The most intense, joyful, visceral and touching night of music I ever experienced was at a now-defunct downtown club called Sammy’s, ten days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many of the displaced musicians of New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood got together to play their first public show—well, second, after they performed at the Astrodome in ad hoc, morale-boosting street parades, or “second-lines”, for the evacuees. I had spent most of the 2000s working as the music editor for the Houston Press, the Bayou City’s alternative weekly newspaper, but I had never experienced anything like that night.
This was different. This was no mere gig. This was a ceremony: history made joyously audible, a rite of passage, a danceable exorcism.
This month, another storm upended a city, displacing untold numbers of residents from their homes. But just as they did after Katrina, the musicians of the Treme neighborhood will play for those who evacuated, as the New Birth Brass Band, and others, return to Houston for a concert and street parade this Friday at Axelrad, a beer garden in Houston’s Third Ward.
The plan is to bury Harvey, the same way the New Orleanians shoveled dirt on Katrina twelve years ago. Only this time, the Louisiana players are interring Texas’s storm rather than their own.
Houstonians have a lot to learn from New Orleanians about coping with storms and trials of life in general: this perpetually optimistic city is shaken by both the seemingly neverending lag in oil prices and the most devastating rainstorm in U.S. history. New Orleans, the Gulf Coast Athens to Houston’s Rome, has been there and done that many times over in its 300-year history, and the way they have learned to cope is to celebrate that which you cannot change.
Music critic and Katrina veteran John Swenson calls that joyousness “almost a hysterical sense of celebration,” one that prevents its citizens from sinking into lasting depression. “No matter how depressed you get, you walk around the next corner and there’s a parade,” he says. “You can’t stay bummed out for long. The community tends to take care of itself because the community was born out of real hardship and I think the people are used to weathering terrible things in their life.”
Back in 2005, you could see this cleansing, redemptive process in action.
Sammy’s was located on the ground floor of a 1960s-era high-rise, across Main Street from a McDonald’s and the city’s Greyhound bus terminal, amid acres of surface parking lots. It was not a glamorous locale, but as night fell, the block came to life in a way I’d never seen before, or since. The New Birth Brass Band came marching up Main like a gathering storm, and I can still remember the first few thuds on Tanio Hingle’s big bass drum, the mighty sousaphone of Kerwin James (who, sadly had not long to live) following along, the rat-a-tat snares of Kerry Hunter, and then the piercing brass of trumpeters interweaving with sinuous saxophone and rumbling trombones, blasting the notes of the New Orleans street classic “Hey Pocky Way.”
The band was led by a dapper man bearing a black umbrella, a snappy fedora over his head, and an ornate sash draped over his gray suit jacket bearing the word “Katrina.” He was followed by dozens of evacuees from the Dome, in donated clothes, risen from their cots, and ready to party. As the band and its retinue thundered its disorderly way into the club’s hotel lobby-like doorway, trumpeter Kenny Terry stopped blowing his horn long enough to holler “Katrina, we got yo’ ass now!” and another member of the band held aloft a plastic skull he identified as the spirit of the hurricane they’d come to bury.
“New Or-leans! New Or-leans,” yelled iron-voiced trombonist Glen David Andrews. “Somebody scream! Somebody say party! PARTY! PARTY PARTY PARTY ALL NIGHT LONG!”
The beats stretched the bounds of syncopation and polyrhythmic possibility to their limits: modern-day New Orleans brass band music always teeters just this side of chaos, and on that night the city had just been delivered from nothing more than absolute pandemonium. If you weren’t shaking your ass with tears in your eyes through that whole evening, you were dead. As the opening song ended, somebody hollered “Houstonnnnn! Houston, Texas! THANK YOU!” And the night went on for hours more, through Big Easy renditions of soul classic “Stand By Me” and the relentless, turbo-charged NOLA street classic “A.P. Touro.” Andrews screamed, “Who the hell left the gate open?” a question many westside Houstonians are wondering now, pondering their drowned homes after the Army Corps of Engineers released the torrents from Houston’s dams, just as they are likely willing to sing along to another tune on the bill, that goes like this: “I lost my job/I DON’T CARE/I lost my car/I DON’T CARE/I lost my clothes/I DON’T CARE….”
This was Hurricane Katrina’s funeral, performed in absentia, 350 miles away, in the city where the Treme neighborhood had fled.
Many of those who performed at Sammy’s will be back at Axelrad this Friday, paying Houston back for services rendered during Katrina. Some shows will take place on Axelrad’s stage, but the real action will be the New Orleans second-line parade starting around 8:30 p.m. and winding its way around the block at Almeda Boulevard and Alabama Street.
Along with famed New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, Henry is a co-owner of Axelrad with Houstonians Adam Brackman and Jeff Kaplan. Without gulf storms, they would never have become business partners. And now, twelve years after Katrina, New Orleans is returning to settle their accounts with us.
After Katrina, a Second Life in Houston
“All the stories you see on HBO and stuff don’t tell the real story,” says John “Papa Jazzy” Williams, one of the performers that night at Sammy’s, a retired soldier who divides his time between the Fort Hood area, Houston, and his native New Orleans. “The real story of New Orleans music is it was carried on here in Houston. The first second-line [after the storm] wasn’t in Georgia, it wasn’t in Seattle, it wasn’t in New York, it was in Houston five days after people got off the bus. Everything happened in Houston and it’s been 12 years and nobody has ever told that story. The musicians from the Treme tradition were in Houston, five days later, while people were still being evacuated, while people were still livin’ on cots. Everything happened in Houston. Houston kept the musicians going. Houston housed the musicians, y’understand?”
The seeds of that show had been planted months before, when Brackman and Kaplan, owners of Sammy’s, had met Papa Jazzy during Mardi Gras 2005 at Donna’s, a New Orleans club where Papa Jazzy, also a chef, was then cooking. Brackman and Kaplan had fallen in love with the music and food of New Orleans and were toying with the idea of bringing on Jazzy, a native of the Treme neighborhood, as a chef in their then-neglected kitchen. And then the storm came.
The three of them were instrumental in hosting the show at Sammy’s and the parades at the Astrodome. “I had said we’re gonna do what we do best,” Jazzy remembers. “On this Sunday, we’re gonna go ahead and put this second-line together, and wake these [evacuees] up, because that’s what we’re known for, that’s tradition, that’s what we do when people are born and when they die, that’s the way we bring ‘em home.”
This brought considerable culture shock to a Houston unaccustomed to such spectacles. “Oh my God, the folks went nuts,” Jazzy says. “[The authorities] didn’t know if it was a riot or what. When the band started up and the people started running outside the Reliant Center, the police started comin’ up on motorbikes and it was like ‘No no, this is just tradition in New Orleans, don’t worry about it, we got it.’”
Jazzy recalls that was when Brackman told him that Sammy’s was open to New Orleans musicians every Sunday. “After that, Sammy’s was the new Treme,” Jazzy says.
And it wasn’t just the one club. Pete Mitchell of Under the Volcano, John Zotos of the (now-closed) downtown seafood restaurant St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin, and other Houston venue owners also regularly booked New Orleans musicians. For a short while, Houston really was Treme, Texas.
Most, but not all, of the musicians filtered back to their native city after the storm, but some remain, and many of those who are back in Louisiana are coming back to Houston to repay the city that helped them keep their tradition alive 12 years ago.
“The bond between Houston and New Orleans is real,” says Kaplan, co-owner of Axelrad and formerly of Sammy’s. He believes that both Katrina and Harvey displayed Houston as a city that walks the walk of its much-touted diversity. Not only did it take in more than 100,000 mostly African-American refugees after Katrina, but after Harvey, rescuers were every of every degree of melanin—including Papa Jazzy, who will be at Axelrad for the concert after spending a week rescuing Houstonians on his boat, often with Brackman aboard, under the auspices of the Cajun Navy.
“I think the whole world saw that two weeks after Charlottesville, Houston was this tolerant, open city compared to other cities. We really do look like the city of the future on a human level,” he says. “But at the same time, we are backwards with our infrastructure and I really think [the storm] is going to force policy changes.”
But again, that’s another story. “This is gonna be a long process,” says trombonist and bandleader Corey Henry, who roomed with Kaplan for six months after Katrina. “We are still feeling the effects of Katrina in New Orleans, in our economy.” He hopes the people of New Orleans can provide some solace and encouragement for Houstonians in the long road ahead. “There are years of political hang-ups and stuff like that, but you’ve just got to keep it rollin’, you know?” he says. “And from that standpoint we really look forward to coming to Houston and trying to help you as much as we can.”
As New Birth Brass Band bass drummer and bandleader Tanio Hingle puts it, “Keep your heads up Houston, and keep that dream alive. Houston’s not going anywhere.”