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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 August 2007, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
New Orleans' Musical Rebirth
Bourbon Street in New Orleans' French Quarter one year after hurricane Katrina
Crossing Continents
Thursday, 23 August 2007
At 1102 BST on BBC Radio 4

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, could culture be the best engine to drive the recovery of New Orleans?

Two leading American public radio presenters, Stephen Smith from Minnesota and Nick Spitzer from New Orleans, offer a provocative cultural tour of the city's road to renewal.

From its brass bands to its renowned pianists, from its leading painters to legendary clarinet and saxophone players, the culture of New Orleans is the soul of the city and was one of its most powerful economic engines before Katrina.

Could it become that again?

Katrina was the worst natural disaster in US history, flooding 80% of New Orleans alone, and causing widespread devastation and loss of life.

As Smith and Spitzer find out, two years on from the hurricane, there's not much evidence yet of the reconstruction help promised by the government. Over a third of pre-Katrina residents have not returned yet.

The music and culture community are particularly badly affected, as many musicians and artists lived in the poorer, worst-hit neighbourhoods.

But at least in those days it was cheap to live there, now rents have gone up 30%. Some musicians are forced to live in trailers as they can't afford to restore their homes.

However, the spirit and creativity of the city live on, and it's the artists themselves who are the driving force behind the city's revival. Legendary jazz musicians play, and teach, again.

The dead get the typical "jazz funerals" again, and parades, whether for sad or joyous occasions, are followed by the unique, celebratory "second line" parades, as they always have been.

Some artists, like Willie Birch, have a particular take on reconstruction, turning a negative into a positive. For example he turns theft into a way of distributing art: he puts up posters of his paintings in public places, and soon they're gone. Thus the thieves will have high quality pictures on their walls rather than something less salubrious.

As clarinet player and scholar Michael White points out, New Orleans jazz arose out of turbulent times in the early decades of the twentieth century, and these post-Katrina years are turbulent times, too.

And meanwhile, the spirit of all the legendary jazz greats still lives on.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 23 August 2007 at 1102 BST.

It will be repeated on Monday, 27 August at 2030 BST.

Reporters: Stephen Smith and Nick Spitzer
Producer: American Radioworks of American Public Media

Crossing Continents


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