My longtime friend, Dave Sobel, who plays drums for the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, told me last night that he is leaving New Orleans. He and girlfriend Jenny Baggert will move to Brooklyn in six months. There, they will seize the opportunities afforded them—members of the Katrina Diaspora. Dave will be able to play with the dozens of New Orleans musicians who have moved to New York City. He will have gigs and money and the tourists and citizens of New York will revel in his talent, and reward him with cash. Still, I couldn’t congratulate him. Instead, I walked away.
I realize this may not reflect well on my character, but I am angry about the loss of New Orleans musicians to other cities. I mean, I am angry at the musicians, themselves, as well as at the cities now hosting them. Tim Green said that the city of Austin—yes, the city government, itself—has called him repeatedly and offered him more money than he could ever make in New Orleans to move to Austin. Cities like Houston, Portland, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are now benefiting from our loss. The musicians, themselves, are benefiting from our loss. They are finally getting the recognition—and the pay—that they deserve. So why I am so MAD at them?
Last night I went to see the Rob Wagner Trio at d.b.a. Rob is one of my favorite New Orleans musicians—an amazing saxophone player and composer. He moved here from out of town maybe ten years ago and refined his playing and writing skills in New Orleans.
What Rob found here—a community of like-minded musicians, an endless supply of gigs (gigs that unfortunately didn’t pay well enough that he could give up his day job of writing computing software,) a culture that, I like to imagine, fed his music, fed his soul—is what hundreds of musicians like Rob have found, too. They moved here from other cities, contributed to the musical culture through their own music (many of these musicians have pushed the boundaries of jazz in New Orleans,) and now, they’re leaving. Rob Wagner, Nobu, Dave Sobel, Linnzi Zaorski, Devin Philips, Greg Schatz—these are just a few names on a very long list of one-time New Orleans transplants who have taken this post-Katrina opportunity to move up, to move on.
I guess I feel betrayed. How could they come and soak up whatever this city had to offer them only to move away when the city fell down? How will our culture recover without them?
Last night I said to Bru that one thing that struck me was how little the musicians who have left and are leaving seem to care about their audience. It doesn’t matter to them who’s clapping, who’s paying the cover, who’s tipping the band, as long as the money comes in. They simply want to make a living—the best living that they possibly can—as working musicians, whatever the audience.
But how could they prefer to play to New York audience—one filled with tourists and corporate types with fat wallets—an audience comprised of patrons able to pay to $20 covers each week, no problem? How could they prefer them to us? I guess that’s what it feels like to me. It feels like Dave Sobel is saying, “Yeah, I had a great time here. Really learned a lot. But now I’m on to bigger and better things. Peace.” I feel like these musicians who have left and are leaving care more about their own future than they do the future of the city.
And the hardest part is knowing that we, the local music patrons of New Orleans, have evidently not supported our musicians in the manner that counts: in money. We have been spoiled by low-or-no covers, we have tipped in single-dollar bills. Our drunken declarations of appreciation are meaningless when it comes to making the musician’s life tick. We didn’t pay up.
As a one-time manager of the Dragon’s Den, where I booked music for several years, I knew we could charge more at the door, and pay more out of the register. I knew the musicians deserved better, but I didn’t own the place, and frankly, when I allowed the band to charge a higher cover, the patrons opted not to come in. Why would they want to fork over ten bucks when just down the street they can hear another band for free? How could we—the club managers—have made this city work for the musicians? How could we have prevented this mass exodus from occurring?
Perhaps more importantly, what can we do now?
Evidently, Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis think this is the answer. They’d like to build a “musicians’ village” in New Orleans. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that housing is the real issue here. I think the real issue is how we have failed our musicians in the past, how other American cities are pouring on the sympathy—and the cash—and how there won’t be a population with fat enough wallets to support those musicians who do return. After all, the artists and educators, the working professionals, who were the ones who supported their careers (in cash), in the first place are losing their jobs, too.