After the Storm: The Jazz Community and the Post-Sandy Struggle

How the devastating hurricane affected venues and musicians

Santi Debriano
Wendy Oxenhorn, Executive Director of the Jazz Foundation of America, at the Playing Our Parts benefit concert at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola.
Jay Rodriguez (on flute) and the Soul System Orchestra at Le Poisson Rouge in November 2012

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On Nov. 8, about a week after the damage from Hurricane Sandy was done, the jazz community responded at a moment’s notice with a benefit concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, featuring a soul-drenched outpouring of improvisation, blues and second-line-style funk. The devastation had the most widespread impact on the broader jazz community since 2005, when New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Power was not all that was lost. Though many musicians had gigs indefinitely postponed or canceled due to the storm-Manhattan venues below 34th street were, of course, victim to the blackout-others lost everything: instruments, homes and all the essential pieces of their livelihood. Gas was still in short supply, but the more than 50 musicians who performed at the benefit exuded the type of unbridled energy in the face of despair that only jazz can conjure. “You know, sometimes we don’t understand why things like hurricanes happen. But I think a wise man said, ‘All great change is preceded by turmoil,'” vocalist Judy Bady told the packed crowd while onstage with multireedist Jay Rodriguez’s Soul System Orchestra.

In her introduction to the Pharoah Sanders classic “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” Bady orated further: “What the world needs now is love. All of you here tonight are showing love. You could have been at home on Facebook, but you decided to come out-because music makes the world go ’round.”

Jazz benefits followed at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center in the Hudson Valley, and elsewhere, and the outreach was necessary. Veteran drummer Tony Moreno lost almost $100,000 in irreplaceable scores and uninsured instruments, including a snare kit once owned by Philly Joe Jones. “I lost my entire life. I had a studio in Westbeth for 36 years,” Moreno says, referring to the artists’ housing complex in Greenwich Village. “I lost all my instruments-I can’t support my family.”

Bassist Santi Debriano had been living in Staten Island until Sandy destroyed his home. “My house was wiped out completely,” he says. “The storm surge came up six feet on my street, four and a half feet inside my house.” Debriano and his fiancée evacuated quickly, taking only his bass, her wedding dress-since the hurricane, they’ve gotten married-and $50 for food until the storm subsided. What remained, including Debriano’s other instruments, got demolished. “On my street, houses had been ripped out of their foundations and thrown into other houses,” he says.

Moreno, Debriano and others displaced by the storm began the recovery process with the help of organizations like the Blue Note and the Jazz Foundation of America, both of which coordinated outreach efforts beginning the weekend the storm hit. The Jazz Foundation gave Debriano enough money to pay his first month’s rent at a new apartment in Jersey City. “I tell my friends that instead of doing Christmas gifts for me, they should be donating to the Jazz Foundation,” Debriano says. “They came before FEMA; they came before anybody.”

The Jazz Foundation was instrumental in getting many New Orleans musicians back on their feet after Katrina, and was prepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. “So many of the people that we serve are on the Lower East Side, on Staten Island and in parts of Brooklyn. People had tears in their eyes because they couldn’t believe that people came looking for them,” says Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the foundation. “These people are such gems, and self-sufficient, and proud, that they don’t come asking for help. It was really beautiful, and very touching.”

The Blue Note Jazz Club organized several trips to affected areas to assist in the recovery, in addition to opening its doors for hurricane relief donations. “It was important for all of us to get out there and see what had happened, from buildings being torn down to boats in the street,” says Grant Gardner, publicist and marketing director for the club.

“It was like a weird, bizarre wasteland downtown,” says Alisa Hafkin, social work director for the Jazz Foundation. Before the storm, the Jazz Foundation had already organized an effort to provide provisions to musicians in the flood zone, including non-perishable food items, flashlights and thermal underwear. One night, they even ran out of gas while making deliveries. “We did real grassroots social work. We trudged up five-flight walk-ups in complete darkness, schlepping mountains of stuff and knocking on doors. Nobody knew we were coming because we couldn’t reach out to them. There was absolutely no cell phone service,” Hafkin says. “Even if you had money, it didn’t matter. There was not one place open.” Long after power was restored, there is still hard work ahead, Hafkin says. “We’re just beginning to get a bigger picture of the devastation of this storm.”