Review: One Note At A Time

Nigel Jarrett reviews the documentary film, written and directed by Renée Edwards, that tells the story of New Orleans and its jazz musicians after Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina devastated vast areas of New Orleans when the Mississippi breached its levees in 2005. The irony, as the cliché has it, was cruel: flood-waters forced many survivors in the poorer neighbourhoods, predominantly black, to leave the city, just as their forebears had done in the early 20th century when government decree closed its red light district. As in the former diaspora, many of those on the move were musicians; unlike it, those who wanted to return, despite the damage caused, did so. Others, for a variety of reasons, have not; scandalously, not all who succumbed to the destruction have been accounted for. But, as one interviewee says in this moving film, there were things wrong with the city before the whipped-up winds and waters arrived.

Some who were displaced found their new surroundings in other parts of the country so foreign as to be intolerable. David Fountain went to Texas. It was "nothing like New Orleans", so he returned, the music calling him back – except there was none. All his musical equipment had been ruined, and he put it on display as a graphic reminder of how Katrina had torn the vitals out of the city's culture. One of the things wrong with the city pre-Katrina was the poor health of musicians, something the inundations compounded. Most of those returning were found to have been so poorly paid that they fell into a so-called "sacrifice zone": they earned too much for Medicaid and too little for Obamacare. So, boosted by federal grants and the proceeds of fund-raising, Johann and Bethany Bultman's New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Assistance Foundation, inaugurated in 1998, came into its own.

The Bultmans had been involved with the city's Jazz & Heritage Festival for 15 years but could never tackle these medical issues effectively because treatment was too expensive. Dealing with a heart attack might cost $50,000. Bethany Bultman says that musicians might come in for treatment for an abscess that was preventing their performing and, after a general checkout, present other conditions. A musician who'd played in a band for 30 years and was not taking medication to prevent a stroke could be lost to the music. "That's a blow to our culture", she says. Dr John (Mac Rebennack), a NOMC advocate and adviser, opines sagely: "Musicians don't live a regulation life, so thank god we have people to keep us breathing. If we ain't breathing we ain't living, and if we ain't living we ain't playing the music."

Lots of music fills the soundtrack as the camera tracks the streets to show where the floods swept everything away and as musicians talk of their experiences: A.L. "Carnival Time" Johnson (pictured left) fought 11 years for the legal rights to the tune that gave him his nickname; British-born drummer Barry Martyn says he was once "a hopeless alcoholic"; composer Wardell Quezergue, a diabetic who's losing his sight, has his son to write down the music that comes into his head.

Johnson is filmed playing at Snug Harbor and on the wasteland that used to be his home, its only remaining feature the oak tree that he always thought might fall on him. After Katrina hit, Martyn had to search for the scattered members of his band to check that they were still alive. Sousaphonist and bassist Walter Payton Jr owed a lot to the clinic before he died in 2010. He'd been a fixture in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and his funeral is a typical Crescent City turn-out, its aim the celebration of a life. New Orleans,"The Big Easy", is perhaps the only place where people actually look forward to dying, though not of course before their time.

Part of the problem has been the "under the radar" lifestyle of musicians, who have been exploited by their own industry. A lack of trust in authority is thus endemic. One of the Bultman clinic's achievements is to have created electronic medical records of musicians for the first time, so that conditions can be tracked. It's a city with other problems too: feral children, violence, and a place where it's easier to obtain heroin and crack cocaine than it is to buy a cheeseburger. Katrina was the last thing it wanted. In 2013 the clinic was officially designated a medical home, but a year later reimbursement funds were cut when Governor Bobby Jindal opted Louisiana out of federal health insurance reforms. But that's another story: a Donald Trump story.

Edwards's multi-award-winning film is warm, evocative, invincibly human, wide-ranging, and informative. It's also shocking. But nothing has silenced the music of New Orleans, not even a hurricane. It might be a comment on the nature of jazz itself. The life of the jazz musician has never been easy.

To see a clip of the movie, featuring Bennie Pete and Terrell "Burger" Batiste of the Hot 8 Brass Band click here.

post a comment