Earlier this week, Benny Jones put his snare drum and sticks into his orange pickup truck emblazoned with the words “Treme Brass Band.”
Headed for his Wednesday night gig at the Candlelight Lounge, Jones remembered back to 2006, just after he returned home to New Orleans to work on his flood-damaged house in Gentilly.
For a few years, he said, gigs were slow for everyone, to the point where he and other musicians staged a silent “Musicians Solidarity Second-Line,” complete with a hearse, as an emblem of the dire financial conditions faced by those who kept New Orleans music and culture alive.
“It’s going pretty good now,” said Jones, who plays at d.b.a. and Candlelight every week. “Musicians are working pretty steady.”
As a critical register of where New Orleans stands nine years after Hurricane Katrina, the city’s music scene is central to its identity. And the city’s musicians say that scene is bustling.
It is undoubtedly a different scene than existed before the storm. Some key hole-in-the-wall venues have been lost. And a wave of newcomers seems to be exacerbating the perennial struggle for a decent income.
“But the music scene is pretty darn healthy right now, at least the world I’m in,” said trombonist Craig Klein, who said he has played maybe 20 gigs in August — a slow time of the year — whereas, in the past, he can recall entire months with only five engagements.
In general, New Orleans musicians say they’re busy and they’re working in a vibrant environment, playing to admiring crowds.
What hasn’t changed since the days before the levees broke is the tenuous financial picture that most musicians face. Even some of the city’s most admired performers hustle from gig to gig, sometimes for a mere share of the bar’s take and money from a plastic tips jar.
Many do not have insurance and fall into a gap where they can’t qualify for federally subsidized health care, so their only source of care is the donor-supported New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.
According to the clinic’s data, more than one-third of its patients live in deep poverty, making less than $11,670 a year. “There are still really poor musicians out there. And they work really hard. And they’re iconic New Orleans musicians,” said clinic founder Bethany Bultman, who noted that despite full schedules, many of the young brass band musicians she deals with can’t even afford to buy their own instruments.
“In some ways, New Orleans is better now,” trumpeter Leroy Jones said. “In other ways, because New Orleans has become a more expensive place, it’s not better for musicians, because a lot of clubs don’t really want to pay musicians a wage that’s comparable to the actual cost of living.”
Bass drummer Anthony Bennett, leader of the Royal Players Brass Band, said club owners and people hosting events often pit bands against one another, trying to get the lowest price. “That hasn’t changed,” he said. “If anything, it’s gotten worse, because there are more bands.”
Singer Margie Perez, who moved to New Orleans from Washington, D.C., a few years before Katrina, said she sees more opportunities, “but they’re not that well-paid.” So she burns the candle at both ends, working a regular day job to supplement the low-paying gigs that keep her working until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. “It’s what I came here to do, because I was just intoxicated by the live-music scene here,” she said.
Holding out the tip jar
The present-day New Orleans music scene is so vibrant that it seems to be attracting an endless number of new performers. “Seems like a bus pulls up every day and more musicians keep coming off,” Klein said.
Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, 28, has a regular Thursday night gig at Vaughan’s Lounge, but he feels the pressure of a crowded market. “The guys are coming in, fresh out of school, and approaching New Orleans from a jazz track, which is what they went to school for,” he said. “They name themselves New Orleans names, and they take gigs from New Orleans musicians.”
On the one hand, Klein sees the newcomers as a good thing, something that keeps live music in the city fresh. On the other hand, he wishes musicians would avoid “nickel-and-dime” jobs that hold down wages citywide.
“The only thing we have to work on is trying to get cats to play for the right kind of money,” he said. “Not the kind of money we played for 20 years ago.”
For jobs with low pay, the tips jar is a necessary evil, especially on Frenchmen Street, where it’s often passed around at clubs that don’t charge a cover.
“I just want to sing,” Perez said. “But I have to walk around the room with the tip jar.”
It’s especially humiliating, she said, when the crowd is filled with people who don’t understand that the plastic jar pays her bills. “If you’re playing on Frenchmen with a lot of tourists, they often don’t get why you’re standing in front of them with a jar full of money,” she said.
‘Brass band yoga’
Philanthropy has helped undergird the recovery of the New Orleans music scene. When Rebirth Brass Band leader Phil Frazier suffered a stroke caused by hypertension in 2008, the Musicians’ Clinic provided all of the care he needed to recover and is now helping him keep his blood pressure under control.
Every musician interviewed for this article relies on the clinic.
“They make all kinds of people feel better,” Klein said.
The clinic now has electronic records and has active relationships with 2,500 patients, many of whom work with the clinic’s staff to keep their blood pressure or blood sugar level down or to lose weight.
“We now have brass band yoga,” Bultman said. “It was the musicians’ idea. They said, ‘We hear we can keep our blood pressure down through yoga.’ ”
Other resources that began or expanded after Katrina also help support musicians, said Perez, who, like many others, lost everything in the 2005 flooding but was able to get her instruments replaced. In her case, the nonprofit Music Rising organization helped her get a new guitar and keyboard.
The Tipitina’s Foundation Co-op offers her computer and fax access and a recording studio for a small monthly fee. And she has a stable, affordable mortgage payment because of her house in the Musicians’ Village, which is also her built-in musicians network.
“I love it,” she said. “We can gig and still pay our mortgages.”
Klein is grateful for the new-and-improved institutions. But he said that, to his mind, the biggest boon to musicians since Katrina has been the love, loyalty and support of New Orleans music lovers. Without them, his job wouldn’t be possible, Klein said.
“We need people to keep coming out to see us. That’s the real support,” he said.