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The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 left the nation's most lively jazz center, New Orleans, crippled and broken. Many musicians lost their instruments, their sole tool for creating and sharing their art as well as earning income. While the Jazz Foundation normally assisted up to 600 clients a year, the incident left the organization servicing over 1,000 displaced musicians and their families, helping to find housing, employment and new instruments.
For five long days Fats Domino, who had a home in the 9th Ward, could not be found. Getting information on possible missing persons was nearly impossible as phone lines for hospitals and police hadn't been working. We were very relieved when we got the call that Fats was okay. One of the women who had been helping us locate musicians after the storm told us that he'd lost everything - even his piano.
The great Fats Domino who has sold more than 110 million records in his long career, including the legendary singles "Blueberry Hill" and "Ain't That a Shame"...whose 1950 recording of "The Fat Man" is sometimes called the first real rock 'n' roll record...who was among the first honorees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...without a piano?!
The Jazz Foundation sprung into action. One of the things we did was to beseech Beethoven Pianos in New York City to donate some of their instruments to the musicians of New Orleans. Not only did they donate 25 pianos to NOLA musicians but they drove them down in their own truck. As the movers from Beethoven Pianos pulled into Fats' driveway, he could not contain himself. He ran out of the house to meet them in the driveway and began playing "Blueberry Hill" on the new piano, much to the joy of the two truck drivers who delivered it.
The Jazz Foundation expanded its outreach to include hundreds of musicians who suffered from Katrina — many who are younger and supporting families with young children. The staff traveled to New Orleans to work face-to-face with musicians, offering aide in a hands-on manner and with the utmost concern for their well-being.
Dr. Agnes Varis, president and founder of Agvar Chemicals, Inc. and Aegis Pharmaceuticals and Vice Chairwoman of the Jazz Foundation, single-handedly made it possible for these displaced musicians to find employment, creating venues in the schools when the clubs were no longer an option. Our Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program has since employed over 1,000 musicians across 17 states. The program also employs over 120 elderly jazz and blues musicians throughout New York, touching the daily lives of hundreds of children in public schools and hospital schools.
In addition, the Jazz Foundation collected $250,000 of donated top-shelf instruments to replace those lost in the flooding...including Fats Domino's new piano.
"The Jazz Foundation has been a lifesaver to so many musicians from New Orleans, housing them and giving them the opportunity to work and earn money with dignity. They have done more to help New Orleans musicians than any other group that I know of."