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New Orleans Needs Pianos, and Jazz Pilgrims Deliver

Mark Anderson
for National Geographic News
April 10, 2006
 
John "Klondike" Koehler is on a pilgrimage to New Orleans.

Like thousands of music fans from around the world, Koehler is planning to attend the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which runs from April 28 through May 7.

But with the city still devastated from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, this Jazz Fest aims to be a celebration like no other. Its lineup includes Bruce Springsteen, Fats Domino, Paul Simon, Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan.

Koehler is no ordinary pilgrim, either.

Today he left his Wendell, Massachusetts, home in a rental truck to pick up 12 donated pianos destined for the studios of New Orleans musicians who lost their livelihoods in the floods last September.

Koehler and New Orleans native Juan LaBostrie head a charity called Katrina's Piano Fund, which has already directed donated instruments to more than 200 Crescent City musicians. The fund provides equipment to artists whether they have already returned to New Orleans or are still dislocated and trying to return.

"It's about repopulating New Orleans and getting these folks back home, so that magical musical economy can recover," said Koehler, whose company runs the Jazz Fest's sound equipment.

Koehler explained that his fund is currently helping musicians gear up for the festival, but the instruments the fund provides will be used every day of the year.

"[New Orleans] is certainly the only city in the U.S., probably the only in the world, where a musician can work five shows a day, seven days a week," he said.

"There's corporate lunches that use live music, jazz funerals, or recording studios in the afternoon, and there's bar sets in the nightclubs that run [all night]."

Katrina's Piano Fund joins several other nonprofit organizations—including the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund and MusiCares—that have channeled both dollars and donated instruments to the talent that makes the city a musical mecca.

(See and download a photo of a dancer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.)

Out of the Storm

When guitarist and keyboardist Paul Batiste joins the Batiste Brothers onstage at the festival on May 7, he and his two brothers will all be performing on donated instruments.

Batiste also uses his donated keyboard, obtained through the fund, to teach music at the Sophie B. Wright Charter School in New Orleans.

"I'm also helping my students at Sophie B. Wright school get instruments through other means," he said.

"We're working with [the New Orleans-based artist-relief nonprofit] Tipitina's Foundation to get band instruments. We're trying to have a 75-piece marching band ready to march for the parade season."

Some of what Batiste now earns from performing and teaching goes back into restoring his home, which was severely water-damaged during the two months he and his family spent in Dallas, Texas, as evacuees.

"Sometimes when you're in a situation like that, you're not creative," he said.

"You just don't feel like doing anything musically. I call that being in the storm. But the keyboard and other assistance that I got brought me out of the storm."

Going Fishing

Drummer Brian Lewis estimates that in addition to the grief of losing his home and neighborhood to the floodwaters, Katrina cost him upwards of a hundred thousand dollars in instruments and recording-studio equipment.

The Piano Fund's LaBostrie contacted Lewis to help get him playing again.

LaBostrie himself is no stranger to Katrina-related losses. He and 15 neighbors were stranded at his house for two days after the city's levees broke. His neighborhood remained submerged in more than eight feet (two and a half meters) of water.

"[One] morning [during the flood], I thought I saw the water rising again," LaBostrie said. "Strangely enough, it was very pretty, one of those golden sunrises. Then I happened to see a refrigerator-freezer float past the corner, and I thought, This is not right."

LaBostrie ultimately evacuated to Wendell, Massachusetts, where he stayed with Koehler. (The two had worked together at the festival in years past.)

There they both resolved to do something to help New Orleans' devastated music scene.

"We were talking about doing maybe some benefit shows," LaBostrie said. "But Klondike [Koehler] said, 'Juan, we're not producers. That's not what we do. We've got to find a way to use the skills that we have to make this happen.' … We came up with the Piano Fund."

Lewis noted that another charity gave him a cash card to buy food and other necessities.

"That's like feeding you a piece of fish," he said. "With the Katrina's Piano Fund, they're saying, Here's a fishing pole. You can get all the fish you want."

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