel Chief Joe Jenkins, the 90-year-old veteran of her tribe who was in hospice care when the virus hit. He had no family left, she said — she held his power of attorney specifically for this reason. "I knew what he did and didn't want. He made his arrangements. I knew who he wanted to sing [the traditional Indian songs] 'Shallow Water' and 'Indian Red,' " she says. "I knew that he wanted to have the repast at the Treme Center and serve root beer and red beans and fried chicken."
"And he is not going to have any of the things he wanted to have," she says. "And when I had to make those phone calls, I was paralyzed. Because a funeral is the last gift you give a person."
For Brice Miller, the indignity hit even closer to home. On March 16, as shutdowns and limitations were picking up pace, his father died of heart failure.
"There's the great pain of losing a parent, and a mentor too, the humongous loss," said Miller. "And it's almost like having salt rubbed in the wound not to get to celebrate his life the way he helped so many other families celebrate," Miller says. When Dwight Miller Sr. died, the projection was for the limit of only ten people to a gathering of any kind would extend only until April 13, so the family planned for a funeral on April 18. But then it was pushed back, and the Millers couldn't wait.
"We can't have an organist, we can't have a brass band," he says. "We can't have his Zulu [Social Aid and Pleasure Club] brothers there, or motorbikes to escort the hearse. I feel like I'm letting my dad down, after we played so many jazz funerals together," he said. "This was my duty as his son."
After the Miller family made the decision to forego the traditional celebrations, Brice stayed up all night, swaying on his front porch swing, sipping liquor and crying.
"Nobody can mourn properly now," he said. "So we're stuck in a state of perpetual grieving."
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