Sweet Home New Orleans

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Sweet Home New Orleans - Nov. 12, 2009

New Orleans already had a taste of what life here would be like without music in our performance halls or ringing through our streets.

It was during that eerily quiet time right after Hurricane Katrina, when so many of the people who fuel this city's cultural economy were scattered and displaced. When they started arriving back home, many found the job market for working musicians was radically different in the storm's aftermath.

"It wasn't work as we knew it, that's for sure. There weren't very many places open, and those that were really couldn't afford to pay very much because there weren't very many people around. And it's gotten slowly better and better. But after Sweet Home has gotten involved, it's incredible the difference that's been made."

That's jazz vocalist Olivia Greene, and she's referring to the nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans and the innovative idea behind its economic development program. From the earliest days of Katrina recovery, the group began marshalling the efforts of other nonprofits and individuals trying to help musicians get home and get back to work. As needs in the local music community have changed, Sweet Home's assistance programs have evolved too. Sweet Home spokeswoman Kat Dobson explains:

"We realized that the focus shouldn't be so much now on just returning musicians but keeping them here, and the way to keep them here is to be able to provide a sustainable living for them in doing what they love to do,"

Their answer is a program that pays musicians union wages for gigs at participating venues around New Orleans. It makes those gigs free to the public and Sweet Home provides marketing support to help draw a crowd. Musicians get new regularly-scheduled bookings. The venues can cultivate new audiences. And locals and visitors have new, free opportunities to enjoy and support the city's musical traditions.

Sweet Home used a hands-on approach to tailor this program for the different venues and performers. For instance, the group organized 150 weekly gigs during the course of three years for a roster of jazz performers at Uptown's Columns Hotel. And last summer, Sweet Home lined up performers and secured sponsors to create a 12-week music series at the Bank Street Bar in Mid-City that was dubbed the "Summer of R&B."

More recently, Sweet Home has sponsored free jazz performances each Saturday afternoon at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street. As Snug Harbor builds an audience for these daytime gigs, the club will eventually cover the costs on its own. Olivia Greene is one of the musicians now performing these Sweet Home shows.

"This little leg up, or however you want to put it, really kind of gets the gap in there between what is and what can be. I can't emphasize this enough that it makes a big difference, and not just to me personally. I see lots of other bands where some of the people couldn't live here or were trying to get back and couldn't afford to. And I know for me it's enabled me to keep living in New Orleans."

Learn more about Sweet Home New Orleans at wwno.org. For WWNO I'm Ian McNulty.