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Katrina puts New Orleans cultural identity in jeopardy

Howard Reich Chicago Tribune

When the brilliant Chicago trumpeter Maurice Brown moved to Louisiana four years ago, he dreamed of becoming a star in the mythic birthplace of jazz: New Orleans.

He quickly achieved that goal, but after fleeing the city at 2 a.m. Sunday he believes he has lost everything but his life.

“It’s all gone – I saw on TV where my whole neighborhood is flooded out,” said Brown, speaking from the truck of a friend who was driving him back home to his parents’ house in Harvey, Ill.

Hurricane Katrina not only has taken lives and destroyed home and possessions, it has placed in peril the world’s most famous jazz city, a town where international tourists clamor to hear jubilant brass bands and where stars such as Nicholas Payton and Ellis Marsalis nightly ignite the music that Louis Armstrong made famous.

From the colorful portraits of Jelly Roll Morton and the great Satchmo that greet visitors at Louis Armstrong International Airport to the street musicians who riff “When the Saints Go Marching In” day and night on raucous Bourbon Street, New Orleans has been indelibly bound up with music and revelry for more than a century.

“Great jazz and great food are so deeply imbedded into the culture of New Orleans, you just can’t imagine the city without them,” says Chicago author Timuel Black, whose book “Bridges of Memory” traces the great migration of Southern blacks to Chicago.

“Jazz goes from one generation to another in New Orleans, passed down from musician to musician,” he adds, pointing to New Orleans’ most famous jazz dynasty, the Marsalises (pianist Ellis is father to trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason).

“Jazz and Creole food,” Black says, “are New Orleans.”

But the city’s cultural identity has been threatened by Hurricane Katrina, the floodwaters silencing world-famous clubs such as Preservation Hall, inside the historic French Quarter, and Snug Harbor, just outside it.

The dozens of New Orleans clubs featuring jazz, blues, rock, funk and beyond – as well as the upscale and down-home restaurants that cater to the music lovers – long have made the French Quarter and the emerging entertainment district on nearby Frenchmen Street tourist draws.

After performing Saturday evening in one of New Orleans’ most fabled clubs, Tipitina’s, Brown and the rest of the room were hurriedly evacuated.

Brown quickly drove to his home in the Treme neighborhood and grabbed a trumpet, flugelhorn, laptop and “enough clothes for four or five days.”

He then took his retooled 1989 Cadillac Brougham to a parking garage in suburban Metairie, where he left it for safekeeping, and jumped into his friend’s truck to proceed to higher ground in Memphis.

Though Brown said he’s grateful that he got out in time, he nevertheless grieves for what he has left behind.

“My whole recording studio, tons of music, a lot of original scores that I can’t ever get back, maybe 50 or 60 tunes I spent years working on – all gone,” he said.

He estimates the losses, which are uninsured, at $50,000, and he believes that his car has been sunk as well.

Still, Brown realizes he’s one of the lucky ones.

“But I’m not sure if I’m ever going to live in New Orleans again – I’m going to build a new foundation for my life,” he said.

“I don’t know if I’ll move back to Chicago or try New York, but it may be over in New Orleans.”

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