From somewhere in the darkness, the strong and triumphant sound of New Orleans rang out. The clarion call from Leslie Drayton's trumpet set the tone for the GRAMMY Foundation's 8th annual Music on Film Preservation Project event on Saturday, and it tacitly told the audience that the Crescent City and its resilient people will rise again.
And as the New Orleans Six strutted through the aisles of the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre, the festivities were officially underway. The theme of the GRAMMY Foundation's event was New Orleans Rising, and it highlighted the Foundation's current efforts to preserve and archive invaluable pieces of New Orleans music, history and culture. The night was also filled with irresistible music and memorable remarks, all in tribute to the region that produced one of this country's most important contributions — jazz.
The evening's emcee was actor and political commentator Harry Shearer, best known to National Public Radio listeners as host of the long-running satirical program "Le Show." (For die-hard music fans, Shearer is instantly recognized for his roles in the classic mockumentaries This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind .) As a part-time resident of the French Quarter and an astute music fan, his introduction to the night's festivities — including his vivid recollection of New Orleans' opulent sights, sounds and smells — was particularly appropriate.
Comments by GRAMMY Foundation and MusiCares Senior Vice President Kristen Madsen, Recording Academy and GRAMMY Foundation President Neil Portnow and Recording Academy Vice Chairman and GRAMMY Foundation board member Jimmy Jam reminded the audience that although the Foundation's efforts to identify and preserve at-risk music media is a year-round effort, Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent flooding have heightened our awareness of how quickly our physical music history could be lost.
Portnow also announced that the Foundation would be taking applications this spring for a special cycle of grants specifically for the archiving and preservation of music and recorded sound heritage of the Gulf Coast region.
The audience was then treated to film clips from two organizations that were recent benefactors of the Foundation's preservation grants. Footage from the Jules Cahn Collection captured the pure infectiousness of Mardi Gras parades and Indian celebrations, as well as mournful, tradition-steeped funeral marches. Clips from the Louisiana State Museum featured rare performances and interviews of early jazz pioneers including the inimitable Louis Armstrong.
Another organization that received a Foundation preservation grant was New Orleans community radio station WWOZ, whose offices and studios were knocked out of commission during Hurricane Katrina (they stayed on the air by taking shelter and broadcasting from Baton Rouge). WWOZ General Manager David Freedman said he and his staff were given a wake-up call when 14 years' worth of station recordings came within a foot of being swallowed by flood waters. With the help of the Foundation, WWOZ is now in the process of properly archiving 3,000 hours recordings of live performances, station programs, and events such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Screen time was also given to classic GRAMMY telecast footage of a vast array of New Orleans musicians, as well as footage of Art Neville and Irma Thomas' interviews for the GRAMMY Foundation's Living Histories oral histories project.
Then it was time for live music, something that people across the world associate with New Orleans. Artists from New Orleans took to the stage to bring to life the sounds — at once both rich and spare, but always uniquely spicy and flavorful — of their hometown.
Supported by the 29-member Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles, a powerful collective of some of the most talented high school musicians from across the country, Ivan Neville and his lanky nephew Ian (Art's son), gave those in attendance a spirited lesson about the R&B and funk made famous by the Meters. Legendary producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint's turn at the piano was proof positive that New Orleans music will always be alive and kicking. He was joined onstage by his frequent collaborator Thomas, often called the Queen of Crescent City Soul. Her rendition of "It's Raining" seemed especially poignant, considering the theme of the night's festivities.
Thomas, who recalled in her GRAMMY Living Histories interview that she'd lost her two GRAMMY nomination medallions during the hurricane, was surprised onstage with replacements by Portnow.
The night was capped off by a bawdy reworking of "When The Saints Come Marching (Back) In," featuring jazz sax superstar Kirk Whalum and rapper Coolio. Just as the night began, it also drew to a close with the spontaneous march of brass and drums of the New Orleans Six (also joined by some members of the Jazz Ensembles) through the audience, up the aisles and out of the theater doors.
The GRAMMY Foundation is also working in partnership with Music Rising, a charitable organization founded by producer Bob Ezrin and U2 guitarist The Edge (who will perform along with his band U2 at the 48th GRAMMYs telecast on Wednesday). The organization's goal is to help Gulf Coast musicians replace lost and damaged instruments, to help them and the region's economy get back on their feet.
Since its inception in 1989, one of the GRAMMY Foundation's core missions is to preserve historic music-related materials, such as recordings, films and photographs. As time elapses, many significant moments in music history are in danger of deteriorating to the point where they'll be lost forever. As such, each year the Foundation gives grants to archives, artists and other foundations with the goal of saving these materials for the enjoyment and education of future generations.
MusiCares, a health and human services foundation affiliated with The Recording Academy, has distributed more than $2 million in aid so far to 2,500 Gulf Coast music industry residents.