Amid the massive national effort to provide shelter and basic necessities to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, San Francisco is stepping up with plans to keep the rich musical heritage of New Orleans alive.
Jordan Shlain, president of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, is spearheading an effort to bring to the Bay Area up to 100 displaced musicians who fled the devastation, with the intention of giving them a place to live and play until they can return home.
"This is more of a cultural effort than a humanitarian effort," he said.
Shlain has formed the Don't Stop the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization backed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and several major clubs and hotels around San Francisco, to provide the evacuees not only with housing, meals and medical care, but also instruments and stages on which to play.
Among the first group of musicians arriving from New Orleans are Kirk Joseph, a tuba player and founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, spoken word artist Byron Philmore and trumpeter Kid Merv, who rode out Hurricane Katrina in a hospital with his fiancee and two-week-old son.
The Foundation is pushing for a citiy-wide resolution that would temporarily allow non-amplified musicians to play around public streets and venues, giving the public a chance to sample New Orleans' African-inspired jazz, blues and rock music, some of which dates back to the pre-Civil war era.
So far, Don't Stop the Music has held a handful of meetings but hasn't confirmed any shows nor proposed a time line to put its program in action.
"At this point, the invitation is being sent," Shlain said. "Now we're working on the logistics. I don't think it's going to be terribly difficult to get the musicians here."
Asked about finding housing for displaced musicians while the overall homeless problem continues to plague the City, Shlain said his efforts to help the hurricane victims was a temporary measure.
"I'm not trying to solve San Francisco's homeless problem," Shlain said. "That's a real problem. This is a temporary cultural thing. If we get the musicians here, it will enrich our scene, more people will patronize the clubs and local musicians will ultimately benefit."
Johanna Vater, a promoter at Berkeley's Another Planet Entertainment who books shows at the Independent on Divisadero Street, agreed. "We open our doors to them. We want to bring their culture and diversity to our venue and also expose the music of New Orleans to the Bay Area."
The Musicians Union is also onboard with the project. "The union looks upon this plan to bring displaced Gulf Coast musicians to San Francisco as an incredible opportunity, in part because of the very struggles of many local musicians. What better way to underscore to our community the value of live music in our daily lives and the gifted among us who make music possible?" said David Schoenbrun, president of Musicians Local Six of the International Federation of Musicians. "What better way to inform the public that we need to be pro-active in addressing the lack of funding, work opportunities and business incentives that make live music events possible?"
Meanwhile, there are a slew of separate New Orleans disaster relief concerts scheduled around the Bay Area over the coming weeks, including a Jazz at Pearl's concert in North Beach with the Marcus Shelby Trio on Tuesday, September 20, and a show with New Orleans funk band Bonerama at the Boom Boom Room on Fillmore on Friday, Sepember 23.
Programs aimed at helping displaced New Orleans musicians are already underway in other parts of the country as well, with cities stretching from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon opening their doors to musicians who saw their regular haunts get sucked underneath the toxic gumbo left in the wake of the hurricane.
There were reportedly 3,000 to 5,000 full-time musicians working in New Orleans at the time the hurricane hit.
The Tipitina's Foundation is developing a database of people throughout the country who can give New Orleans artists a temporary home or other support. There is the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. The Jazz Foundation of America is collecting money to help raise rent and replace lost instruments.
Influential New Orleans-based radio station WWOZ has allowed musicians and fans to reconnect via its web site. A group called Noahleans is also providing a similar service, with a push to get the stricken musicians relocated and rehired.