10 Years After Katrina: How The Edge, Guitar Center & Gibson Helped Restore New Orleans Music (Op-Ed)
Bob Ezrin is a legendary producer (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed) and founder of Music Rising with The Edge to bring musical instruments back to schools and musicians in the wake of Katrina. Ezrin and The Edge received the Humanitarian Award for Music Rising at the 2005 Billboard Touring Awards.
On Aug. 29, 10 years ago, in different rooms in different cities, The Edge from U2, Marty Albertson of Guitar Center, Henry Juszkiewicz of Gibson and I sat horrified as we watched the first of the two superstorms slam into the Central Gulf coast of the US. Within a few weeks, we were aware of the enormous human toll the storms had taken and, because we are all about music, our second thoughts were about what that whole region meant to the world as the source and crucible for so much of modern music. New Orleans was everyone's focus because of its symbolic meaning. But all the cities of the Central Gulf were affected.
Marty Albertson, with whom I sat on the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, called me to say that Henry wanted to sell $1 million worth of special issue guitars and use the money to buy instruments for the musicians of New Orleans and the Gulf. He asked me how best to get the instruments to the musicians. At the time I was also a governor of the LA Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and aware that one of the earliest responders to the crisis was MusiCares, who literally began helping its constituents before the Red Cross or FEMA were in place.
I asked Kristin Madsen how many musicians had applied for relief and she told me that 1,600 had contacted them so far. I asked how many of those needed instruments and she said, "Good question. I'll get right back to you." The answer came in two days: 1,200. Starting with this $1 million we could give approximately $1,000 in instruments to each of them. Marty agreed to sell us the instruments at Guitar Center's cost and he set up a dedicated hotline at Musician's Friend with specially trained operators who would help the musicians calling pick the right replacement instruments and then arrange to get them the instruments -- either by shipping or through the New Orleans Guitar Center store, which was one of the first to reopen in the region.
On Sept. 15, while playing a stint in Toronto, U2 had a private lunch to which they invited concert promoter Michael Cohl, who brought me as his "date." My old friends Jimmy Iovine and Thom Panunzio were there, as were Arthur Fogel and Roger McNamee. I sat next to The Edge, who I'd met before but didn't really know that well. I hit on him for any instruments he might have in his vast collection that he didn't need. We spent the whole lunch talking about the devastation and what it meant to the world and to us personally, for whom New Orleans was a mythical place when we were kids as a symbol of the beauty, majesty and grace of American music. He said he wanted to help, so I gave him my home number and said, "Call me over the weekend and let's figure this out." I thought I'd probably never hear from him again. But that's because I didn't yet know my dear friend The Edge, who is one of the best and most genuine men I have ever known.
On Saturday I got a call from him saying he'd spoken to Arthur and Yamaha and a few others -- while I had coordinated MusiCares, Guitar Center and Gibson. Marty, who is another truly good man, pledged to prepay Guitar Center's share of the sale of these guitars and cut us a check for $350,000. Arthur arranged for SpinCo, later to be named Live Nation, to give us a portion of tickets sold and set us up with [then CEO] Terry Barnes at Ticketmaster. We received support from David Fricke at Rolling Stone, John Sykes at VH1, Doug Band at the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, Susie Buffett and others -- we were off to the races. Henry assigned Caroline Galloway his head of Artist Relations to spearhead the outreach (she named us, and has been "Mom" to Music Rising ever since) and she started the press wheels turning.
Edge and I visited New Orleans separately and later together when the magical Quint Davis managed to stage a JazzFest just eight months after the devastation -- almost as an act of defiance more than anything. Quint and Reid Wick had been our "guides" when we toured the area. It was truly the dark side of the moon.
Within a few months, Music Rising had raised millions through individual donations and auctions at the Hard Rock Café featuring items donated by our friends and colleagues, including all of U2, Lou Reed, David Gilmour and many others. With that money we replaced lost instruments for 2,700 professional musicians from the Gulf South. In the spring of 2006, as they began to reopen, we replaced instruments lost in churches in the region and Gibson agreed to take us under the wing of its Foundation where Nina Miller (Buddy's sister) became our de facto executive director. We became the single largest purchaser of Hammond organs in history! Next, we began our partnership with the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, under whose aegis we are now, and began putting instruments back in the region's schools. In all we donated over $5,000,000 to the purchase of instruments for the region.
But the highlight of the entire experience was on Sept. 25, 2006, when at the request of the NFL and ABC we helped to reopen the Superdome by having U2 and Green Day together play a short set as a "pre-game show" for Monday Night Football on behalf of Music Rising, the proceeds from which -- and from the sale of their single "The Saints Are Coming" -- went to us. Edge and I produced the musical component of the show, Quint Davis dealt with the live performance and the TV side was handled by the amazing team of David Saltz and Ken Ehrlich.
I would say that this was among the most emotionally satisfying moments of my entire life. When 70,000 people gathered in that building just a year after people had been dying in there, living in their own waste and fighting for food and water, and Billy Joe Armstrong began to sing, "There is a house in New Orleans," they all rose, and through "The Saints Are Coming" they began to sing at the top of their lungs and pump their arms in a show of determination and commitment to their city. But it was during "Beautiful Day," when we turned the lights on the audience that a jolt of electricity ran through the entire building and, like in the old horror films when electricity reanimated the dead, jolted the life back into New Orleans and declared to all who were there, the city and the whole world that NOLA was back. Like all 70,000 of my fellow participants that night, I was bawling like a baby with tears of relief, gratitude and utter joy.
"That game was secondary," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It was much more symbolic about the city being back open. It was a night that if you weren't there, it'd be very hard to explain what it was like. And having been there during that, it was much more than I ever got into coaching for."
Since then, we have gone on to partner with Tulane University to create a coordinate major in the Musical Cultures of the Gulf South and an online educational resource that is second to none in the world dedicated to the understanding and preservation of those traditions forever.
In closing, I want to say that I know I've missed out on a lot of names. We've been helped by literally thousands of people over the years and I want to thank every single one of them for being there with us and ensuring that this rich musical heritage would not be washed away. But most of all, I want to thank my brother, David Evans, The Edge, who along with his bandmates proves time and again that with celebrity comes the opportunity for greatness, one that he and they have uniquely, responsibly, brilliantly and humbly embraced. These men are the best of us and I am honored to know them.