In the terrifying days after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Fats Dominos and Aaron Nevilles of New Orleans music surfaced one by one. But most people have never heard of Jesse Young, a guitar player who serenaded gondola passengers on the lagoons of New Orleans’ famed City Park.
There are thousands of musicians like Young, the sidemen and women who backed up the big names in the Big Easy and provided the soundtrack for New Orleans’ endless party. While New York and Los Angeles have offered safe haven to many celebrity performers, smaller cities across the country are welcoming the backup players, offering gigs and help in starting over.
“There was a very slow response to the cultural needs” of the hurricane evacuees, said Bill Royston, director of the Portland Jazz Festival. “A lot is gone. We are doing what we can to preserve what is left.”
Working with other Oregon businesses, real estate agents, local government and travel agencies, the Jazz Festival is offering a temporary home in Portland to any New Orleans musician who needs it.
The organization will coordinate temporary housing, pay for musicians to fly to the city from the Gulf region, help get children into public schools, help spouses find jobs and -- perhaps most importantly -- do what it can to get the musicians gigs at the jazz clubs that dot the Northwest. And all displaced musicians are welcome to perform at the February festival.
Young was one among the first small groups of musicians to arrive in Portland. He and his wife want to start over here, he said, after salvaging what he can from their New Orleans apartment.
“There are a lot of people sitting at the doorstep of New Orleans, waiting to get back in and see what’s left,” he said.
In Houston, a musician-run group called New Orleans and Houston, or NOAH, started up almost immediately. It has found housing for displaced musicians, persuaded a jazz club to have an “all New Orleans” night and helped musicians buy or borrow new instruments.
“The big names, they have resources.... The people that we need to tap into are the ones who were the street musicians,” said Gigi Hill, a Houston jazz vocalist who is volunteering with the group. “They are the ones who really need our help.”
In Atlanta and surrounding areas, several jazz radio stations have banded together to ask listeners to provide shelter for displaced musicians and help them find jobs. And in Baton Rouge, La., the local blues society is trying to persuade government to pay displaced musicians to perform in public spaces, which the group says might help bring some cheer to a city overflowing with hurricane evacuees.
Jimmy Makarounis, owner of Jimmy Mak’s, a top Portland jazz venue where some of the displaced musicians will be invited to play, said they will find a receptive audience.
“More than just about anything in their life, what drives these guys is their music,” Makarounis said. “If we can give them a home where they can play and be a part of the local scene, maybe it can make the transition in other aspects of their lives easier.”
Young said a part of him is looking forward to a new life in the Northwest. And one of these days, he’ll probably write a song or two about the hurricane.
“New music will come out of it,” he said. “That’s a little bit of optimism.”