[slideshow_deploy id=’5178′]Often when I write an article for Making Music magazine I am narrowly focused on one particular topic. In this case, it was New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village. Because of space limitations, I was not able to tell the complete story of the musicians I interviewed—Calvin Johnson and Margie Perez. Their stories of recovery and careers following Hurricane Katrina were so compelling that I felt I needed to put together a separate article about their triumphs. Neither of them, even when they lost nearly everything they owned, ever thought for a minute about giving up on New Orleans or their music careers. – Cherie Yurco
Calvin Johnson (www.calvinjohnsonmusic.com)
“I am a third generation New Orleans jazz musician,” begins saxophonist and composer Calvin Johnson, 27. “On my father’s side, my grandfather had 11 children, all woodwinds—all of my uncles, and all of my cousins.” Even Johnson’s mother played clarinet growing up, and her mother was a pianist and organist. That, Johnson says, makes for interesting family gatherings.
“Music was everywhere around me; I probably started on the piano around age four or five. My uncle came to my house one day when I was about eight and gave me my first saxophone, and my first saxophone lesson. Then, my mom gave me her clarinet,” says Johnson. The next thing he knew, he was playing duets at church with his grandmother, and giving little performances around town with his sister.
So, Johnson kind of always knew he would be a musician. Following high school, he decided to study business administration and management at the University of New Orleans (UNO) to better manage his own career.
“I had moved into the dormitory on UNO’s campus the Wednesday right before the hurricane hit,” says Johnson. “I evacuated on Saturday. I really wasn’t thinking too much about my stuff; basically all I had was my instruments. I took my main tenor and two day’s worth of clothes.” Johnson says he wasn’t concerned about his belongings because his dorm room was on the sixth floor, and all of his pictures and memorabilia he thought were “safe” at his mother’s two-story house. [His parents’ home ended up submerged under five feet of water.]
“The levy breached right near UNO’s campus,” says Johnson. “The Coast Guard went into that neighborhood and started rescuing people via helicopter. And being the highest ground, they started dropping people off on UNO’s campus. The story is that it was complete mayhem … essentially they forgot about them. People went into survival mode and to the highest place they could go, naturally the 12-story dormitory. So they ransacked every room.”
“I had to sign a waiver to release the university of liability to get back into my room only to see that people had used my text books as firewood and my t-shirts as washcloths,” says Johnson, about his return to campus about three months later. “Katrina threw a big wrench into my school career, and that’s why I’m just finishing up in May.”
Immediately after the storm Johnson fled to Baton R0uge where he watched constant broadcasts of the devastation. “Seeing my city looking like a fish bowl, it finally sunk in on the eighth day ninth day, damn, there is no more New Orleans,” he says. “You got to move on.”
Johnson took his instrument and cash and went to the University of Houston, which had offered to house UNO’s displaced students and let them finish their degrees. “They put me in this room with 20 cots lined up. It was like a barracks,” says Johnson, who still hadn’t located all of his family members. “I didn’t have any money; I didn’t have any gigs, and the last thing I felt like doing was going to English class.”
Johnson first ventured back into New Orleans for a visit in late September. “Once I hit Baton Rouge it took six hours to get into New Orleans, and that’s normally just a 45-minute drive. Nothing was green, there were no birds in the sky, no bugs flying, no roaches, no mosquitos, no mice; It was complete death and silence. You had cars on top of houses; houses under houses.”
When, Hurricane Rita hit Houston and he evacuated again. When a friend in Portland offered him a gig at the Portland Jazz Festival and a plane ticket, he was off. “When I got there I was one of about a dozen New Orleans musicians, and it felt like home because they put us all in the same motel. We were having jam sessions, frying whole turkeys, living the life.” He was having so much fun that he forgot he was still a student until he received an email from the University of Houston informing him that he owed the school $9,000. “My student career came to a screeching halt.”
Aside from the festival, the people of Portland organized fundraisers for the musicians and opened up their networks, helping them to book gigs and tours. Johnson stayed in Portland for about a month and a half, and then reunited with his sister in Atlanta for the holidays.
He eventually returned to Houston, where he could find work. “At this point I was so homesick that I felt like I needed to come home,” says Johnson. But in New Orleans housing was scarce, making rent expensive. And there was still little work in the city. During the week he worked in Houston’s public school system for the Jazz Foundation of America. “I retained my apartment in Houston, and I was commuting every week. That lasted about six months.”
“Being hit with $1,500 per month for a New Orlean’s studio is a hard pill to swallow,” he says. That’s when he first began to look into New Orleans Habitat Musician’s Village. Buying a home in the Village allowed him to return to New Orleans full-time and also finish college this spring.
Johnson’s music career has also been revitalized since his return to New Orleans, performing and recording all over the city and the world with the likes of Harry Connick Jr., Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Aaron Neville, Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Big Sams Funky Nation, and Rebirth Brass Band. His own Calvin Johnson Quartet (CJQ) has released two albums Jewel’s Lullaby (2012) and Native Son (2013).
Margie Perez (reverbnation.com/margieperez)
Singer Margie Perez fell in love with New Orlean’s music culture when she first visited the city more than 20 years ago and she returned year after year for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “Then one day, after going to Jazz Fest for year and years, the possibility of living in New Orleans just popped into my head,” says the Washington, DC, native.
She found a “day job” as a travel agent and moved into the Broadmoore neighborhood just eight months before Hurricane Katrina hit. “I was living in a two-story house, on the bottom floor that got six feet of water. The house wasn’t destroyed, but all my stuff was,” says Perez. That included her keyboard and guitar.
But, when she evacuated, even after learning about the damage, she never even entertained the idea of not returning to her beloved new city. “When I talked to my mother, the day after we found out the levees had broken, I said, ‘When I go back’ and she said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Of course, I’m going back.’ There was no question at all. I thought she was weird for asking.”
As a result of the hurricane, Perez’s position as a travel agent was moved to Houston. So she went back to DC and her old job for a few months to save money for her return. She read an article about the Musician’s Village while she was away and decided to apply.
She was able to buy a home in the Village. She initially worked several part-time retail jobs, before taking a full-time position as Recycling Coordinator for Arc’s Mardi Gras Recycle Center. Her other full-time career, as a musician, is also flourishing.
Perez has become known in the Crescent City for her blues, pop, and New Orleans funk music. She had her first chance to appear as a performer at Jazz Fest in 2006 as a backup singer for Marva Wright, and by 2010 she headlined her own show. She performs year-round at many venues with her own band and with groups like Michael Skinkus & Moyuba, The Honeypots, and local female singing group the New Orleans Nightingales.
She’s also been involved in a wide range of recording projects, including her latest CD Singing for My Supper. Last July, she had a chance to perform at the Ellis Marsalis Center, the heart of the Musician’s Village.