While major venues uptown touted star-studded benefit concerts for Hurricane Katrina relief Tuesday night, the New York musicians who consider themselves the true guardians of traditional jazz hosted their own benefit concert downtown at a quarter-century-old café called The Cajun.
Under colorful Mardi Gras umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, clarinetists, fiddlers, trombonists and even a comb player tootled their way through a jazz marathon that brought the institution's weekly lineup together in one evening.
From Kevin Blancq and His Crescent City Trio to Johnny Tupelo and the Sidekicks, the roots and richness of New Orleans music were in full voice, to the delight of the crowd of regulars.
"It's music of the people. It's open and honest and straightforward and comes to you with open arms," said John Gill, who plays banjo and guitar, of the music of New Orleans.
A New York native, Gill — aka Johnny Tupelo — had some of his most productive musical years while living in the Big Easy, emulating innovators like Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Fats Domino. "I can't imagine America without New Orleans," he said.
"I don't know what's going to spring up when it springs up again."
For the night, the unknown could be put aside, as the bands played sweet tunes like "Down by the Riverside," "When You and I Were Young, Maggie," "Creole Belles" and "High Society."
Sitting near the stage, listening to a nine-piece band play Irving Berlin's "When I Leave This World Behind," Stan King — washboard player in the Washboard Kings — said, "This kind of music would never have been played had it not been for New Orleans." The mix of German, French, African-American and other ethnicities combined to create something uniquely American.
"This is happy music and you can tap your feet. It's going into your bones and your soul," said King, who spent the evening with metal thimbles taped to his fingers, ready to play the washboard. "This is New York's equivalent of Preservation Hall. It's preserving the early jazz music of New Orleans."
Members of the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band were expected to participate in the jazz marathon, but did not show, perhaps pulled away to tend to their now-chaotic lives, the musicians speculated.
Full-time players need nightly gigs to survive, King pointed out, which is why New Orleans-based musicians are hurting so much right now. The $20 donations at the Cajun — which usually has no cover charge — totaled $3,820 and will go to the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund.
"I think it speaks for itself tonight," Cajun manager Arlene Lichterman said of the café. It was founded by her partner, Herb Maslin, in 1978, as the first restaurant in New York serving Cajun food. "The energy in here is so positive all the time. It definitely evokes New Orleans for me."