Baty Landis sits outside the Sound Café. - photo by Kate Ellis
For all the lives destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the storm also yielded a new crop of local leaders. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things to save New Orleans. Many use the culture of the city - be it the cuisine, the art, or the Mardi Gras masks - to help New Orleanians heal. For Baty Landis, this work begins and ends with music. Less than two weeks after the city's epic flood, Landis had one purpose: track down members of New Orleans' brass bands and get them back together to play.
With the bawdy wit typical of New Orleans, she and her partner called the effort Save Our Brass (SOB).
Dinerral Shavers, Jr., son of a murdered musician, blows the trumpet outside the Sound Café. - photo by Kate Ellis
The music of New Orleans brass bands springs from the black and Creole neighborhoods that first gave birth to jazz. Many of today's musicians started together in the marching bands of their high schools, where it was considered cool to be a bass drummer or a trumpet player. When the homes of nearly all these players were sitting under eight feet of water, New Orleanians worried the bands would never come back.
Baty Landis, a Princeton-trained musicologist, was one of them. Landis is in her mid-thirties, a slender woman with freckled skin and a bushel of wavy brown hair. By her own account, Landis grew up in a sheltered neighborhood in Uptown New Orleans. She seldom ventured east beyond the French Quarter. But midway through graduate school Landis returned to the city and opened the Sound Café.
The Sound Café is a coffee shop replete with wireless Internet access, soft couches and a sitting area that doubles as a music stage. The café is tucked into an old neighborhood called the Marigny. Homes there are a mix of wooden shotgun houses and small Creole cottages. The area is a little ways downriver from the French Quarter. It's now a magnet for artists, musicians and other creative types.
The idea behind Save Our Brass was to help brass bands recover by getting them gigs. But just as Landis knew the bands needed people to hear their music, she was convinced "the people" needed the bands to hear their city. "With the possible exception of food - dishes specific to New Orleans - music was the most physical connection people have to the city. It was the most tangible, most bodily kind of real New Orleans experience we could attain outside the city," she says.
Helen Hill’s jazz funeral began at her old house in the Mid-City neighborhood. - photo by Kate Ellis
Brass bands are a defining element of New Orleans culture. They are the backbone of "second lines," the informal parades that follow a first line of marchers, be they mourners in a jazz funeral, or leaders of a social aid and pleasure club. Brass bands trouping through neighborhoods have the power to get people out in the streets, dancing and flailing and walking on their knees.
In the weeks following Katrina, the city's evacuees had no way to hear this music. SOB arranged to bring it to them. "I wanted to remind them," Landis says, "of why we live in this crazy city." SOB's first target: the River Center Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, which housed 5,000 storm victims. Landis recalls Benny Pete, Hot 8's tuba player, walking toward the shelter. "Benny Pete is a very recognizable figure," she says, chuckling. "He's about 6-foot-7, and very, very large. And he carries a tuba. To see him walking up on a Sunday afternoon to that shelter - people catch sight of him, and just were falling on the ground. Some were leaping in the air shouting 'TUBA, TUBA!'"
Landis normally speaks in low, measured tones. Now she's beaming. "I knew I felt this way about the music - it was this powerful to me. I believed everybody around me felt that way, and then I saw that, that they really did. It was the first of many gigs of that nature that we sponsored around the South," she says.
Landis also worked to reopen the Sound Café. The café didn't flood, but it still got soaked by the hurricane. After gutting the interior, Landis reopened in early October, the first day her neighborhood got electricity. When she first opened the café in 2004, Landis hoped it would become an arts and music venue for nearby NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts). After Katrina the coffee shop became a haven for returning flood victims and, eventually, another crowd: the friends and family of murder victims.
The Hot 8 Brass Band plays during Helen Hill’s jazz funeral. - photo by Kate Ellis
On December 28, 2006, Dinerral Shavers, snare drummer for the Hot 8, was shot to death while driving in a car with his wife and two young sons. Shavers was a good friend of Landis, a respected teacher and key member of the band. Right away Landis got together with his friends and family. The group was furious, Landis says, "that this had become possible in our city, that someone so important to the cultural rebuilding of our city could be taken away from us, apparently so easily."
Before they could do anything the situation got worse. A week after Shavers' death, Helen Hill, a filmmaker who lived a few blocks from Landis' shop, was shot and killed in her home at 5:30 in the morning. Her baby son was asleep in the next room. The urgency to organize grew stronger. Landis joined forces with a number of groups around the city, some who'd been speaking out against violence for years. They planned a march to city hall one week after Hill's death.
In a city known for parading, not protesting, the turn-out was surprising. "Never in our wildest dreams on the day Helen was killed," Landis says, "did we imagine it would turn into such a massive demonstration of solidarity and outrage." Some 5,000 people arrived at Mayor Ray Nagin's doorstep, demanding he put a stop to the growing crisis of violence in the city.
Before Katrina, New Orleans had one of the highest murder rates in the country. After the flood New Orleanians held out hope this would change. With more than half the population gone, residents thought the police department and district attorney's office might figure out better ways to combat violent crime. That didn't happen. In 2006 the murder rate - upwards of 64 killings per 100,000 residents - surpassed the city's pre-Katrina levels, according to FBI statistics. Landis says that, as always, it's almost impossible get murder witnesses to come forward and say what they saw. That means it's nearly impossible to get murder convictions.
The Rebirth Brass Band marches through the Treme during the Sidewalk Steppers second line parade. - photo by Kate Ellis
Riding the momentum of the January march, Landis and fellow organizers started "Silence is Violence." The group leads anti-violence walks through the city, publicly pressures city leaders to act, and - importantly - runs music clinics at the Sound Café for young people.
"Much of the murder taking place is amongst very young people - 16, 17, 18 years old," says Landis. "Part of our strategy is to reach out to them because they are the ones who are right in the center of the violence." New data from the New Orleans police department actually show that adults in New Orleans are much more likely than teens to commit murder. Still, Katrina has left many of the city's young people more vulnerable to trouble.
Every Tuesday night children are welcomed onto the Sound Café stage to bang on drums or put their lips to a trombone. Sometimes the instrument is longer than the kids playing it are tall. Coaching them are highly respected New Orleans brass bands and street musicians. The scene is casual, welcoming and fun.
One night on stage Dinerral Shavers, Jr. - 7-year-old son of the murdered Hot 8 drummer - blows as hard as he can into a trumpet. The next morning he is back at the café, trumpet in hand, wandering inside and out to find someone to play with. He teams up briefly with a little girl his age. It turns out the girl's mother just lost her fiancé to murder. As "D.J." goads the girl into accompanying him in a song, the mother confides in Landis. She's overwhelmed with grief and already being told by friends and family to get over it.
Landis listens quietly, gives her a hug and suggests the healing medicine found all over the city. She says, "Come back on Tuesday night to hear music."
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