Calendars in the windows of the clubs on nearby Frenchmen Street still list who was to play each of the 31 days of March. Almost half those gigs never happened.
On the balcony above the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, a couple is dancing. In defiance of the silence, they have turned a speaker to the street to share graceful, lilting piano runs. The music is not live, though — it is Spotify. The playlist is a tribute to Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the musical Marsalis family and a pillar of New Orleans jazz. He died April 1, at 85, from complications of covid-19.
“I’ve got Ellis’s spirit up here,” Jason Patterson, one of the dancers, called down to a lone pedestrian carrying a can of beer. Patterson is the landlord and talent booker of the shuttered bistro, where Marsalis performed weekly for 30 years. “He still wants to play.”
But beyond the reach of Marsalis’s recorded tunes, an unfamiliar quiet has settled in the streets of New Orleans, sapping the soul of the city that gave birth to jazz.
“It lets you know that things are different,” said Doreen Ketchens, the clarinetist exiled from her corner on Royal Street to self-isolation in her home. “It lets you know that things can die.”
Louisiana has reported 17,030 cases of the coronavirus and 652 deaths as of Wednesday afternoon — the fourth largest number in the country. Of those, about 5,070 cases and 208 deaths were in New Orleans.
Epidemiologists estimate that Mardi Gras festivities, which drew more than 1 million visitors and culminated Feb. 25, accelerated the spread. The first case in Louisiana was detected March 9. Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a stay-at-home order on March 20, but most entertainment in the city had been canceled by the day before.
The coronavirus turned off the music at the worst possible time of year for New Orleans and the practitioners of its boisterous style. Festival season was just gearing up — the massive French Quarter Festival was set for next week, to be followed by the even bigger New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Both have been pushed to the fall.
This is a vital three months for the city’s musicians, who, along with New Orleans cuisine, represent the essence of the city to the world. With a total population of about 390,000, New Orleans has 38,000 “cultural workers” with jobs in music venues and restaurants, according to a 2016 study by the city. Musicians’ advocates estimate that more than 5,000 professionals and semiprofessionals produce the city’s collective sound.
In a town that averages 85 live musical performances a day, festival season marks several delirious weeks when music is being performed literally around the clock. Most years, musicians can hope to bank some savings against the slow summer months when many tourists think it’s too hot to visit New Orleans. But this spring, the gigs have dropped straight to zero.
“Every time my phone rang or I got a text, it was a gig canceling,” said Ketchens, whose street-performing supplements work in concerts, weddings, parties and the like. “I think in three days I lost something like 17 gigs” — including one with Marsalis, her former teacher, with whom she rehearsed several weeks ago at his house.
The average musician in New Orleans makes $17,800 a year, according to a 2012 survey by Sweet Home New Orleans, a musicians’ advocacy group. The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, which gives primary care to those with meager resources, has 2,600 patients. The lifestyle offers little room for rainy-day savings.
Even Grammy Award-winning band musicians can struggle.
Stafford Agee, trombone player for the Rebirth Brass Band — which received a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album in 2011 — said that while he was able to ride out March on his savings, now he’s worried how he’ll pay the bills and support his four children.
“My ‘riding out’ is done,” he said. “I’m rode out. … We’re in another month now.”
In addition to local festivals, Rebirth had dates booked on the West Coast and in New York and D.C. Those are gone, too. On top of money woes, another band member — leader Phil Frazier — tested positive for the virus. Frazier’s symptoms have receded and he is doing better, according to Howie Kaplan, the band’s manager.
Agee is applying for grants offered to artists affected by the coronavirus shutdown from national groups such as MusiCares, as well as local organizations such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, and the New Orleans Business Alliance. Any assistance is welcome, Agee said, but he noted that the grants being offered range from $500 to $1000.
“Rent is $1,600, so once I pay the rent, where do I go?” he said.
The federal government changed unemployment insurance rules in response to the pandemic to make it easier for freelancers and gig economy workers to qualify for aid. But some musicians said they are still having trouble navigating the online forms to prove their eligibility.
To survive a crisis like this, Agee typically would find odd jobs. After Katrina, he took on minor contracting and electrical work.
“I was kind of like rebuilding the city with music and with my hands,” he said, but he pointed out that’s impossible to do during the pandemic. “What can you really do when no one is supposed to be outside? Drive Uber? You can’t pick nobody up because no one is supposed to be outside.”
The informal assistance networks that sprang up after Katrina are inspiring similar efforts now. Culture Aid NOLA is a new umbrella of advocacy groups, including the Music & Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which coordinates access to food, health care and related assistance for musicians and other workers in the hospitality and tourism industry. City Council members Kristin Palmer and Helena Moreno have helped organize food distributions with the Second Harvest Food Bank in neighborhoods populated by laid-off gig economy freelancers.