The Big Easy sound: When the Saints go marching ... out
MEMPHIS, TENN — . - Ever since he played "When the Saints Come Marching In" as a 5-year-old, Stephen Rudolph has been happiest when his fingers are dancing across a keyboard.
But hurricane Katrina took away his gigs and his joie de vivre. That is, until the straw-hatted pianist landed on Beale Street here in Memphis, where the New Orleans standard "Poke Salad Annie" is replaced by the Memphis must-sing "Mustang Sally." Two days after he and his wife, Susan, arrived penniless and hungry, Mr. Rudolph found work for his fingers - and is now considering staying, if only to pay off the generosity of local musicians and club owners.
"This storm has scattered musicians all over the country," says Rudolph. "And that may not be a bad thing."
In one of the few bright spots after Katrina, an outpouring of support for displaced New Orleans musicians is energizing music scenes from Atlanta to Portland, Ore. Indeed, the superstorm has sparked one of the most extraordinary musical migrations of pickers, horn-blowers, and pluckers since the closing of New Orleans' Storyville bordello district in 1917 - an exodus of musicians that spread the jazz gospel and changed music history.
"Economics and social patterns gave birth to blues and jazz, and have historically caused all the migratory shifts in music," says Jack Yoder, a New Orleans blues guitarist and singer who fled to Memphis. "It turns out that a natural disaster does the same thing."
Thousands of musicians fled the floods, many leaving guitars and keyboards to be consumed by the water - not to mention looters or fire. While New York and Los Angeles became second homes to celebrity players like Aaron Neville and Fats Domino, the vast majority of migrating musicians are unknowns, keepers of the New Orleans beat. Some scattered west to Houston and Austin, Texas. Others pointed northward to Memphis. Many moved on to Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., even Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. But working musicians have to find a town where people will pay to get down and let loose, as they do here on Beale Street.
So far, musicians' groups are helping to provide living expenses, new instruments, and healthcare - reaffirming, for some, the esprit de corps of the jazz community. But most important, club owners are providing venues or, as they did at the Bar Car in Nashville, opening an otherwise dark Wednesday night for paying gigs to clusters of New Orleans musicians. Though some worry about scooting onto the turf of established musicians, so far little tension has been reported - though that may change.
"There are New Orleans musicians pretty much in every town around the South," says Reed Wick, who left the city and now works to help displaced musicians at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in Memphis. "I don't know if they're going to resent it at some point, but right now everybody is unbelievably welcoming and generous with their time and gifts."
In Houston, a new organization called New Orleans and Houston (NOAH) is helping perhaps the largest band of musicians to escape the city. Hill country blues players from New Orleans are finding work in San Francisco. Even the White House has invited musicians now holed up in Memphis to play at an October ball.
In Portland, Ore., the Jazz Festival, along with local businesses, paid the way for seven New Orleans musicians to travel there and set them up with a suite - and a number of engagements. Their presence has invigorated the local jazz scene.
"There's a buzz going around Portland, with young guys [from New Orleans] looking at it as a way to take off in their careers in a city with a fabulous jazz audience, a blues audience, and an aggressive indie music scene. It's really exciting to watch the Pacific Northwest and New Orleans meld," says Sarah Bailen Smith of the Portland Jazz Festival.
In Memphis, about 40 musicians are working and assimilating within the two-block Beale Street, the nation's preeminent Delta blues quarter, where the sounds of Robert Cray, Jimi Hendrix and, of course, "Mojo Man," pour into the night. Last week, after a well-known Memphis drummer died, the city's first New Orleans-style funeral procession tooted up Beale.
"This is good for Memphis and we welcome them here," says Big Jerry Parnell, a longtime street drummer who has shared his tip jar with New Orleans newcomers.
To be sure, New Orleans is far from a monolithic music culture, but historians say the impact of these troubadours is likely to be lasting as purveyors of everything from barrelhouse blues to zydeco fusion radiate outward.
"You're not going to be sure what it is that's going to be exported," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. "But New Orleans guys will at least have a healthy influence on what goes on in other places."
The exodus reminds historians of two particular events that changed the trajectory of American music.
A bordello district, Storyville became a legendary haunt for the smoky atmosphere that helped create the free-flowing and happy spirit of early jazz. But musicians scattered when the federal government cracked down in 1917.
In Memphis, Beale Street was shut down after unrest erupted in the early 1960s. The result? Displaced Delta musicians dispersed to Chicago and London, inspiring everyone from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin.
Katrina may not have exactly the same effect, says Mr. Morgenstern, since many musicians, especially older ones, will return as Bourbon Street wakes up. But musicians say the post-Katrina confluence of musicians - whether they're into Dixieland or boogie-woogie - has become an unplanned musical crusade, once again exporting the backbeats and foot-stomps of one of America's liveliest cities to roadhouses and juke joints across the country.
"Old-timers have always passed traditions down to the younger kids, which is why the music is still vibrant," says Mr. Wick. "They share insights into not only the techniques, but how to soak up the emotions around you and express it through instruments and voice. New Orleans is holy ground. And the music really does bubble up from the street."