Listen closely! The streets of the Big Easy wish to recite the tale of its resilient history. New Orleans, Louisiana, is a city that needs no introduction. It’s the home of cross-cultural heritage and civil rights movements, which has translated to its unique and rebellious music culture. From the Carnival celebration and Mardi Gras, to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Voodoo Experience, Essence Music Festival and Southern Decadence, New Orleans is constantly looking for an excuse to celebrate and spread its cheerful spirit all year long.
That wasn’t always the case, however. New Orleans has transitioned from a port city that relied on shipping as a main source of income into a city that currently promotes tourism and creativity. Prior to being the birthplace of jazz music, the largest city in Louisiana thrived economically by operating one of the major U.S. ports of entry. Possessing a railway, highway, international airport and port, the city has depended on transportation as a vital part of developing its economy and helping build its reputation as an industrial hub. But if there is anything New Orleans’ economy has proven throughout history, it would be its resilience, having survived several crises and natural disasters.
Culturally, the city’s large African American population fostered its cosmopolitan flare, which led New Orleans to become the “cradle of jazz music,” as jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton described it. The African American contribution to the cultural scene continued after the Civil War, and with it, grew the musical expression. As the years went by, the city delivered famous artists who helped shape the global music scene, such as Louis Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, pianist Dr. John and Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
NOLA: How Culture Shaped Music
In New Orleans, culture is the fundamental infrastructure, as David Simon highlighted in his show Treme. The show was named after a neighborhood outside the French Quarter that was home to many musicians during the past half-century.
“What he actually meant was that here—the actual historically-continuous traditions: music, festivals, ritual, second lines—all of that are sort of how the city rebuilt itself after Katrina,” says Joel Dinerstein, a professor at Tulane University and scholar in American pop culture and history.
Music has been a part of the city’s identity since the beginning, says Reid Wick, music veteran and project manager at The Recording Academy. He highlights that the city had “for the longest time, one of the longest-running opera houses in the United States” and one of the first internationally-recognized classical composers, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who fused African music with European harmony and instrumentation, paving the way for jazz and blues.
“So obviously, being a part of the fabric of culture going back to the beginning, music has always been really important,” Wick continues.
Wick, who also works at the GRAMMY Foundation, argues that officials and businessmen underestimate the effect music has on the city’s economy. He suggests that this underestimation might be because music has always been part of the local culture, resulting in average citizens and the city council taking the scene for granted.
“From a pure economic standpoint, I would argue that for the longest time—and still to this day, in a lot of ways, the city of New Orleans, as a government entity and what I often refer to as the ‘chamber of commerce community’—the banking leaders, the business leaders, the elected leaders, things like that… I don’t think that they really value what the music community brings from an economic standpoint,” Wick says.
“I think that for musicians in New Orleans and the music community in general, a lot of it has been taken for granted because we’ve always been here. So, when you think about that, you think about ‘does the average citizen, does the local banking community, does the city council, do they really value what we bring to the table that makes New Orleans unique and special?’” Wick adds.
Another struggle the city faces, as Wick suggests, is that, unlike Nashville, New Orleans lacks the centralized music scene that allows visitors to be informed of its culture and history.
“So if you go to Nashville and you go to a music club in Nashville, you are going to see two things: You’ll see a sign designating like an official music club in Nashville, and the next sign over it will be a parking spot for musicians to unload their equipment,” he adds.
Hurricane Katrina Hits New Orleans
The transformation of New Orleans continued even after the city was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The devastating hurricane took the lives of over 1,000 citizens, led to the evacuation of 80-90% of the city’s residents and resulted in damage of major roads and bridges.
After the hurricane, the price of property went up, and some musicians simply couldn’t afford to stay any longer. Wick mentions that taxes increased by three times, highlighting that what’s “really causing the music community to struggle [is] not so much the [lack of] gigs but the livability of the city.”
“New Orleans was always known as the city that had a church on one corner and the bar on the next corner, and so on Saturday night, all the musicians were playing together at the bar; next morning, they were all playing together at the church, and when you look at all the stuff that was developed over 300 years organically—” Wick says.
“Katrina disrupted all that, and there was a lot of [musicians], especially the older musicians, who made enough of a living playing in their local bars. They just don’t exist anymore; the neighborhoods don’t even exist, and [in] some of those cases—and they were able to play enough, and a lot of times they lived in [homes] owned by three or four generations—so they didn’t necessarily have paperwork to go to FEMA or some of those things after Katrina, didn’t have proper insurance to rebuild,” Wick adds.
Rebecca Conwell, Senior Advisor for Economic Development at the Office of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans, says people realized that, in order to get the city back on its feet, they must contribute to the collective effort of rebuilding it.
“I know that was true from Tulane University’s perspective. When they moved back, they took charge and said ‘we’re going to put some of our infrastructure in place so that we can bring our students back and the university back.’ And I saw it in government; there were a lot of committees that were formed, and there was a tremendous amount of citizen participation in that process,” she says. “I think that one of the first obvious acts of entrepreneurism happened in the school systems when they started the charter schools, and again it was like, one person, a couple of people saying, ‘I can’t wait for someone to solve this problem, we’re just going to start it,’ and I think it became very infectious.”
The Resilient Music Scene
Conwell argues that entrepreneurs have really helped put the city’s music scene back on the map, which has prompted New Orleans to focus its efforts on how it can offer them support.
“I think digital media is really just the most recent iteration of the same type of culture that New Orleans has always had. We’ve had a significant sort of ongoing tradition of craft making and art and music, right? And so, digital media is just the newest iteration of that,” Sara Estes Cohen, Deputy Chief Information Officer for New Orleans, adds. “So, I think that already, the city is supportive of the arts and therefore with the entrepreneurship that’s occurred over the last 10 years—the digital media side of that as well in the last 10 years, especially. There has been an increase, I think, first in the digital media tech more so than the harder tech.”
One of the initiatives that took off after the hurricane was Airlift—an artist-driven initiative that collaborates and creates with the artists and communities it supports. The organization was launched by musician and artist manager Jay Pennington and multimedia installation artist Delaney Martin as a response to Katrina. Pennington explained that uncertainty dominated the music scene after the hurricane, and the initiative hoped to bring back stability and connect artists to one another and their audience.
“You had plenty of people to play with, but no one to play for, which is difficult in a town like this, where you could survive off music before Katrina, and so there was a little fear that a lot of artists might leave and have to go to Nashville or wherever else to make their [living],” Pennington says.
Pennington adds that he “sort of, through the traveling that we do and had done, already have realized that there was a demand for New Orleans artists and stuff happening in the world at large, especially post-Katrina, and so we were like ‘how do we give those opportunities to the artists,’ and ‘how do we make it so that people can go away, and maybe make some money and come back?”
Currently, the office of economic development is aiming to put out a request for proposal to formalize their public incentive process. Conwell says that the city sees this as “a great opportunity to not only show transparency and to kind of structure how we make decisions around where we put public incentives, but also align them [with] priorities in the neighborhoods that have not experienced the type of growth that, say, downtown and anything close to downtown has just gone crazy right now.”
Cohen adds that the city is doing a lot of work that focuses on digital equity, whether it’s access to the internet, access to devices or even understanding and acclimating to technology.
“We’re kicking off a digital literacy pilot right now with a few different places, and then we’re going to be kicking off digital literacy programs,” Cohen says, adding that the city “is also doing a lot of technology workforce development, so with the addition of the tech vertical in the network for economic opportunity, we’re developing non-traditional pathways to technology jobs.”
Post-Hurricane Katrina: What Now?
So how will the music scene survive with all the struggles young musicians face? Wick stresses that the continuation of the entrepreneurial spirit is a must.
“So today in the world, if you think more entrepreneurially, and if you really take the time to learn how the industry works—how to find ways to get your music out there or to participate in music in other ways—because it might not only be as a composer or a performer, there may be other ways that you can… I think that it really takes that sort of entrepreneurial spirit to be able to survive that way,” Wick says.
After the hurricane, the city restored four theaters for Broadway shows and concerts. Dinerstein stresses that the restored theaters help attract touring musicians, stating that “the Saenger, the Joy, the Civic and the Orpheum, they’re all truly—I don’t say this to promote the city—they’re beautiful! The restoration is great; the sound is great.”
The city has also invested some $14.5 billion in constructing a system of levees, flood walls and flood gates that will enable it to withstand hurricanes. Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city’s unemployment rate had dropped to 4.5% in December 2016, compared to 4.8% in December 2015.
But perhaps what the city is experiencing can be summed up in what Dinerstein suggested—not all that Katrina caused was bad, as it helped change the way the world viewed New Orleans.
“[The city] has been able to gentrify amazingly quickly in the last 6 years. It didn’t really happen ’til about ’09 that it really started happening, but the reason it happened so quickly was because Katrina made possible the kinds of transformations that are once in a lifetime for a city. Money came in: federal, state, etc.,” Dinerstein says, adding that “people came in to rebuild, and we got the kind of media exposure that most older cities don’t get.”
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