New Orleans Musicians Keep Gigging In the Time Of Coronavirus

Mar 24, 2020

In mid-March, the members of the New Orleans-based band Bon Bon Vivant found themselves stranded in Reno. The spread of the coronavirus had begun to shut down cities across the U.S., canceling their tour gigs. Then it started to snow.

“We were just sitting around on Sunday with nothing to do, snowed in. All of us feeling kind of anxious,” said Jeremey Kelly, the band’s saxophone player.

Cooped up in a hotel, they decided to try something they've never really done before: a Facebook Live concert. The band took requests, playing for over an hour and fielding tips through Venmo.

They figured a handful of their friends would log in, just to see that they're doing okay. Instead, 1,500 people viewed the concert.

“People, like, sent us messages, saying, ‘We were just tangoing in the kitchen, barefoot,’” Kelly said. “And, ‘We were all eating dinner and we turned you on the Apple TV, and we just watched your show while we ate dinner and the kids thought it was so much fun.’ ”

The band earned about $600, some of which they shared with musician friends back home in New Orleans who've lost their gigs — and livelihoods — to the coronavirus shutdown. Kelly said they plan to hold more live streaming concerts to support themselves and their community, and to give people some joy in the time of the coronavirus.

“They can turn off the news for a little while, and we can play some music and dance around and they can dance around, and we can interact with each other and be human for an hour or two,” he said.

Candace Fowler, a music lover who divides her time between Atlanta and New Orleans, had a similar idea.

“We kept seeing our friends posting their tour cancellations,” she said. “And you know, that's how they live now.”

Then she began to see musicians launch live shows on Facebook. So she started a Facebook group where artists could post their gig and spread the word. She dubbed it: “Viral MUSIC: because kindness is contagious.”

“I thought maybe we'd get 500 people and support a few live streams, and sell a few records. I had no idea what was gonna happen with it the way it would just explode,” Fowler said.

The Facebook group lists dozens of shows a day and over 30,000 members, all of whom joined within about a week.

“I was just scrolling through the event tab to see all the great stuff we have coming up and it's amazing,” Fowler said. “We've been watching streams every night.”

In less unprecedented times, Buffa’s Bar and Restaurant at the edge of the French Quarter is a mainstay of live music in the city, hosting gigs seven days a week. Buffa’s has also long had a webcam and an online PayPal button, letting music fans watch their shows and tip the band from around the world. They get messages from all over — Madrid, the UK or Finland — said the bars entertainment director, Leslie Cooper.

When the coronavirus crisis hit the city, Cooper said it was a natural switch.

“We have the technology. We've been doing it for a long time. Why not continue with it?” she explained. “You know, it gives people that want to help each other all across the world, a chance to help the musicians. Because let's face it, we don't have musician’s 401(k)s and musician’s retirement pensions.”

Cooper knows what it means to give musicians a chance to keep working. She's a musician herself, and she hosts her own show on WWOZ. It's not just about keeping New Orleans musicians afloat she added. It's about the need to keep traditional New Orleans Jazz playing.

“The traditional jazz music walks hand-in-hand down the streets with the traditions and the culture of the city,” Cooper said.

Mondays are when you can usually catch New Orleans musician Arséne DeLay down at Buffa’s. Last week she played for a small handful of regulars who braved leaving their homes and an audience from around the world. She said she was overwhelmed by the response.

“I had messages and comments and tips from people who I love dearly, who I don't get a chance to talk to because they are just as busy as I am,” she said. “So that was really beautiful.”

Like the members of Bon Bon Vivant, for DeLay, live-streaming her show highlighted a silver lining of the coronavirus outbreak: the way it's shown us how much we need one another.

“The good side of this is the ability to reconnect with friends that aren't in the local or the immediate circles. So you know, my friends across the country or even across the world, because everyone is forced to slow down,” she said.

Buffa’s now has a calendar of live streaming gigs on its website — though Cooper said many musicians are choosing to live stream on Facebook from home, in keeping with the “stay at home” orders issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell. DeLay says she’s going to continue playing her Monday night spot, even if just as a virtual gig from her living room.

“That time on Monday, that's still a piece of normalcy for a lot of people here, and for a lot of people who watch the feed on a normal basis anyway,” she said.

“It's something familiar, and it's something that's good. And I think that those kinds of things are really necessary when we are dealing with something that is completely unprecedented, that we’re really trying to figure out in real-time how we're going to cope with this.”