No Longer the Big Easy: A Letter from New Orleans

Jazz Appreciation Month

Volume CVIII, No. 4April, 2008

For the past two years, Local 802 has been in touch with various musicians in New Orleans. This year, we hear from Nanette Ledet, writing us two years after Hurricane Katrina. Nanette is a teaching artist who runs a project called Rhythmic Tapestries.

Photo by Karen Apricot
via Flickr.

When I arrived in New Orleans again, I noticed that things had begun to look very different. The vibe of the residents had begun to shift as well. Grim determination, giddy optimism, sometimes a sense of defeat — all of these extremes of the human condition were obvious to me now. That is one of the reasons why I decided to return.

Every time I would teach drumming, meditation, dance and music history in the schools that are operational here, I could see how great the need was for the students and the teachers to have some respite from the daily realities that were imposed so heavily upon their lives.

Many parents and grandparents are serving as volunteers in the schools to help the over-burdened faculties.

Everyone seems to be dealing with some serious illness or death in their immediate families.

The elders seem to be the hardest hit.

Many of our jazz greats and artists have passed on: Alvin Batiste, Earl Turbinton, Eluard Burt, John Scott, to name a few. Jay McShann passed on just a couple of days before I was to hear him for the first time live.

There is an increased sense of the urgent need to preserve our great musical heritage here among the new generation of talented and authentic homegrown players that are rising through the ranks now.

One thing that concerns me is the continued misrepresentation of the situation in New Orleans by the national media. People think that there is still water in the streets here and that people are getting murdered on every street corner. The truth is that the crime IS bad, but it has always been a problem here. It’s just that now the justice system is in a state of critical dysfunction and the police force is not adequate, so these realities persist.

There have been numerous donations collected for the various musicians’ benefit funds that have yet to get to those who are seriously in need of this type of assistance. In general, most assistance of any kind is very slow in reaching those in need. This has been, and continues to be, a serious problem in the relief effort

One of the best organizations I have encountered — and can personally vouch for — is the Tipitina’s Foundation (see They offer practical assistance to musicians who were left homeless and without instruments or employment.

Affordable housing is still a huge issue. The cost of living here has increased tremendously, so the higher rents and uncertain job opportunities make life here even more stressful.

There are some obvious signs of progress. The larger establishments in the downtown area are back to full function and are hiring local talent, as are the clubs that are open for business in the French Quarter.

The big difference is that for the locals, this is no longer the “Big Easy” — things are never going to be that way again. Nothing that concerns day-to-day life is simple or easy.

I am not sure how long I will remain here. There is an urgent need for teaching artists and much work to be done as the schools continue to re-open. The need for the arts programs I had performed in the past increases.

However, I recently got hired as a choreographer and movement consultant for a new Disney Playhouse series, based on a band called the Imagination Movers. So suddenly, I have a great six-month contract here in New Orleans and am working 12-hour days on the set: what a change of pace!

I am still wary about hurricanes.

I do feel a sense of commitment to my people and receive so much gratitude and positive feedback from the work I have been doing here.

And my emotional response to being back in the city — among my beloved friends and this incredible culture that is still very vibrant and alive — is indescribable. 

Nanette Ledet can be reached at