Jazz Notes: On April 20, Jazz Foundation of America Returns to the Apollo Theater for Annual Gala Benefit and Baton Rouge Flood Recovery
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, April 16, 2018
Every year, New York’s nonprofit the Jazz Foundation of America—whose motto is “Saving jazz and blues…one musician at a time”—helps to be a key factor for helping musicians who have faced natural disasters and other downtowns due to ill health or housing challenges get back on their feet and back onto the stages. The JFA continues to be a premiere aid organization for musicians in the U.S., handling more than 7,000 cases annually with emergency financial support, providing pro bono medical care, housing bills and legal assistance.
This year’s 16th annual benefit gala at the Apollo Theater takes place on April 20 and features such icons of American music as singer Roberta Flack (who is honored with the Clark and Gwen Terry Courage Award), jazz greats Heath Brothers (recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award) and blues legend Otis Rush (also a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award). Featured performers include Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Jon Faddis, Nona Hendryx, Eddie Palmieri, Rufus Reid, Jimmie Vaughan, and many others. Also part of festivities are JFA supporters such as TV/movie stars Chevy Chase, Danny Glover and Bruce Willis.
Six days after the show, the entire JFA team will be traveling to Puerto Rico. “I have to tell you it makes all the other hurricanes last year pale in comparison,” says co-executive director Wendy Oxenhorn. “It’s a crime no one’s even reporting on the whole island that just had another black out on Easter. I am praying we can raise enough money to make a dent for 170 families that we have been in touch with.”
While the show itself will include testimonies of those who the JFA has helped, it won’t fully reflect what the organization has been doing. The following is an on-the-scene witness of how the JFA helped musicians recover after the devastating floods in Baton Rouge in 2016.
HISTORY: THE UNPRECEDENTED BATON ROUGE FLOOD OF 2016
On August 11, 2016, the torrential rains from a stationary weather system hit Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and didn’t stop, pouring down on the average of more than two feet of rainwater in the district. For fifteen hours, the rain fell at a rate of two to three inches an hour, creating an unprecedented deluge that the National Weather Service said was a less-than-one-in-a-thousand-year event for a region that had experienced no flooding in 500 years. In contrast to the devastating 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, two hours away by car, this weather event dropped three times as much precipitation.
Over 20 inches of rain fell throughout the capital city with the top reading at more than 31 inches in the unincorporated community of Watson in the northeast sector of Baton Rouge. The catastrophic flooding began on August 12 and continued for days, killing 13 people in south-central Louisiana, displacing thousands of people, destroying 146,000 homes in the region and flooding most of the schools—going into the record books as the worst U.S. national disaster since 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and the third largest disaster in U.S. history. The Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce estimated that 110,000 homes in the city, valued at $20.7 billion, were damaged.
Even so, because the horrific storm did not have a name attached to it, like hurricanes, the news media was slow to respond with coverage. Add to that, the 2016 Summer Olympics games were full-tilt and the contentious presidential election campaigns were dominating the headlines. The New York Times and CNN didn’t provide news of the Baton Rouge flood until two days later, August 14.
When the skies finally cleared, residents of the city were faced with the monumental challenge of rebuilding and readjusting to a life turned upside down. Photos and videos of neighborhoods showed mountains of flood-ravished trash out in front of houses. The Red Cross was present, and FEMA showed up, offering below market rates for reimbursement of destroyed properties. Other monetary support drifted in.
JAZZ FOUNDATION OF AMERICA RESPONSE
However, from the musicians’ point of view, in the case of Baton Rouge—much like the organization did in New Orleans after Katrina—the JFA hastened to the birthplace of American music (and its soundtrack to our lives) to offer its personalized social work and assistance in replacing instruments, getting cars repaired, buying clothing and mattresses for the musicians and their families, and getting the support from a Florida-based bio-washing company to get rid of toxic bacteria and waste that infiltrated the flooded homes so they could be safely rebuilt.
In addition, the JFA worked at getting the musicians back to work by helping to replace the work they had been doing as professionals to pay their rent and support their families. That ranged from jazz-in-the-schools programs, mini-concerts set up at senior centers and even sponsoring an evening a month at a local jukejoint-like venue.
JFA RETURNS ONE YEAR LATER FOR A TOWN HALL REUNION
The JFA put a luncheon in a convention-styled, multipurpose ballroom at the Tracey Center at the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge on Thursday, August 17. It marked the one-year anniversary of the tragic flood. More than 100 people who had been served by the JFA attended, ate a prepared meal, listened to the music of the Harvey Knox Soul Spectrum Band—“old stuff played on the chitlin circuit,” said guitarist Henry Turner Jr., the town’s foremost musical mover-and-shaker—and socialized in a central location.
The entire JFA team—co-executive director Wendy, co-executive director Joe Petrucelli, chief financial officer Daryl Dunbar, director of social services Alisa Hafkin, musicians’ advocate and program manager Will Glass, director of administration Laura Asquino, and musicians’ advocate Melaney Mashburn—flew from New York into New Orleans, then drove to Baton Rouge for the event. (Also attending was JFA’s local director of operations Petr Verner.)
“No one had ever gathered all the musicians together,” said swamp/Delta blues guitarist Smokehouse Porter, while standing in line for the meal. He was with his wife Miss Mamie Porter (together they’re known as the King and Queen of the Gutbucket Blues).
Smokehouse and Mamie recounted their experience during the flood and its aftermath. “There’s a canal behind our house that rose three-and-a-half feet,” Smokehouse said. “In fifty years, it had never flooded. At 5:30 a.m. a friend called and said we’d better leave. Out front our street looked like a river. So we drove to a parking lot at RiteAid in our Silverado truck and slept there. The next morning we drove to try to see the house, but the streets were still flooded. All the hotels were booked.” Mamie added, “We were in shock.”
But the tide changed when the JFO contacted them and told them that part of the first stage to recovery in addition to paying off bills and replacing instruments was to bio-wash the house once the flood waters receded. Brian L’Hommedieu, head of the Florida-based DriMaxx Emergency Damage Contractors, came to the partial rescue. On her seventh trip back to Baton Rouge, Wendy said, “You need to get rid of the bacteria and waste in a home if you want to rebuild. You don’t want to put drywall over what will become a death trap of toxic bacteria and mold.”
Attending the Town Hall meeting, Bryan explained how his DriMaxx works. “Inside, the lumber left is still often wet,” he said. ”That needs to be dried. Wendy flew me and my crew out to Baton Rouge, and we set out to wash and dry 25 houses. Along the way we perfected the system. The magic of all this is that we can get the house ready to be rebuilt within 24 hours.”
Smokehouse noted, “With what Bryan did, we got revitalized. It gave us a new outlook on life, and how precious life is. We realized that after a disaster happens, you can find how blessed you can be. Now, a year later, we’re ahead of the game.”
An anonymous donor made the entire clean-up possible. When Wendy noted this at the meeting, everyone in the hall stood up and applauded the donor. Later she said, “We cannot name him, but if it weren’t for saints like this, we never could have helped so many good, hardworking musicians and save their lives and their homes.”
VINCE HUTCHINSON’S STORY
“It’s been all hands-on with the Jazz Foundation,” said vocalist bluesman Vince Hutchinson who pilots his 30-year-old band called, ironically, Heavy Storm. “It wasn’t just a case of coming in, dropping a lot of money and then forgetting us. The people there communicate with us. They‘re still concerned about our well-being, not just replacing equipment and getting us gigs, but checking in to see if we need any help in getting back in our homes after they were made mold-free.”
He said that the JFA has been a blessing for himself and the other musicians. “There were a lot of lost instruments,” he said. “This is my livelihood. After the flood it basically stopped. There was no way of getting new equipment, and therefore no gigs. I needed to play. We’re a close-knit family in Baton Rouge. We all know one another. We all pulled it together because of the JFA.” Because he was a band leader, he had a U-Haul trailer filled with PA equipment for shows. When he finally got to it, he opened the door and got emotional. Will Glass, one of JFA’s social workers, told him everything was going to be all right. “And Will made everything all right like he promised,” Vince said.
Now a donor to the JFA, Vince added, “Through this time period as trying as it has been, it’s helped us to grow closer, to bring us all together.”
THE SINGERS TESTIFY
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, southern soul/r&b/jazz singer April Jackson (“this is my little sister in the music world,” Vince said) heard about the JFA through its work during Katrina. She learned first hand how “astonishing” the organization was.
“I lost everything,” she said. “When I was flooded, I was living in a downstairs apartment where the flood waters reached 4’7”. I’m 5’4,” and I swim like a rock. I woke up to screams and knocks on my door. As a result, the JFA saved my life, to give me lifer speed so that I could sing. It made significant strides in this community. They were looking out for the musicians of Baton Rouge. They are a foundation to be reckoned with. They are powerful. There is so much love and concern, and they have the personal touch. They reach out to artists who have suffered and still be a part of our lives. And here we are one year later, they are bringing us together again on a happier note.”
Although reluctant to talk at first about recounting what happened a year ago when she lost nearly all of her possessions, singer Dehlice Shelton had a few poignant words to pass on: ”For the past year we’re still going through the flood. But the flood is over. So I say we’ve got to stop living through it, and go to the future. We ain’t home yet.”
Another singer, Wyanda R. Paul, was more open about her story, explaining that just prior to the flood she was in the ICU “fighting for my life.” Once home, she had another battle ahead. When the waters got too high, she and her sister had to quickly abandon the premises, without her meds. “We just had the clothes on our backs,’ said Wyanda. “We figured we’d be in the vehicle for an hour and then we could go home. Not so. So we went to a hotel with the last money we had, then once that ran out had to sleep on a concrete floor in a lady’s home.” JFA’s Will became hip to her situation, got her gas for the vehicle, food and clothing, got in touch with her doctor and checked her into another hotel. That stemmed the tide. FEMA got in touch with her and housed her in a trailer four months ago, with a follow-up interview required every four months to see if she was still eligible.
“My sister and I were both ill,” Wyanda said. “We were living one day at a time, hoping that music would take us through. So I recorded the album His Grace Is Sufficient, which was born out of pain and struggle,” she said. In the liner notes, the first thank-you shout out goes to the JFA, with Will second.
TESTIMONY OF NEW ORLEANS BANDLEADER CHARMAINE NEVILLE
At the Town Hall, some people shared stories, and then Charmaine Neville, the daughter of Charles Neville of Neville Brothers fame, spoke to the crowd. She had driven from New Orleans where she lives in the once-devastated 9th Ward and wanted to inspire the Baton Rouge flood survivors with stories of her Katrina experience and bestow wisdom for the years ahead. She told the people gathered to make sure they have tetanus shots to keep safe, and to not give up hope. She said it wasn’t going to happen overnight, but to keep on hoping and keep on being in touch with the JFA.
Afterwards, Charmaine talked about why she had traveled so far to be a presence at the Town Hall. “I came here because the JFA had helped me in New Orleans,” she said. “I feel like it’s important for people to realize that this is all just the beginning. But to pace themselves. We all want everything to be over right now, but it will take time. Many people are still in shock, but I wanted to let them know that it will be all right—to be patient. Hurricane Katrina came to New Orleans 11 years ago, and the city is still being rebuilt and there’s more work to be done.”
After her house was flooded, Charmaine stayed on a school rooftop for four days, then “commandeered” a school bus (“That’s what the police called it,” she said) and picked up people who were still stranded. She ended up relocating with a friend in Florida where she had to sleep on a couch. That’s when out of the blue, the JFA called her after tracking down her whereabouts. “They helped me and they helped a lot of people in New Orleans,” she said. “I had absolutely nothing. No clothes, no gigs, no medicine, no access to doctors. The JFA stepped forward with all of that. All the time, I had faith in God, but I also had faith in people. When I was still in shock, I didn’t think that anyone could do something for me. If it weren’t for the JFA helping to get me going, I think I’d probably still just be sitting around.”
THE LISTENING ROOM LIGHTS UP IN TRIBUTE
In the evening after the Town Hall, Henry Turner Jr. opened the doors at his chitlin circuit Listening Room that features music once a week with pots of red beans and rice on the back table. Even though it’s in a ”too hoody” neighborhood of the city, a place to avoid, as one regular patron put it, the venue—part of a building owned by a plumber—is a funky, down-home space with a bring-your-own-beer bar setup. The occasion? All-star Baton Rouge musicians honoring the JFA. In the back opposite the makeshift stage was the sign: “Jazz Foundation of America Presents Every 4th Thursday 8pm – Midnight.”
The jam was dreamed up by Henry who also served as the evening’s emcee. One month before the floods hit, Henry had purchased a green, 15-passenger 1977 Dodge van from a church in Tennessee as his tour vehicle. Friends called about the rising waters and about the poor conditions in shelters around town. “By the second day, I had brought more than 10 people and their animals to my house and into my studio,” he said, referring to his home that came to be known as Henry’s Ark. “I reached to the Grammy’s MusiCares organization for help and also from the local Blues Foundation. Then I got a call from Wendy at the JFA. I had never heard of them before, but we started swapping calls and I did everything I could to get the JFA and the people needing help together. They were great to work with and you knew that on the social service side they were going to be helping the local musicians. And there wasn’t going to be any politics involved—it was pure follow-through making sure that the money donated to the cause would be spent in the right way.”
At The Listening Room, a full slate of performers played a couple of songs each. Acts included a trio led by singer/songwriter Larry “LZ” Dillon, soul singer Uncle Chess, gospel singer Wyanda R. Paul, gritty r& b by Vince Hutchinson, down-home blues singer Ernest Jackson who sang his tune “A Rainy Day in Baton Rouge,” as well as a short set by guitarist Henry with his grooved Flavor band that got the house dancing. He played his original, “The Baton Rouge Theme Song” and another tune, while inviting Wendy to join the band for some hot mouth harp licks.
For more information on the Jazz Foundation of America and how to help or contribute, click here.
Cover: Marquee of the Apollo Theatre; courtesy of Jazz Foundation of America