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Sunday, September 04, 2005

New Orleans Sings The Blues -

New Orleans Sings The Blues - Forbes.comNew Orleans Sings The Blues
Tom Van Riper, 09.02.05, 6:00 PM ET

It takes a lot to get a real jazzman out of New Orleans.

Early Monday, Alan Toussaint was still at his piano as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city, with no intention of getting up.

"I had planned on staying. I've been through many storms before," says the renowned jazz and r&b musician, whose home near the New Orleans fairground now sits partially submerged in water.

The bulk of the industry that has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to New Orleans is driven by locals, some of whom don't know where they'll sleep tonight, let alone work, according to Hank O' Neill of Chiaroscuro Records, a New York-based jazz label.

"Most [musicians] who play New Orleans live there. It's not a place where people go to play," says O'Neill.

John Anello of Cexton Records adds, "The business will be altered for a long time due to the interruption of regular gigs, like weddings and parties. And, of course, the casinos and convention businesses employ several musicians."

Toussaint was lucky. He finally decided to check into the nearby Astor Hotel just before the storm arrived. He avoided harm, but his house, filled with all the tools of his long-time trade, didn't.

"I'm sure my place is flooded, and that all my equipment is ruined," Toussaint says. Helpless to get back and check his house right away, he made his way to Baton Rouge, La. From there, he caught a flight to Houston, where a connecting flight took him to New York. That's where he'll bunk in with friends for the foreseeable future--though he's already intently looking ahead to going home.

"I'll continue my writing from here for at least a couple of weeks," says Toussaint, who, at 67, has curtailed his performance schedule in favor of writing and producing music. "When I get the signal that it's OK to go back, I'll pick up the rubbish and start fresh."

Toussaint and the others whose livelihoods are on hold are eyeing one gig in particular that does draw its share of outsiders andis considered the most important to go on as scheduled. That would be the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a ten-day extravaganza filled with world-class performing talent in jazz, blues and gospel.

Drawing upward of 300,000 music lovers from all over the world, the event has filled every hotel room in the city each spring since 1970, pumping millions into the local economy.

Organizers are hopeful the city will be ready for it by April 2006, but they can't be sure.

"The next few months will be critical in determining whether we can put it on," says George Wein, who runs Festival Productions, the show's organizer. "It will depend on how operable New Orleans is, and how much the city's image changes."

For now, Festival Productions will set up an office in Memphis and move ahead as if the show will go on. Indeed, officials of the production company say Baton Rouge is a possible alternative--which would keep it in Louisiana, at least.

The company also organizes the Essence Music Festival, billed as a tribute to African-American women, which is now in its 12th year. Held each year in the Superdome, the event helps fill local hotel rooms during Fourth of July week, which is otherwise the dullest and stickiest time of the year.

While physical conditions make each show's future uncertain, Wein isn't worried about being left holding the bag if he cancels after the musicians have committed, confident they won't ask for their money if there's a reasonable notice period.

"When you've been doing this as long as we have, there's a trust," he says, before adding that if the shows can go on, it just might be the best one yet. "In a way it will be easier, because everyone will be anxious to come to New Orleans next year."

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