- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Brass bands will fill the halls of Louis Armstrong International Airport this weekend as New Orleans celebrates its first Jazz & Heritage Festival since Hurricane Katrina.

The festival, which opened yesterday and continues through May 7, is expected to draw tens of thousands of people with such big-name acts as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Fats Domino.

“New Orleans music remains the beacon of our ‘bent not broken’ culture,” says Bethany Bultman, director of the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, a nonprofit support group that organized the new music series with airport officials.

With tourism slowed to a trickle and more than half the city’s residents still scattered across the country, gigs have been few and far between for local musicians. Many are anxious for the work and hopeful that the festival will help revitalize the city’s famed music scene.

“Everyone has got a few butterflies in their stomachs,” says Lumar Richardson, a towering tuba player and president of the band Soul Rebels.

“Is the attendance going to hold up? I’m sure if they have 70 percent of past attendance it will be a success, considering the city has been so traumatized by the hurricane.”

Jazz Fest officials will not speculate on attendance. The event traditionally draws around 400,000 persons and boosts the city’s economy by $200 million to $300 million.

For the first time, though, millions of viewers around the world will be allowed to “visit” the festival on its two Sundays (tomorrow and May 7) via a live Internet streaming of the 10 stages operating simultaneously.

“Jazz Fest is an economic engine, it’s an emotional engine, and it is a celebration of the culture we are,” says festival spokesman Matthew Goldman. “It’s an important time to support New Orleans.”

Indeed. The city coffers are nearly empty, and the city’s economy is starved for tourism. Moreover, reconstruction efforts for the worst natural disaster in United States history are going slower than expected.

Though the French Quarter and other parts of the city that escaped the floodwaters are still intact and functioning, piles of storm debris, white trailers furnished by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and vacant homes in the flood-damaged residential neighborhood that hosts the festival are stark reminders of Katrina’s wrath.

Undaunted, festival promoters hope to lure both tourists and locals to the Fair Grounds racetrack with the theme: “Bear witness to the healing power of music.”

At least 85 percent of the city’s 27,799 hotel rooms have been booked for the next two weekends, although many are filled by government officials, disaster recovery workers and professional golfers playing in a major tournament in New Orleans that’s also scheduled for this weekend.

Yet tourism officials are hopeful.

“Just a few short months ago, we weren’t sure we could host an event of this significance,” says Sandy Shilstone, president of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp. Like the city’s successful staging of Mardi Gras two months ago, Jazz Fest will “show the world that New Orleans can once again shine,” she says.

Oswald “Ozzie” Laporte, who runs one of three tour bus operations offering tours of neighborhoods recovering from Katrina, believes the Big Easy will rebound.

“The reasons why people still come to New Orleans are still here — the music, food, culture, architecture and history,” says Mr. Laporte, owner of Celebration Tours. “We’ve survived yellow fever, floods and FEMA. The only thing we don’t have is the avian flu. We have survived it all.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide