Music and death have always walked hand in hand in New Orleans. The tradition of second line parades, or funeral parades, began in the late 1800s with the burial societies playing hymns from the churches to the cemeteries. As times changed, so did the ritual. The ceremony became a thing of jubilation, a celebration of a soul passing on to his maker.
But what happens if the music of New Orleans dies? There would be nothing — and no one — to mourn its passing.
Thankfully, it appears the music of the Big Easy will live on, whether through transplanted music makers now residing in Memphis, or through the modern-day pioneers who've returned to their bruised but not broken city to start again after Katrina.
Here are two of their stories. >>>
a seventh-generation New Orlean-ian, Brian "Breeze" Cayolle's family threads run deep into the patchwork quilt that composes the city's population. A world-class saxophone player, Cayolle's love of music began in fourth grade and has stayed with him since.
He attended the University of New Orleans, where he juggled paying gigs at local bars with his studies. "That's where the nickname Breeze came from," he grins. "I'd be out late gigging and my friends would worry I was gonna miss a test, and someone else would say, 'No man, he'll breeze in here at the last second,''' he laughs.
Word of the jazz player's talent got around, and soon Cayolle found himself playing the city's legendary venues. He gave up on school, and began his life as a full-time musician, honing his skills in blues and gospel, rock-and-roll, and jazz.
His list of shows reads like a who's who in the music business. He opened rock halls for Stevie Ray Vaughn, Roy Buchanan, and Leon Russell as a member of the Dino Kruse Band, played with Clarence Gatemouth Brown, appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien with Allen Toussaint, played sax for Dr. John, and backed shows featuring Bonnie Raitt, Ruth Brown, Sam Moore, and Billy Joel at the Newport R&B Festival. There was even an impromptu performance with Fats Domino at the fabled Tipitina's. Life was good.
"All of them taught me something different, but it was Allen Toussaint that really changed things for me," recalls Breeze. "He showed me what it meant to be a class act, a true professional."
At one of his gigs on Bourbon Street, he met his future wife, Tracey. The two quickly settled down in their first home. Tracey worked for the city's Jazz Festival, and was familiar with the life of a musician. "She knew what to expect with me," laughs Breeze. "She's been with me ever since that first night."
When not playing, Breeze worked in the horn department of a music store, meeting music legends popping by during Jazzfest and catching up with old friends. "It was like having my own personal toy store!" he laughs.
When Tracey told him she was pregnant, it was time to upsize. The two purchased a larger home and prepared for son Jude's arrival. Breeze had also gotten another gig playing on the American Queen , the flagship beauty of the Majestic America Line of riverboats you see cruising leisurely along the Mississippi. "We were living the American dream," he says.
Then came Katrina.
If it keeps on rainin' levees goin' to break
Oh cryin' won't help you, Prayin' won't do you no good
When the levee breaks, mama you got to move.
— Kansas Joe Mccoy and Memphis Minnie,
"When the Levee Breaks"
The Cayolle family had seen the damage wrought by two of the most devastating storms to hit the city, Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Camille in '69. They were among the "we don't flee" set, buckling down and braving the destruction head-on, but this time, says Breeze, things were different.
"I don't ever recall seeing true fear in the news people's eyes before," says Breeze. "It scared them , and that scared us all." He quickly gathered his family, including wife and one-year-old son Jude, and sent them on to safety.
But not Breeze. Instead, he made his way to the river and boarded the American Queen . Not exactly the safest — or quickest — way to escape a hurricane.
"There were 250 people on that boat who had gotten into the city and had no other way to get out. Most of them weren't from the Coast and had no idea what was coming, and someone needed to be there to help," he explains. So on Saturday, August 27th, Breeze set off at 7 p.m. at a top speed of seven knots, trying to save lives and, somehow, outrun Katrina.
She hit New Orleans at 6:10 a.m., Monday, the 29th, on the heels of the American Queen the entire time.
"I remember being on the top deck watching in utter disbelief what was happening. Trees breaking, the roar of the tugboats trying desperately to hold barges against the riverbank. Then, the storm knocked out our satellites, so we had no idea what was happening."
The passengers and crew stumbled off the boat on Monday afternoon in Natchez, Mississippi, crowding into a restaurant to see TV images of the flooded city and the desperate people who didn't make it out. Shaken, they piled back onto the boat and headed to what would be this trip's final destination: Memphis.
Nighttime on the City of New Orleans, Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Halfway home, and we'll be there by morning. . .
— Arlo Guthrie "City of New Orleans"
as breeze was hitting the cobblestones of the Memphis dock, another New Orleans musician, Reid Wick, was in the thick of things back home. The 25-year music veteran and Loyola University music professor was with his wife, a nurse and thereby a first-responder, at Memorial Medical Center. With no power, no cell phone service, and no way out, it was a dire situation.
"We were there for four-and-a-half days waiting to be rescued, patients dying every minute. I spent much of the time on the roof loading the living onto helicopters, and watching bodies float by and listening to the sound of gunfire," he pauses, recalling the experience. "It was surreal."
Once the hospital was evacuated, he and his wife were able to escape to Baton Rouge, and for the first time since the storm, his cell phone rang. It was Jon Hornyak, executive director of the Memphis Chapter of the Recording Academy. He and Wick had previously worked on several music-related projects, and Hornyak had a proposal: Come to Memphis and head up the MusiCares Hurricane Relief and Instrument Replacement Programs.
With a flooded home and no job to return to, Wick took Hornyak up on his offer, and settled into his office and nearby condo on South Main. "The phones were ringing off the hook and people needed help. So I got to work," Wick says.
For the next 11 months, Wick and the Recording Academy worked at a furious pace, helping Gulf Coast musicians get back on their feet with an efficiency that still evades the likes of FEMA.
Meanwhile, on the other end of town, Breeze had been picked up at the dock by Memphis physician and former band mate Dr. Lee Schwartzberg, and driven straight to the airport to play a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden.
"I didn't even have a sax, but thanks to E.M. Winston, my instrument sponsor, I had one waiting for me when I got to my hotel."
The star-studded performance was mostly a blur to Breeze, who had yet to talk to his family, who'd fled to Little Rock, since he'd evacuated. "I tried to get a plane to Little Rock, but for some reason, there weren't any flights. From New York City , man. The closest I could get was Memphis, so I took it. It must've been divine intervention, that's all I can figure."
While Breeze was getting his family back together and buying a home in East Memphis, Wick was still working night and day to help his fellow musicians either get back home or settle elsewhere. After 11 months, he was able to return home to New Orleans, taking with him his work, his wife, and his determination to rebuild the city he loves. As of press time, the MusiCares Foundation has helped some 3,500 musicians get back on their feet, whether they chose to return to New Orleans or start life fresh elsewhere, and has given $3.5 million in aid, and counting. Breeze is among them. "I hope he comes back, but I don't think that's going to happen," says Wick. "Only time will tell."
They've got catfish on the table, They've got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green be glad to see you, When you haven't got a prayer.
But boy you've got a prayer in Memphis.
—Marc Cohn "Walking in Memphis"
Breeze Cayolle won't be among those returning to the Big Easy, a name that no longer seems to fit his former home. He's seen too much, has a family to protect, and has made Memphis home for good. His son, now three, attends Christ Methodist Day School, and Breeze still plays all over the world, just as before. Later this month he'll leave to tour with Elvis Costello, but these days, he knows home will still be here when he returns.
He still misses New Orleans terribly, but "I know what I miss about it is no longer there. My house is gone. My friends are gone. My way of life is gone," he says. And of course, seeing his extended family on a regular basis is not an option as long as he remains. "I know that will affect my son, but I can't let him go through anything like that again, now that he'd be old enough to remember it. It was too much for most adults. I won't do that to my child." Still, he counts himself among the lucky. "I didn't lose anybody; I lost stuff."
Memphis, he says, has been more than kind to him. "I've got great people here looking after me and my family," he says. "And you know, I had something happen last week that gave me a little ray of hope that things might be okay here," he smiles. "For the first time since I settled here, I ran into someone I knew at the grocery store. It seems like a small thing, but to me, it was a major milestone."
So the band plays on. Wick in New Orleans, Breeze in Memphis, and the music, everywhere.
For more information about the MusiCares Program, call 877-626-2748