Like many nonprofits in New Orleans, the Backbeat Foundation was created in the months following Hurricane Katrina. Its mission was to help musicians who suddenly found themselves without their homes, instruments or livelihoods.
Initially, the group collected money and distributed it to those in need. But organizers soon realized that they could have the greatest impact by getting musicians back on stage.
Thus was born the Backbeat Jazz Fest Series, a music extravaganza that takes place annually on and between the first and second weekends of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
On April 26, the foundation kicks off its eighth annual Jazz Fest Series, with a lineup that includes some of the city’s hottest musical groups, among them Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Bonerama, the Stanton Moore Piano Trio, New Orleans Night Crawlers and Cyril Neville’s Swamp Funk.
Shows will be held at various venues, including the Blue Nile and Blue Nile Balcony Room on Frenchman Street, Café Istanbul in the St. Claude Arts District, PubliQ House on reinvigorated Freret Street and the New Orleans Botanical Garden.
“I really like the energy it creates,” Executive Director Donna Santiago said. “These are much more intimate experiences (than Jazz Fest concerts). None of the venues holds more than 400 people. Plus there are some great collaborations that happen at the nighttime shows that don’t happen at the festival.”
The series, which runs through May 5 and features more than 20 shows, also gives lesser-known musicians and bands an opportunity to display their talents, Santiago said.
“A lot of local acts don’t get access to the big stages, and that’s where we come in,” she said. “We try to keep it very focused on New Orleans. We’ve had some magical moments that have happened at these shows.”
Santiago, an entertainment lawyer, established the Backbeat Foundation with her partner, Tony Ciaccio, while they were temporarily living in Dallas after Katrina. Musician friends living in Dallas donated to the cause, and Santiago and Ciaccio distributed money to help musicians pay for gasoline, utility bills and whatever else they needed it for.
“We had so many connections in Dallas, and people wanted to help,” she said.
But they soon realized that they needed a more formal means of collecting donations, and in February 2006, they incorporated and obtained nonprofit status. With most of the music venues still shuttered, they held the first Backbeat Jazz Fest Series in the lobby of a hotel. A leaking ceiling did not stop the musicians from performing.
The organization has come a long way since Katrina, staging shows at some of the city’s most popular music clubs, including the relatively new PubliQ House.
“It’s really well done, it’s very comfortable, with a beautiful stage,” Santiago said. “It’s where everything is happening on Freret Street.”
During the Jazz Fest Series, Big Sam’s Funky Nation will perform at PubliQ House along with Brass-A-Holics and Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet. Also on the lineup are Break Science, Flow Tribe, Bonerama and many more musical acts.
At the Blue Nile and Blue Nile Balcony Room, music lovers can choose from a lineup that includes Stooges Brass Band, Ivan Neville Piano Sessions Vol. 3, Honey Island Swamp Band and the Royal Potato Family All-Stars.
The Botanical Garden show on May 3 features Royal Southern Brotherhood and Chris Mule & the Perpetrators.
While the Jazz Fest Series is Backbeat’s most popular program, it is by no means the only one. The group offers programming all year round, and Santiago said one of her favorites is the Garden Party Series, also at the Botanical Garden. The concerts are family friendly and are a great way to expose children to the unique music of New Orleans, she said.
“It’s the second Sunday of each month in the early evening,” she said. “People can bring their kids and come out and spread their blanket and enjoy the show. It’s a really nice time.”