A Requiem for Katrina: How Music Saved the City of New Orleans

Max Becherer/AP

Early on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. When the storm made landfall, it was recorded as a category three hurricane. The storm itself did a great deal of damage, particularly in the city of New Orleans, but the real catastrophe lay in its aftermath. Levee breaches and the failure of the city’s floodwalls led to massive inundation of over eighty percent of New Orleans’ neighborhoods.

Additionally, the federal government, under the Bush administration, was—disappointingly—slow to meet the needs of the people affected by the storm. Hundreds of thousands of New Orleans natives were displaced from their homes, seeking refuge in cities like Houston, Austin, Atlanta, and Nashville. Helen Taylor, professor of American Literature wrote in an article, “Katrina was seen as heralding the death of a unique city, exposing American racism and neglect of its poorest citizens…” 

Although New Orleanians faced extreme adversity due to the effects of hurricane Katrina in 2005 and years after, they did not let their narrative of ‘suffering’ define them. Since the city’s foundation in 1718, New Orleans has undergone several natural and human-influenced disasters and environmental shifts. This means that ‘destruction’ and ‘reconstruction’ are concepts which are rather familiar with the people of New Orleans. And, the characteristic of resilience that keeps the city afloat is attributed to their unique culture and art, but more importantly its music. Music and the culture surrounding it—such as New Orleans’ style jazz, ‘authentic’ traditional jazz, second line parades, Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, and many more native musical traditions—play a major role in the distinct culture of New Orleans. Not to mention the musicians themselves, who are the cornerstone of the city’s cultural fabric. Therefore, one of the main reasons there was a resurgence of culture within the city after one of the most brutal storms in the city’s history, was due to the prominent integration and reliance on music as a way of life. Jazz in its many forms — rhythm & blues, soul, and fusion — served as a catalyst in the reconstruction of the city after Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans’ populace historically combines Native American, French and Spanish, Acadian, Anglo-American protestant, and most notably African and African American cultures into what Helen Taylor refers to as an “extraordinary melting pot.” Although this term is problematic in certain respects, the argument she makes has some validity. New Orleans’ culture is a conglomeration of various ethnicities, traditions, and religious practices that has made its way into the music. You don’t need an archive to get a greater understanding of the rich and diverse culture located in the city of New Orleans, rather, you can just walk around, have conversations, and participate in traditional customs, just as the natives learned themselves. Live experiences thus turn into lived experiences.

Directly after the storm hit, social and cultural traditions ceased within the city—and along with it, musical rituals like second line parades that contribute to New Orleans culture vanished.

The thought of irreparable damage was extremely hard to bear for musicians. Michael White recounts his experiences with the loss resulting from Hurricane Katrina in his article Reflections of an Authentic Jazz Life in Pre-Katrina New Orleans. As the hurricane destroyed his home, it took with it his collection of archived jazz and African diasporic artifacts he took great pride in. Distraught, he goes on by saying, “unearthing the clarinets was especially hard. Many of them had been made between the late 1890s and 1930s. There was no hope of salvaging any of them. They were a part of musical history forever silenced in the flood waters of Katrina. 

Given all of the complications and despair the storm spread throughout the people of New Orleans, there was still an inner drive amongst musicians to keep the music going in the city. Music to them, and non-musicians, is very much a part of their heritage. Few devout musicians moved elsewhere after the hurricane, rather, they found ways to reinstate the city’s rich musical traditions, even if it required a different approach. Jazz trumpeter, Terrence Blanchard, who composed the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke, explains the importance of New Orleans to him and his identity. “I wouldn’t leave the city for anything in the world. This is one of the most significant periods in our history and I want to be part of the rebuilding. The production that is coming out of here is amazing, not only in terms of music but in literature and everything else.” Blanchard is but one of the many musicians who strived to keep the city ‘alive’ by participating in the reconstruction of its infrastructure. He realized the importance of being in the city as an established musician and serving as an emblem that the state of jazz was still ever-present.

New Orleans resident and legendary pianist Fats Domino pauses a moments for a photo after meeting with reporters 19 August 2007 to talk about his new 2- disk album “Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino” to be released 25 September 2007. The album is full of music’s superstars with the expected large royalties going to to his Tipitiana’s Foundation, with the mission of preserving the musical culture of New Orleans and the building of a lower 9th ward cultural center.

Fats Domino, a famous American pianist and singer-songwriter of Louisiana Creole descent who is most notably known as a prominent pioneer of rock and roll music, was discovered and rescued from the attic of his severely flooded home after the hurricane. After news broke of his story, his supporters pitched in to help him. Ultimately, they poured thousands of dollars into the restoration of his home and recording studio in the Lower Ninth Ward, where he was originally located. Stories like Domino’s did not exist in a vacuum. People from all over the world turned their gaze to New Orleans in its withering condition. Many stepped in to help. News of New Orleans’ musicians struggling to rebuild and thrive after the hurricane led to fund-raising efforts and gifts from many U.S. cities and countries around the world.

Reflecting on a performance given by local Jazz artists at a bar called The Maple Leaf about a month after the hurricane, musicologist John Swenson wrote an article titled The Bands Played On, published in 2006. This performance, and many others like it, brought musicians back to the city from their relocation after the hurricane. He claims that the survival of jazz music after the storm was a force that reassured the residents of New Orleans and the country that the culture of the city was not dead, but still very much alive!

If we regard jazz as one of the main genres that revitalized the city of New Orleans, we can see just how important it really is. Many artists, especially musicians, were defiant when figuring out how to cope with the devastating destruction of Katrina. They composed, performed, collaborated, celebrated, built, and published. Their resilience and ambition is awe-inspiring. So, if New Orleans is indeed the American Atlantis its citizens say it is, I would want to be lost right along with it.

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