BackTalk with Sweet Home New Orleans’ Jordan Hirsch

BackTalk with Sweet Home New Orleans’ Jordan Hirsch
By Alex Rawls

Sweet Home New Orleans metamorphosed from the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, a non-profit relief organization that sprang to life within 72 hours of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. It has coordinated the efforts and resources of non-profit agencies and those who wish to give, and used those to assist members of the city’s music community in a needs-based way. Sweet Home has paid particular attention to the second line community—Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs—but it has helped musicians across the musical spectrum.

Last year, the agency conducted a demographic and economic study to ascertain the state of New Orleans’ musical recovery. Its clients reported that before Katrina, they played an average of 10.5 dates a month, but only 5.7 a month since. The per gig take dropped from $131 to $108, which meant their income dropped almost $750 a month—a substantial hit in a city where the cost of living has increased.

Sweet Home is in the process of completing a second study to see how things have changed when conflicting forces are at work. What happens when more of the city has returned but a recession has set in? According to executive director Jordan Hirsch, the answers are guardedly positive.

You’re finishing up your second state of the musician/culture bearers report; what are you finding?

A couple of things. The first is that we’ve gained some ground in terms of helping artists get back into their pre-Katrina neighborhoods. That was a point of emphasis for us a couple of years ago. In the last report, we saw that it was an uphill climb, particularly in the 8th and 9th wards for helping people get back. We’ve seen a 15 percent gain in the people who are back in the 8th and 9th wards. We’ve seen a nine percent gain in the 6th and 7th wards and modest gains across the city. Last year, we figured that 75 percent of the community was back and this year it’s up to 80 percent.

It’s really encouraging to see incremental gains like that in the face of the recession, in a time where things could have fallen further back. That’s the most encouraging news. Something which is slightly less impressive is the amount of gig activity that musicians in town are reporting. Again, we weren’t sure what the effect of the larger recession would be, and what we’ve found is that we’ve more or less hit a bottom. The recession did not push anything further down.

So things were already as bad as they could get?

Well, certainly they were worse in ’06. But what we have seen is that Sweet Home clients have reported some modest gains in their take per gig. Which is a good sign. We’ve had some signs of encouragement for what our gig program can do, but across the board we’ve got hundreds of musicians providing us with information and the basic story is that there is not enough audience. We also talked to venues in addition to artists and the overall story was the same. There just aren’t enough bodies coming through the door to compensate the artist. Fewer clubs are charging a cover in order to go for the smaller audience in town, and it takes away from the guarantee of the artist. So folks are still trying to adapt to the size of the city in many ways because often these are clubs that attract locals. Clubs that attract out-of-towners also have down attendance but not to the extent of clubs which rely on locals. It’s a smaller city we’re talking about. You’ve got 80 percent of the music population back, but we don’t have 80 percent of paying local audience.

Do your numbers say anything about the health of the Mardi Gras Indian community? This year at Jazz Fest, I heard a rumor that the number of Mardi Gras Indians was seriously down, and Indians would jump from tribe to tribe to perform and create the appearance of a healthy Indian community.

We have yet to isolate the financial and demographic data for our Indian clients. I certainly can’t speak to what folks were scraping together for Jazz Fest, but going out on Super Sunday—where there’s no option of trading off suits—most of the Indians out there were pretty pleased with the turn out.

What we have seen is that among Indians and club members, that folks are going to great lengths to stay in touch with their participation in that community, even though they are in very unhealthy or unsustainable situations. For example, we know one Indian who was sleeping in his car. You’ve got folks who were driving in from Houston. You’ve got folks who may be dealing with really difficult situations on a personal level financially or with their family or health. But their devotion to this is so strong that it may mask some of these issues. Their average income is around $15,000.

Age is a factor as well. You’re talking about guys in their fifties and sixties who often have health issues.

Hasn’t it always been like this? A few years ago, we had an interview with Monk Bordeaux, who talked about how Mardi Gras Indians used to have parties to pay the bills for members who overextended themselves trying to get a suit made.

There are a few differences. One is the cost of living in New Orleans, which is considerably higher. The cost of rent is up. It’s more expensive to live here; that seems to affect everybody we come into contact with. The other is if you lost a house. Now every cent is going to the electrician or the plumber to get your house back up, and your ability to mask is impaired by that.

Another issue for me personally is that while the Indian tradition and second line tradition is a self-determined practice where people who don’t have a lot of money are producing really elaborate and costly beautiful things. The question that we’re asking is, should the people who do this be so vulnerable to the basic issues of housing and health care? Should their kids have uniforms, too? We’re not going to change the social function of what it means to mask Indian, but we can put an Indian in the position to where he doesn’t have to choose between the hospital bill and his clothes for next year.

I would imagine socially pleasure clubs are doing better.

They are. We’ve been really pleased. The number of second lines is at least its pre-Katrina level, possibly above. There have been a few new clubs which have come along. There have been a number of challenges obviously, but the clubs have really flourished, and we have provided funding for well over a hundred second lines. We basically provided funding for all but three second lines since Katrina and were working with the clubs now to help them make money for themselves. We don’t want to be in that position forever, but we’ve been really pleased at what the clubs have been able to accomplish with that subsidy money—really made second lines in the city one of the biggest successes of the commercial recovery. You can go out on a Sunday and vendors are out, bands are out, people look great and it’s a good-sized crowd. We were particularly nervous about that in light of the permit fees and in light of the decreased populations in these neighborhoods. Would there be a critical mass of people who are able to form clubs? But we’ve seen that in Uptown as well as Downtown, there’s a whole lot going on.

I don’t remember hearing this season about issues with the police. Was this a better year for that, or was did people just stopped talking about it?

I don’t people ever stop talking about those issues, so I would hope if you heard less it would be because things went smoother. It seems to have been a really great season.

Is there a section of the musical community that is in general suffering worse than others?

Anecdotally, trad jazz activity seems to be a little lower. Indians, R&B guys seem to be lower. This is why we are trying to focus our job creation efforts with R&B and trad jazz right now. Particularly the elder artists are hurting the most when it comes to finding gigs.

Are convention gigs are coming back?

Our clients’ earning from private gigs are not coming back. Our clients are not generally seeing those paydays to the extent that they were. Private gigs in general seem to be at a much lower level. It [affects] certain bands more than others. Free Agents Brass Band, for example—they weren’t at the Convention Center every week. But there were a couple of trad bands or other brass bands whose bread and butter were those convention gigs, and those aren’t there. The effects of that tend to vary based on who you are talking about because there are certain groups who were hooked into those gigs, and they have been hit really hard from the decline in activity.

It sounds in many ways, things are moving back to where they once were in some ways. Trad jazz has had it tough for a long time.

Sure , but you have Palm Court closed for long stretches of time, riverboats not going out as often, conventions which were more likely to throw some work towards the best bands are lower. There are some particular dips in audience and venue that are affecting that community to an even greater extent.

That is a style that is particularly endangered?

Yes. There is a lot at stake in the traditional jazz community right now in terms of age and population and the opportunities they have to perform. And it has been an area of focus for us in trying to create jobs for them. We are doing a Saturday afternoon at Snug Harbor for the trad jazz guys.

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