NEW ORLEANS — There are still gaping holes left by houses that disappeared forever. There are also the brownish lines, sad reminders of just how high the water level reached on Aug. 29, 2005.
And yet 10 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the song rising from New Orleans is not a melancholy one. There's an energy and rhythm here in "Nola," as the locals call it. There's a jerky tempo, an uplifting melody, a swing and a swagger. Jazz has again taken the upper hand.
Far from the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter or the Faubourg Marigny, filled with bars and clubs, is the Musician's Village. Located in the Upper Ninth Ward, an area in the west of the city that was disproportionately affected by Katrina, it was built to accommodate destitute musicians, people who were unable to pay for the reconstruction of their houses.
The community has approximately 80 houses with multicolored facades, a park and an educational music center, all built in recent years and financed by the efforts of several associations. With a bit of luck, visitors can stumble across a trumpet player playing his scales or two guitarists playing blues on their front steps.
Several blocks south is another key spot in the city's musical landscape — on Rampart Street, outside a laundromat, of all places. This used to be the famous J&M Recording Studio. In 1948, Italian immigrant Cossimo Matassa, who was 18 at the time, set up the studio at the back of his father's grocery store. It has seen big names come and go, from Little Richard to Fats Domino and Lee Dorsey. But the only reminders now that crucial moments in the history of R&B and rock "n" roll played out here are the logo of the studio on the front steps and a plaque on the wall.
Opposite, there's the Louis Armstrong Park and the legendary Congo Square, considered by many to be the 19th century birthplace of jazz. They serve as a sort of natural barrier between the French Quarter, the city's historical center with its wrought iron balconies, and the Tremé, an almost 100% black area made famous by the 2010-2013 television series of the same name by David Simon, creator of The Wire.
The public park, which is always deserted, seems to rise up between two worlds watching one another. Tremé, on the other side, is still pretty banged up. But it's also very lively, and showing evident signs of gentrification. Today, one of Tremé"s schools is among the best in the city. Just across the way, like an obvious extension to the school, is a new educational music center
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Madonna of the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katerina, New Orleans — Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans
Further west, a number of famous restaurants are now back in business, including Kermit's Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge, which used to belong to Ernie K-Doe, the founder of R&B, and remained closed for a long time after Katrina. Kermit Ruffins, a trumpet player, jazz singer and New Orleans figure (he also appears, playing his own role, in the series Treme), revived the place, which was covered in graffiti but cherished by local residents. The program now includes open-air barbecues and jazz concerts that serve as an antidote to Bourbon Street's tourist-trap offerings.
A couple of blocks further on is Dooky Chase's, which opened in 1941 and has never closed its doors. This was said to be Louis Armstrong's favorite restaurant. It's also where Ray Charles wrote "Early in the Morning," while having breakfast. For lunch or dinner, visitors would do well to order the fried chicken, which is cooked to perfection.
Dancing the night away
At nightfall, music emanates from the brand new Jazz Market, which opened in early April in the Central District, another disadvantaged area. Trumpet player Irvin Mayfield, director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and winner of a 2009 Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble, was instrumental in the project. The state-of-the-art facility is dedicated to jazz but is open to other musical styles.
Why did Mayfield choose to set up this 460-seat oddity here? "I grew up in this neighborhood," he says. "I want the young people in New Orleans to keep on dreaming in front of a trombone player like all those in the previous generations did."
An evening walk along Frenchmen Street, known for the quality of its concerts, makes it even more apparent just how much the young generation still lives for music. Snug Harbor, The Spotted Cat, d.b.a. There are so many frenzied clubs open every night of the week where the quality of the jazz groups — but also funk, blues and bluegrass bands — is exceptional.
On the sidewalks, brass bands make the crowd go wild. Musicians encourage onlookers to move to the rhythm, to dance — right there in the middle of the street.