WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A year after Hurricane Katrina ran its ruinous course over New Orleans, all America is aware of the botch that state, local and federal government made of rescue and rehabilitation efforts. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, "Uncle Sam has spent some five times more on Katrina relief than any other natural disaster in the past 50 years." The city remains only about half-populated. A lot more needs to be done, and if it is not accomplished soon important commercial and cultural losses may follow that could be irreparable for the home of American jazz.
In terms of large-scale commerce, private corporations such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot have stepped in, making contributions of billions of dollars that have been especially helpful to residential revival. Now in the realm of culture help is on the way. This coming week in New York City, the venerable Society of Singers (SOS), supported by Manhattan's own Alex Donner Productions, is hosting "A Night in New Orleans," an evening of jazz and New Orleans culture for the benefit of New Orleans musicians displaced by the hurricane. The riches of Madonna and Britney Spears notwithstanding, musicians are for the most part people who live on the margins financially. Many in New Orleans have lost their homes and livelihoods and been displaced across the country. The longer they are away from their New Orleans gigs, the more likely it is that authentic New Orleans jazz will wither and expire, to be heard on CDs but no longer the vibrant force it has been on the streets of this famous city.
Consequently this effort led by SOS's Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of the Duke, and Alex Donner, head of one of the great swing/society bands of the country, is beyond timely. It is exigent. And it is being done right. SOS has been assisting financially strapped musicians since its founding in 1984 by the widow of Henry Mancini. The organization knows how to verify the authentic needs of those it helps and their commitment to music. As to the high style of the evening, Miss Ellington knows a thing or two about that. She is one of Broadway's accomplished choreographers. And she will be ably assisted by band leader Donner and by Kate Edmonds, an archaeologist of the social scene who is ensuring that the evening features authentic New Orleans decor, food and even Mardi Gras masks.
Donner is seeing to it that the music is top of the chop. From 6 p.m. to the wee hours, his musicians will wail in the faded elegance of the circa 1920s Ballroom at Twenty Four Fifth, a famous venue on lower Fifth Avenue near Washington Square that was once the Fifth Avenue Hotel. The evening will begin with an African American a capella group from New Orleans singing the national anthem. Other New Orleans musicians, themselves the beneficiaries of the evening, will perform as will a Louis Armstrong look-alike paying a special tribute to Satchmo and to his music. Others appearing will be Jimmy Maxwell, the maestro of many Mardi Gras balls, and Joe Lovano, perhaps the premier saxophonist of the present. In the Donner band itself will be Vince Giordano, a great bandleader in his own right.
As the evening has already been underwritten, every dime raised will go to the SOS's efforts to give New Orleans musicians a bit more time to revive their art at its place of origin, New Orleans. "Because New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and Dixieland, one of our very few indigenous art forms," says Donner, "New Orleans holds a special place in American culture." Donner is hopeful, but he speaks with urgency: "If these musicians/singers cannot receive support now, there is a good chance this music will become relegated to museums or retro concerts."
Frankly, I expect the evening to be a huge success and to make a tremendous contribution to the revival of the Crescent City. It sounds like a lot of fun. Traditional New Orleans masks will be handed out. The food should be superb. The music cannot be anything but rapturous. And there is a very clever idea behind it aside from the love of jazz. If the musicians come back, the tourists will be sure to follow, and that will revive the city more certainly than any government program. I plan to arrive early for the mint juleps and stay late. With the Mardi Gras masks being distributed widely, I can easily avoid my critics.