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Fans Follow the Music Back to New Orleans

The 200,000 expected at Jazz Fest are a boon amid signs that tourists are leery of the city.

April 29, 2006|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Vance Vaucresson isn't wowed by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon or Elvis Costello. Still, the 37-year-old Crescent City sausage maker is thrilled all those superstars have signed on to perform at this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which got underway Friday.

That's because more than simply soaking up the menu of rock, jazz, country, R&B, folk, blues and gospel, festival-goers will be pumping much-needed money -- and confidence -- back into a city that was pummeled by Hurricane Katrina and has struggled to regain its footing.

Vaucresson, whose nearly century-old family business was crippled by Katrina, is operating full-swing for the moment -- hawking crawfish sausage po' boy sandwiches on the festival grounds, as his family has since Jazz Fest began in 1969. The Vaucresson Sausage Co. will crank out 5,000 to 7,500 pounds of sausage through next weekend, to feed the 200,000 fans expected to attend the festival.

"This city's not going to be repaired anytime soon," said Vaucresson, who looked out through the mesh screen on his food booth at the line of customers waiting for the sausage concoction. "There are so many people here who are depressed and down," he said. "My office manager, who's my cousin ... killed herself. I know there's a lot of people who need to blow off some steam. When they see something like this, it makes them say 'New Orleans is coming back.' "

Many people here are hoping that will be the case.

Jazz Fest typically pumps $200 million to $300 million into the local economy. Last year, the festival out-earned Mardi Gras, making it the state's most lucrative tourist event, according to Louisiana's Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

The reality this year is that the damage inflicted by Katrina, and the heavy media coverage of it, is keeping people away from Louisiana in droves.

Angele Davis, secretary of the tourism agency, said figures showed that "20% of leisure travelers say they will not even consider visiting the state during hurricane season, 50% believe there are many places that have been destroyed and that Louisiana isn't a good place to visit, and 62% have less interest in the region."

Only one-third of the restaurants that were operating before Katrina hit Aug. 29 are still in business. Hotels have rebounded more quickly -- with the current inventory of rooms hovering around 30,000 in the city's central business district, down 8,000 from pre-Katrina levels.

But the hurricane's devastation reaches far deeper here than anything that can be remedied by disaster relief money or construction crews.

"Everything in my home was destroyed," said clarinetist Michael White, who teaches African American music at Xavier University and is a frequent musical partner of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. White plays traditional New Orleans jazz -- the kind brought to the world in the 1920s by Louis Armstrong, Joe "King" Oliver and Sidney Bechet.

"More than the house and furniture and things like that," White said, "I had an extremely large personal archive of materials relating to jazz and New Orleans culture." His home in the Gentilly district was under 9 feet of water after Katrina. "I lost 5,000 CDs, 4,000 books, more than 60 instruments -- including vintage clarinets from the 1890s to 1930s -- hundreds of videos, thousands of photographs.... If it weren't for the music and culture here, I'd leave and never come back," White said. "But it's my whole life."

The high-powered names on this year's Jazz Fest lineup underscore the special place New Orleans holds for the music community. It is the birthplace of jazz, and a cradle of rock 'n' roll.

Springsteen chose the venue to showcase "The Seeger Sessions," his new album of songs from the folk tradition that he'll be drawing from when he closes out the festival's first weekend Sunday night.

"My Oklahoma Home," Springsteen told the Associated Press, "is really a song about losing everything -- and in New Orleans today we have our biggest disaster since the Dust Bowl. That's the way our lives tie into old folk music. It's why songs like this last."

U2 guitarist the Edge, who has led a campaign to buy instruments for musicians who lost theirs to the floodwaters, jammed Thursday night at Preservation Hall. The private party celebrated the reopening of the fabled French Quarter jazz club.

Dylan, playing at the festival for 90 minutes Friday with a new band, stormed through his song catalog -- including a version of "Like a Rolling Stone." It seemed especially relevant to the thousands displaced by natural disaster when he sang: "How does it feel/To be without a home/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?"

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