For NOLA Street Musicians, the Band Plays On
BY Craig MacGraff
Dateline: The summer of 2010. In the midst of the heat, humidity, and oil gushing in the gulf, something remarkable happened. Something not seen since the blighted post Katrina era of New Orleans happened every night around 8 p.m. Something eerie and strange if you know anything about New Orleans, the streets were silent and devoid of music. Not a horn or drum was in sight.
If you found yourself downtown on the corner of Bourbon and Canal, you’d see musicians being shooed by police offers and admonished to disperse; citing public ordinances penned in 1956 and forgotten decades ago. Section 30-1456 prohibited all street performers from working on or around The Quarter from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Section 606- 205 prevented street musicians from playing in The Quarter from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. and only if given special and temporary permits to do so.
If you were in The Quarter or The Marigny around 9:30pm, you would occasionally see someone sitting in the back of a patrol car, or on the sidewalk in handcuffs. The gilded and hand crafted evidence of their crimes were always close by. Was this person a thief or drug dealer? What about a gangster?
No. In a strange twist of fate and insanity that gripped us during the heat of the summer months, of all things, he was a musician…in New Orleans.
Not long after a familiar sight that had become more and more obscure. During walks in the quarter around 10:00 p.m. you could encounter a band playing music on the street and be pleasantly surprised they’ve made it that long without being arrested. But this couldn’t be a common occurrence could it? Not after the police have made it perfectly clear at that time and place, music wasn’t welcome anymore. But apparently soon it would be again.
Recently during a night out on Frenchmen Street, I ran into Roy, lead trombonist of the Young Fellaz Brass Band, and Ryan, trumpet player and newest member after their set which lasted well into the night. (Note: Roy and Ryan did not wish to disclose their last names for this article). I was able to talk with them about their regained sense of freedom. Roy was happy to break the situation down for me.
“I guess you can say that around the time they really started enforcing that ordinance the biggest issue was the time factor,” Roy explains. “They were really pushing for us to not play after nine. We’ve had an officer come out here repeatedly to shut us down. I was here on three or four different occasions. One time he even got hostile. He handcuffed one of our musicians and put him in the back of his car.”
This went on through the height of the summer but musicians didn’t go quietly. They picketed, they protested, they even went viral through social networking. And with over 20,000 behind them, they took the fight to the city and dissatisfied residents of the French Quarter. Even with this and other acts of civil disobedience, summertime in New Orleans was a lot less musical, a lot less harmonious. We all felt deep in our guts something was wrong and out of place. Both sides of the argument had valid points. But when musicians, what some call the pride of New Orleans, are arrested for playing music, things had certainly escalated too far. But it would seem a silver lining was on its way.
“I would say since about Satchmo Fest they’ve been leaving us alone and let us do what we do,” Roy says as he puffs a cigarette and breaks down his horn. “But in the summer it was kind of rough. There were nights when we would come out here, we would literally pull up and start pulling instruments out of the car and the officers would be like, ‘Shut it down’, before we even had a chance to play.”
Most street performers have returned since the shakedown. Rather than question this new development, most of people just got to dancing..but you can’t help but wonder what’s been going on?
Roy believes the wave of support the musicians have been garnering against the local government and law enforcement has been making a difference.
“I believe it’s because we’ve had a lot of legal action surrounding the issue,” Roye explains. It’s been brought up that the original ordinance is unconstitutional; therefore you can’t really stop street musicians from playing music.” The other members of the band nod in agreement as Roy puts his cigarette out to make his point. “I mean this is New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz. What position can you really take to stop that? Everybody comes here; most of the tourism is based on the music. A lot of people have seen the brass bands on TV commercials or have heard them on the radio and they come expecting to see them. How is that going to look on the tourism of this city if the thing people come to see isn’t here? That’s like going to Disney World and it’s closed.”
It would seem that the music and spirit of our beloved Louis Armstrong has helped quell the savage beast of law enforcement in the area. But most of the members of Young Fellaz believe that the music is just too good to make an enemy of. Even the officers it seems can’t resist good music.
“Actually we’ve had a couple of officers stop and watch us play,” Roy declares laughing.
“Because we play out in the French Quarter,” Ryan chimes; “sometimes we’ll play on Bourbon and Canal way past eight without having a problem. Sometimes we’ll see cops who look like they’re going to stop us, but usually they’re going somewhere else because they have more important stuff to do.”
And that seems to be the consensus among most street musicians and law enforcement alike. In a city like New Orleans, cops simply have better and more important things to do.
“Frenchmen is pretty tight,” Ryan says packing up his trumpet. “We love playing here. There is a time period when the neighborhood has asked us to stop playing, and we do to try to respect the neighbors so we can keep coming back here.”
The band believes that good relations like this with the local residents will keep the music going well into the future with little interference with law enforcement.
Chris Costello, head of the Neighborhood Association in and around Frenchmen Street agrees but makes note of no street musician or affiliated group contacting him or the neighborhood association directly.
“To my knowledge, there has been no street musicians who have contacted us,” Costello explains, “Should they contact us; we would refer them to the city, and tell them to work with the city providing their input on the new sound ordinance. And that is what the association is providing input on for many sound issues. In general we think music is great, street musicians are great, but there is a time and a place for both of them. We want to make sure that musicians can play, but that they’re respectful to the areas that they’re playing in.”
Costello says that the association is all about upholding the law. “We can’t allow something to go on that isn’t legal. So we follow the law, and if we think law isn’t right, then we should make steps to change the law. I think some musicians are very respectful, and some are not. It’s the ones that aren’t respectful make it difficult for the ones that are. We are champions of live music. In fact, we put together the Frenchmen Street overlay so that this street would be an incubator for up and coming music artists. We will continue to foster that relationship. But we also have to make sure that music, when it is played is played at the right time and in the right area.”
So it would seem the future of street music in the Quarter and Marigny is still an uncertain one. The city is working to create newer, up to date city ordinances regarding music, one of our most celebrated hallmarks. How much music is too much music? Who knows? Some of us are just happy to hear music during our night on the town while some residents in the Marigny are just hoping for a little peace and quiet.
“We just want to make sure that when the music is played, it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights,” says Costello. “So it’s great that musicians want to play, and that people come to this area to listen to music. But if you live in the neighborhood, you shouldn’t have to be forced to listen to music if you don’t want to. If someone decides they want to watch a TV show in their own home, they should be able to without turning the volume up to levels that are deafening just to drown out music.”
Here’s to hoping that everybody gets a little of what they want.