Ripples from Katrina

La Petite Fleur (My View from Below Sea Level)

Written by Reggie Houston November, 2006

On August 29, 2005, while preparing for a little Monday night gig, I was tracking with interest Katrina's movements in The Gulf. I was in good spirits because I knew where everyone was and believed that they were all safe. Late that night I turned on the TV to get an update. The levee had breached. The unthinkable had happened, and shock ensued.

The next evening Tom D'Antoni, journalist, author, philosopher and friend came to my regular Tuesday night gig and was moved to write an article, an excerpt of which appears below, and which was printed the very next day in Portland's daily paper, The Oregonian.

"At the bandstand, Reggie played with a greater intensity than usual. At the other end of the room, the endless loops of devastation played on CNN. Reggie provided the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of the classic "Junko Partner," and the raucous brass band tune "It Ain't My Fault" with a ruined New Orleans was uplifting and heartbreaking all at the same time."
[Scroll down to read Tom's complete article.]

Remarkably, in just a few short weeks, The Oregon Food Bank and Waterfront Blues Festival with Peter Dammann leading the charge, mobilized the community and pulled off the enormously successful Blues For Katrina benefit which raised $125,000.00 for The Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans.

As part of my performance for the benefit, I asked Tom to read the article he had written while I played Sidney Bechet's "La Petit Fleur." When Tom mentioned Congo Square, I felt a strong emotional force well up within me. My mind raced with thoughts about how that area had changed. I thought about my old neighborhoods, my family, children, friends, and the smells and sounds of New Orleans. Images crowded my mind, and while Tom read, tears streamed down my face as I continued to play.

The artist, Diane Russell, who was in the audience snapped a photo of me at that moment. In that image she captured my tears of realizing all my losses. Tears that said what I could not bear to. Tears of pain for the people and history that were swept away by the flood waters. Tears of pain, but also of thankfulness and joy for each of the people who made it through that tragedy and for the indomitable spirit of New Orleans and her people.

Diane has honored me with a truly beautiful painting that expresses so much-- not only the feeling of that moment, but an expression of memories of my New Orleans-- not the famous Bourbon Street, but Frenchman Street, and Snug Harbour Jazz Bistro. Now that's N'awlins.

N'awlins Cher! Dat's how we say it. N'awlins.

My home town.

The smells:
"Aint" Liza, with her lavender and morning jasmine about her modest little house around the corner from my family home. Tea cakes filling my nostrils with her ever-present love. Lemonade, my "bellie washer."
Oh! The many smells!

And the sounds:
Honey Bay yellin' "watda melon, watda melon, red to da rind, sweet as sugar and cold as ice" from his early 1940ish truck we called "the vegetable wagon."
Oh! The many sounds!

The spirit of New Orleans lives in her sons, daughters and lovers.

Thank you Diane for honoring my great city with me being a part. 

Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

The editorial below, written by Reggie's friend, *Tom D’Antoni, was published in The Oregonian on Sept. 1, 2005. Reggie was so moved by the piece that he wanted to read it to the audience during the Blues For Katrina Benefit. The only problem was that every time he read it to himself he cried. So during the benefit Reggie brought Tom up on stage to recite the story to the 5,000 people in attendance while Reggie played his sax, low and sweet in the background. By the end of the recitation there wasn't a dry eye to be found....

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day?
I know I'm not wrong . . . this feeling's gettin' stronger
The longer I stay away.

-- Louis Armstrong tune

That song has taken on a whole new meaning to me. Before this week, I'd heard it in my head dozens of times, when I'd been sitting on a plane, ready to fly out of New Orleans, or as a young man, after being up all night, rushing to the Cafe du Monde for coffee and beignets and then up the street to get a muffuletta from the Italian grocery to take with me on the train north.

That train, heading up the eastern seaboard, was as sad leaving New Orleans as it was happy on the way to it.

Or driving west over Lake Pontchartrain, on that long, low bridge over miles of water with the car full of food and the music still ringing in my ears.

Water. Water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

Cliches, when you hear them in a different context, bring new meaning.

I've had a spiritual connection to New Orleans since I was a kid. I've never known why. I'm not one to believe in past lives. All I know is, there was a time when I was in my late 20s when I realized that all of the music that had moved me the most profoundly had come from New Orleans.

The first time I visited, I had a warm sense that I had come home. I've never understood why, but I've never lost the feeling.

That's why, on Tuesday night, when the world was learning that we will never have the same New Orleans again, I went to the Candlelight Cafe in downtown Portland. Reggie Houston was playing there. Reggie is a New Orleans native, a saxophonist who held one of the sax chairs in Fats Domino's band for 20 years, and co-led Charmine Neville's band for 17 years until, he moved to Portland last year around this time.

I didn't know if I could bear to hear that music, but having spoken to Reggie earlier in the day, trying to hold back the tears, I knew I had to be there. Reggie's family got out, but it was easy to tell that there were hundreds of friends he did not know about.

At the bandstand, Reggie played with a greater intensity than usual. At the other end of the room, the endless loops of devastation played on CNN. Reggie provided the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of the classic "Junko Partner," and the raucous brass band tune "It Ain't My Fault" with a ruined New Orleans was uplifting and heartbreaking all at the same time.

The traditional jazz funeral in New Orleans consists of a walking dirge, a memorial, and then a joyous second-line parade afterward. Reggie knows this; it is in his blood.

We're in the dirge right now. Images flash. Proposing marriage to my wife over dinner. Sitting in Buster Holmes' greasy spoon in 1979, tasting real red beans and rice for the first time as the Meters played on the jukebox. Shooting a TV story on the streetcar. Buying hats at Meyer the Hatter on St. Charles Street.

Neville Brothers Christmas concert at Tipitina's.

Losing my shoes at The Columns Hotel.

The delirium of musical overload at Jazzfest.

As the Meters' song says, "If you've ever been there, then you know what I mean."

I told my wife that if I die before she does, I want my ashes to be spread on Congo Square in New Orleans. Congo Square is the place where the slaves were allowed to dance and make music. It is said to be the only place in America where this was the case. It is also said that from that place American music sprung.

Some day, Congo Square will again be a destination for the living and the dead. The spirit of New Orleans will win this battle. Reggie showed me that Tuesday night.

On the TV weather map this morning the word "NICE" was superimposed over the Northwest. It is nice. We might take a moment today and consider how nice. 

Tom D'Antoni is currently editor-in-chief at Oregon Music News, DJ for KMHD Radio and writer for Huffington Post.Tom served as producer/reporter for OPB's Oregon Art Beat, writer for The Oregonian, and has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, and Salon.

Blues For Katrina

Blues For Katrina was a remarkable event-- Not only did it raise $110,000.00 for the hurricane relief effort, but it raised spirits and renewed hope.

Late in the festival, most of the musicians were on stage for The Ray Charles Tribute Big Band when Reggie was able to slip away for a moment. 

Backstage, a woman called to Reggie. Her name was Faye, and like many of the musicians up on that stage, she had recently lost everything to Katrina.

"I thought the spirit of New Orleans had washed away in the flood," she said. "But it's right here in Portland, it's in the people."

Reggie ushered Faye backstage with a hug and whisked her off to meet Charmaine where Faye went on to describe how downhearted she had felt until she came down to the waterfront and felt that spirit. Faye explained that when she saw that a real connection had formed between the people of New Orleans and the people of Portland, she felt so hopeful for the first time since the tragedy.

And you really could feel that spirit rise, buoyed up by the strength of community support, and the uplifting and healing power of the music. And for that Reggie gives a heartfelt thanks to everyone who came together and donated their time, money, resources and talent to manifest such a beautiful and successful benefit.

Reggie extends his love and gratitude to:
  • The City of Portland for donating Waterfront Park for the event.
  • Oregon Food Bank and all the folks who make The Waterfront Blues Fest happen
  • All the vendors who donated 100% of their profits to the cause
  • All of the corporate sponsors whose financial support made it possible to donate 100% of festival proceeds to the relief effort.
  • The people of Portland who came out and gave so generously of their money ($110,000 from 5,000 people!) and of their spirit!
  • The local musicians for embracing the spirit of New Orleans, and for donating their time and talent.
  • The New Orleans musicians: Charmaine Neville (pictured above), Lance Ellis, Devin Phillips, Gerry "Flipper" Meldrum, and Chuck Barber who lost so much in the hurricane, yet came together to give their strength and support to the other victims.
  • And Reggie would also like to thank his adoptive community and all of his new friends who make Portland feel like home.

Instruments A-Comin': Seattle Joins Forces With The Tipitina's Foundation To Help New Orleans Music Students

What began as a club gig for Charmaine Neville and Reggie Houston's Crescent City Connection at The Highway 99 Blues Club in Seattle on December 8, 2006, quickly turned into a full-fledged fundraiser for the Tipitina's Foundation.

Every year during The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival week, the famed Tipitina's Uptown club in New Orleans holds a huge benefit for the Tipitina's Foundation. The money goes to buy band instruments for school kids and other New Orleans musicians in need. Post-Katrina, that need was overwhelming. So when Seattle musician, and accredited Jazz Fest photographer Jef Jaisun learned that Charmaine Neville, Reggie Houston and Amasa Miller were scheduled to perform in Seattle on Dec. 8, he made a few phone calls to several well-placed individuals, including Bill Taylor, Executive Director of the Tipitina's Foundation, and the result was that Reggie and Charmaine's show become an officially sanctioned Instruments A Comin' gig, the first to ever occur outside the confines of Tipitina's.

With less than four weeks to plan, Jef secured a number of co-sponsors including Seattle Piano Gallery, the Seattle Symphony OrchestraLee Oskar Harmonicas and more. Lee donated, among other things, harmonicas signed by Dan Ackroyd and Charlie Musselwhite. Numerous goods and services were donated by other area night clubs, restaurants and hotels, like a museum quality print of Diane Russell's painting of Reggie Houston entitled "Katrina Blues". 

The event raised countless instruments and more than $10,000 cash for Tipitina's and Louisiana children impacted by the flood.

If you would like to help the Tipitina's Foundation, visit their website where you can make a donation online, or learn about their efforts and how you can help.