"These musicians, at this point, they don't want charity," says Bethany Bultman, program director for the NOMC. "They just want to work."
Even before Katrina, the months between Jazz Fest and Halloween were unpleasant, to say the least, for the entertainment industry. The flood of tourists that pours through the city, filling seats and paying cover charges, reduces to a trickle by the end of May and doesn't pick up again until the first cool breezes of October. Most working musicians will tell you that summer is the time to tour, and those who can get out-of-town gigs -- including lucrative summer festivals -- do. It's no news flash that the oppressive tropical heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer doesn't do much to encourage convention bookings or vacation getaways, and the sizable college-student population, for the most part, gets out as well. Club owners get conservative when the reduced numbers of patrons buying drinks and paying to get in mean that a guaranteed fee or a bar percentage for a band could put them in the red. And like everything else after Katrina, the situation is that much worse.
So enter the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, which has already been working diligently for many years to provide affordable health care for New Orleans' legions of journeyman musicians. After Katrina, the clinic relocated to Lafayette and reached out to displaced musicians by funding trips to that city and subsidizing gigs there. That effort, according to Bultman, seemed to have such a positive effect on morale that NOMC continued once it returned to New Orleans in December. From December until March, through the NOMC's gig initiative, qualifying acts from the approximately 500 musicians who receive aid from the clinic were eligible for grants of about $100 per artist per gig to subsidize performances in the city -- an effort Bultman says was effective in keeping local musicians in New Orleans during the uncertain months post-Katrina.
"When we came back to New Orleans in December, we knew that some club owners that we'd always worked with were worried that they wouldn't be able to afford to reopen and pay musicians," Bultman says. "And a lot of musicians have to be here because they're working on their houses. [The gig initiative grants] meant that bands like the Soul Rebels Brass Band, who were coming in every week from Houston, could make some money on the two or three days they were in town."
The success of the spring grants initiative inspired the NOMC to develop a twist on it, called the Summer Solace program. Through Summer Solace, 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations like museums, churches and nursing homes can receive funding to book musicians to perform throughout the summer, aspiring to multiple goals of keeping musicians in New Orleans, finding them work, and bringing local music to non-traditional venues. The program is funded exclusively by individual donations, Bultman says, a large number of which come, interestingly, from Europe. (For those who wish to donate, or learn more about the program and the NOMC, visit www.wwoz.org/clinic)
"We just didn't want the gig thing that ran from December till March to end. It felt like we were just setting musicians up for heartache," Bultman says. "It'd be very anticlimactic. [We thought,] what can we do to take musicians and put them somewhere where audiences will really appreciate them?" The Summer Solace program so far has worked out performance grants for the D-Day Museum, the Freret Neighborhood Street Fair, St. Augustine's Church, the local ARC branch (a group that provides services for developmentally disabled adults), an Alzheimer's day-care group, the Marigny Neighborhood Association and others. Some of the pairings are pretty inspired -- the 40s-style vocal group the Pfister Sisters, for example, will play a series of swing dances at the D-Day Museum.
"We also thought, why not put senior musicians like Uncle Lionel [Batiste] in a gig at a nursing home, where he can play for some people his own age, people who can't go out to hear him play in the clubs?" Bultman says. Some grants have already funded efforts that assist musicians on multiple levels, like the Mission to Musicians community center run by Father Bill Terry. On Wednesday nights at St. Anna's Episcopal Church in Trem, musicians get a home-cooked meal, socialize, hear a band and get referrals to health-care, financial and legal-assistance organizations.
As for what happens when summer ends, Bultman is philosophical.
"We don't have a crystal ball. We don't know what's going to happen in terms of tourism," she says. "But we're not going to cut musicians loose and say 'no more subsidies.' Our musicians give us a gift every time they perform, and this is us just giving them a way to pay their light bill."