After the flood

This article is from 2008.

Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen

Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen

Hurricane Katrina not only devastated a whole city, it nearly destroyed a legendary jazz culture. Malcolm Jack hears how Edinburgh has opened its arms to the top New Orleans players.

Until August 2005, trumpeter Duke Heitger had a privileged situation for a jobbing jazz musician: when not out on the road, he worked a steady day shift on the New Orleans paddle wheeler Natchez, entertaining tourists with his band The Steamboat Stompers, playing Dixieland numbers as the ship drifted a slow and regular route up and down the Mississippi River. During a European tour that summer, he watched everything change on TV, as Hurricane Katrina laid waste to The Big Easy. ‘I was horrified of course,’ he says now. ‘The city was devastated.’

Heitger was one of the lucky ones: the high water mark missed his house by a matter of inches. Others weren’t so fortunate. Some 1800 people died, and many tens of thousands more were left homeless and jobless. Tourism is New Orleans’ main economic engine, and with the infrastructure destroyed and visitor numbers radically dwindled, businesses were hit hard; businesses like the Natchez, which was berthed indefinitely in the hurricane-swollen Mississippi, forcing Heitger to start looking further afield for his regular pay cheque. ‘These days, I certainly earn most of my income from outside of New Orleans.’ As I speak to him, he’s on the phone in a hotel room in Rome, just about to check out on his way to Germany, having flown in from Israel a couple of days before.

Travelling constantly to make his crust is a far from ideal working situation for Heitger, but he counts simply having the option of taking to the road as a blessing in itself. ‘If it weren’t for touring, it would be rough,’ he says. ‘Not everyone has that privilege, and there’s a lot of people who are still struggling. It’s still a pretty rough environment there.’ One of Heitger’s next destinations will be Edinburgh, as he passes through to perform with Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra. It’s not unusual for Heitger to appear at the Festival; the acclaimed trumpeter has been a regular visitor for years, nor is it uncommon for New Orleans-based artists to travel here to play; the Louisianan city is, after all, the ‘spiritual home’ of jazz and the birthplace to such greats as Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

Over the last few years, however, the music of The Big Easy has fast become effectively an entire strand in itself within the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. A strand that in 2008, alongside Heitger, will feature the likes of fleet-fingered clarinettist Orange Kellin with his New Orleans Blues Serenaders, Evan Christopher, performing his ‘Django à la Créole’ take on European swing, and soul/blues/funk pianist Jon Cleary, with his band The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Legendary jazz singer Topsy Chapman will also host her own Gospel charity fundraiser, and make a number of guest appearances with artists from all over the world.

This expansion of New Orleans’ influence at the Festival has been part of an ongoing effort by organisers to do their bit to help give a boost to the city’s musicians in the wake of Katrina. ‘Over the 30 years of the festival, we’ve booked many, many players from New Orleans,’ says the Festival’s associate director Roger Spence. ‘But we particularly have been supportive over the last two or three years because of the disastrous situation there for musicians’ employment and for their basic welfare. There are some musicians who we are booking this year who lost their homes in 2005 and still don’t have them back. So you have itinerant musicians who have been living out of bags for the best part of three years, many of whom have relocated to other towns and still haven’t been able to return to New Orleans, and maybe never will. The situation in New Orleans remains unstable. There just isn’t satisfactory employment for musicians in the way that there was.’

The Festival’s resolve to assist New Orleans players post-Katrina isn’t unique; many of the major jazz and blues festivals worldwide have similarly stepped up their booking of artists from the city. But Spence feels EJBF is particularly well positioned - in light of its relatively large size, a long-running association with the New Orleans scene and dedication to a broad range of stylistic disciplines - to give a friendly leg up to a wider selection of performers than most. ‘We’re not only interested in helping support those people who can support themselves, we’re trying to support those musicians who don’t get the opportunity to come out of New Orleans quite so often, because they don’t have international management and they don’t have regular international globe trotting tours.’

Spence reveals that, ultimately, the Festival hopes to set up its own New Orleans Village every August in St Andrew Square, bringing a slice of jazz’s spiritual home to Edinburgh - food, music and all - generating not just more gigging opportunities for New Orleans artists, but potentially an all-important boost for tourism back in The Big Easy too. ‘People will come and say, “right, I would love to go and see the real thing now, these musicians at home in the real carnival atmosphere”. We could be giving businesses the chance to promote New Orleans in Europe, so we can move towards creating a platform for trade and industry as well as the arts and culture.’

According to clarinettist Orange Kellin - who was finally able to move back to New Orleans a few months ago after the roof of his house, ripped apart by Katrina, was repaired - the knock-on effects of EJBF and other such festivals’ readiness to extend their welcome to many of the city’s players is already being felt back home. ‘It certainly lifts the spirits, and the sense of value and relevance for a lot of musicians,’ he says. ‘The word has definitely gotten out since the hurricane, and it definitely has increased exposure to the rest of the world. One musician said to me, tongue in cheek, that the hurricane was the best advertisement New Orleans musicians could have got, since they’re on the road now when they might not have been before.’

With tourist numbers gradually rising again, the musical infrastructure is slowly getting back on its feet too, and even booming again in some areas. ‘There are new places popping up all the time, clubs and restaurants that weren’t there before,’ says Kellin. ‘So there is definitely life in the music scene in New Orleans still; it’s not on its knees or anything like it was the first year after the hurricane.’

Duke Heitger makes similarly positive noises when asked about The Big Easy’s jazz and blues future. ‘I’m an optimist and I plan on keeping my family there in New Orleans. I actually think that if we put the work into it, we can make the place even better than it was before the storm.’ In a burst of characteristically upbeat New Orleans spirit, he says he even hopes to see the Natchez’ paddles turning again very soon, and a resumption of the sessions that were his band’s daily bread and butter. ‘A lot of it is attitude and spirit,’ he says, laughing. ‘You certainly don’t live in New Orleans for the weather.’

Gospel Concert with Topsy Chapman, St Cuthbert's Church, Lothian Road, 27 Jul, 6pm, free

Orange Kellin’s New Orleans Blues Serenaders, The Hub, Castlehill, 29 Jul, 2pm, £10.50 (£8.50)

Topsy Chapman’s New Orleans Band, Queen’s Hall, Clerk Street, 30 Jul, 8pm, £18 (£15)

Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Spiegeltent, George Square, 30 Jul, 9.30pm, £15

Ken Mathieson Classic Jazz Orchestra with Duke Heitger and Topsy Chapman, Spiegeltent, George Square, 1 Aug, 6pm, £10

Evan Christopher’s Django à la Créole, The Hub, Castlehill, 2 Aug, 2pm, £12.50 (£10.50)

Topsy Chapman and Becky Kilgore, Spiegeltent, George Square, 3 Aug, 8.30pm, £15.

For tickets, call 0131 473 2000 and 0131 668 2019 (Queen’s Hall).

Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival

Scotland's biggest jazz festival presents concerts over ten days all over the capital, in parks, churches, clubs and concert halls. With a programme featuring all genre styles from early jazz to the avant garde, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival usually manages to secure some world premieres, new bands, and fresh…

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