Remembering Katrina A Decade Later: by Ben Jaffe
"The drummer John Robichaux (1916 - August 29, 2005), hailed from New Orleans musical royalty. Mr. Robichaux shared the same name as his uncle, the early New Orleans Society/Jazz, composer/arranger and bandleader, John Robichaux (January 16, 1866 – 1939). Understandably, they are often confused for the same person. The senior John Robichaux was a predecessor to Buddy Bolden (September 6, 1877 – November 4, 1931) who, even though there are no known recordings, is often given the title of "King Bolden" for being the first "Hot" New Orleans trumpet player. Most, including myself, consider John Robichaux, the senior, and Buddy Bolden, two of the important fathers of what we collectively refer to as Early New Orleans Jazz.
There was another nephew, Joe Robichaux (March 8, 1900 - January 17, 1965) who played piano both as a bandleader of his own group and later in life as a member of the classic George Lewis Band. Joe Robichaux accompanied George Lewis along with my parents on the first Preservation Hall trip to Japan in 1963. The band included Louis Nelson on trombone, Punch Miller on trumpet, Joe Watkins on drums, Papa John Joseph on string bass and Emmanuel Sayles on banjo. Early in life Papa John Joseph performed with Buddy Bolden, Punch Miller was a member of Jelly Roll Morton's Band, George Lewis is one of the great practitioners of the New Orleans Albert System Clarinet style. A beautiful thread connects all of these musicians across generations. That thread still exists in New Orleans today. It can be felt and heard every time Charlie Gabriel raises his clarinet to his lips. Since the 1840's, there have been seven (!) generations of Gabriel's performing music in New Orleans, including Mr. Gabriel's cousins: the wonderfully talented Louis Ford and the drummer Frank Oxley. Both Mr. Ford's and Mr. Oxley's fathers, Clarence Ford and Dave Oxley, played with my father, Allan, at Preservation Hall in the early days.
I loved watching Mr. Robichaux play the drums. He was never rushed. He never made sharp movements. Every hit was deliberate. And he sang! It was always a special treat to hear Mr. Robichaux perform with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra on Sunday afternoons at Preservation Hall. All of the musicians in the Ragtime Orchestra performed from written music which was unusual and fascinating to me since the other bands who played at Preservation Hall performed from memory. There was Bill Russell, my first music teacher, on violin. (Mr. Russell was an early pioneer in the study of New Orleans Jazz as well as an accomplished 20th Century contemporary composer. His exhaustive, lifetime research on Jelly Roll Morton was completed posthumously and released as "A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook". Mr. Russell lived right around the corner from us on Orleans Street). Also in the band were trumpeter Lionel Ferbos. Until his passing in 2014, Mr. Ferbos was the oldest working musician in New Orleans. There was Paul Crawford on trombone, Orange Kellin on clarinet, Lars Edegran on piano and my future bass teacher, Walter Payton, on string bass.
The Ragtime Orchestra ended up being the musical accompaniment to the wonderful show "One Mo Time" written, directed, and starring the very talented Vernel Bagneris. I was very fortunate to grow up around these incredibly talented gentlemen. Mr. Robichaux was a gentle, patient man. He was the first drummer I knew who sang, read music, and played the drums at once! Imagine the dexterity that requires... In 1999, I had the honor of recording with Mr. Robichaux and Mr. Ferbos on "Lars Edegran Presents Lionel Ferbos and John Robichaux." It is a wonderful collection of New Orleans Jazz Standards. Mr. Robichaux was a proud man. He and his wife lived in their family home in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.
New Orleans is broken up into 17 districts known as Wards. I grew up mainly in the downtown 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th Wards. The Lower 9th Ward is east and south of the French Quarter. In the early part of the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers began dredging the Industrial Canal which ultimately stretched 5.5 miles and connected the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain to the north. The Industrial Canal split the 9th Ward in half whereby isolating the Lower 9th Ward from the rest of the city. To reach the Lower 9th Ward today, you must cross over the Industrial Canal. There is one other way to drive into the 9th Ward across the Michoud Bridge from New Orleans East over the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO).
The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, also known as MRGO (everyone refers to the channel as "Mr. Go") is a controversial 76 mile long shipping channel completed in 1965 that connects the Industrial Canal to the Gulf of Mexico. MRGO is a short cut and much easier to navigate than the twisty Mississippi River. To build the MRGO, the Army Corps Of Engineers destroyed vital wetlands needed to protect us from hurricanes and storm surges. And indeed, the MRGO worked against us in the case of Katrina. It became a channel for the storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico, directing water into the city instead of away. The Michoud Bridge drops you down into the wetlands known as the Rigolets (pronounced rigo-lees). The road then continues into Chalmette which is situated even further downriver than the Lower 9.
To access the Lower 9 from New Orleans proper there are only three options: the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, the Claiborne Bridge and the Florida Avenue Bridge. The St. Claude Avenue Bridge is an ancient metal draw bridge that is so narrow and unpredictable, most people try to avoid it and opt for the newer Claiborne Bridge just three blocks north. The only pedestrian crossing into the Lower 9 is the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. I've crossed the St. Claude Bridge both on foot and by bicycle and can say it is a frightening experience. You feel totally vulnerable and exposed to the hundreds of speeding trucks barreling downriver to the refinery or beyond. There is also the lesser known Florida Avenue Bridge which straddles the northern edge of the Lower 9.
The most catastrophic flooding of the Lower 9th Ward was caused by an enormous breach in the Industrial Canal Levee. The most brutal was a 1/4 mile long gash created by a loose barge, the ING 4727, that should not have been in the Industrial Canal during a hurricane evacuation. Water flooded through the breach with such force that houses were lifted off their foundations and deposited blocks away. Very little in the Lower 9 within a mile of the breach survived. I know this to be true because I saw it. Yes, I was there. I stayed in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina.
I closed the Hall early on that Saturday night and began helping others prepare for the storm. Filling up fuel cans, boarding up windows, stocking up on food. I spent a good part of Sunday morning, August 28, 2005, getting Narvin Kimball, who played banjo with my father for thirty plus years and his wife Lillian out of town. Mrs. Kimball was hell bent on riding out the storm in their home on Calhoun Street. So much so that my good friends John, Lindsay and myself forcibly picked Mrs. Kimball up and sent them by car and driver to Baton Rouge. We grabbed his banjo from under the bed and a few photos off the wall. The next day their home was nine feet under water.
New Orleans was slow to declare a mandatory evacuation. Declaring a mandatory evacuation is expensive and politically unpopular. Particularly when the storm dosn't hit. There is a history of storms diverting to the east at the last minute. It's common to hear people talk about this phenomenon/coincidence openly as science. And yes, Hurricane Katrina did change track and shift to the east in the 11th hour hitting Biloxi and Gulfport head on. Katrina created a 12 to 30 foot storm surge that forced water from the Gulf Of Mexico up through the wetlands, the MRGO, Lake Ponchartrain, Lake Borgne, the Mississippi River and the Industrial Canal. Combined with the rainfall and the inability of our centuries old pumping system to move water out of the city, the levees began to tumble. In other areas, water rose so high that it poured over the tops of the levees. The failure of the levees was due to poor design and faulty construction coupled with an unprecedented storm surge. The fact that thousands of lives were lost as a result of these oversights is disturbing, unforgivable and negligent. Most 9th Ward residents believe that the breach was caused intentionally. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. I do know that the 9th Ward has never been an economic priority. So, if less was going to be spent on levees, the 9th Ward would get the least.
Yes, I stayed. I saw a city unravel from the top down and the bottom up. I witnessed violence and anger and frustration and confusion. I don't talk about it much because it is so painful. It is a scar on my soul that will never completely heal.
As a child, I went to the Lower 9th Ward to visit musicians with my dad. On Sundays, we would visit Sister Gertrude Morgan, the visionary artist and preacher. Sister Gertrude Morgan painted scripture on whatever she could find: doors, old books, scraps of paper, window shades, guitars... Her entire lawn was four leaf clovers! I know this because I would pick them. I have them flattened in my books. There is to this day, still, a small patch of clovers where her house once stood.... Fats Domino lived in the Lower 9th Ward. And so did most of the Lastie Family. As a troubled teen, Dr. John (Mac Rebenack) became an adopted son of the Lastie Family and to this day credits them with saving his life and giving him the gift of music.
The Lower 9 was also home to John Robichaux and his wife. I imagine the idea of evacuating, if it was even an option, was a hard one to make for Mr. Robichaux. He was nearing his 90's. So Mr. Robichaux and his wife stayed behind. I can't imagine what they suffered. The thought makes me sick. One of our city's great treasures gone. Like that. Brutally taken from us. It's incredibly painful. I feel a tremendous amount of guilt. It's why I've committed my life to this great city that has given the world and me so many blessings. I hope my work continues to honor the memory of all of those who didn't make it through the storm. For them, I wake up every morning. For them I tune up my bass. For them I bring joy and happiness into the world the way Mr Robichaux brought joy and happiness into mine." - Ben Jaffe