Instruments for New Orleans

The following is a contribution from Julie Melrose, a music journalist and author in New England. She shares with us her discovery of the Tipitina’s Co-op and hopes that the bluegrass community might be inclined to support their efforts as well.

The Tipitinas FoundationI discovered the Tipitina’s Music Co-op (part of the nonprofit Tipitina’s Foundation) during an internet search for a place in New Orleans to which I could donate my late father’s beat-up vintage trumpet. The Co-op was the only place I found that was accepting musical instruments in any condition that had the potential for repair. I e-mailed Co-op manager Mark Fowler, and he warmly responded that he would welcome the trumpet donation, especially as he currently had a waiting list for horns.

Out of curiosity about where my dad’s trumpet was heading, I began reading more about the Foundation and Co-op, and I was really impressed with what I learned. The mission of the Foundation was to restore the musical culture of New Orleans, which has contributed so much to U.S. music. It had simply never occurred to me before that New Orleans had lost virtually all of its thousands of musical instruments in Katrina, including school music program instruments and those of the city’s many working musicians.

How wonderful to have a foundation dedicated to not only replacing instruments, but to helping musicians get back on their feet, through a self-help business cooperative that also provides a sense of community to those who have suffered terrible loss. As trite as that saying, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime” may be, a follow-up study has shown that musicians returning to New Orleans are definitely learning to fish as they gain business skills at the Co-op. Membership leads to an average 28% increase in music-related income. I think musicians in other communities can learn a great deal from this successful cooperative model in New Orleans.

For working musicians, instruments are a means of artistic expression, but they are also the tools of the trade. After becoming more familiar with the struggles of New Orleans musicians, it began to feel uncomfortably selfish to have extra instruments that I never played, when others who had lost everything to natural disaster could use these to make a living. So I sold a mandolin and an electric bass to buy fixer-upper small brass instruments for the Co-op, and began putting together funding groups to purchase used larger instruments like sousaphones, which can be found surprisingly inexpensively at auctions. From there, it has been a natural transition to start helping to organize the future collection of used instruments for New Orleans on a nationwide scale.

I believe there are many of us who have been dismayed by the inaction of the government and the insurance companies, and would like to help rebuild New Orleans and preserve its unique cultural heritage, but simply don’t know what to do. It is hard to keep pouring money into large charitable organizations without a clear sense of what it’s being used for. Donating surplus instruments to the Co-op is a very different thing, since specific donations are matched with specific donors by the Co-op staff.

Providing individual musicians with musical tools has a surprisingly wide ripple effect. The economy of New Orleans is very dependent on tourism, which in turn is very dependent on music. To help restore the musical health of New Orleans is also to help restore the economic health of the region. Given what we know about the positive effect of music on post-traumatic conditions, and the spiritual qualities of music, to help restore the musical health of New Orleans is also to help restore the emotional and spiritual health of of its returning residents. And given what we know about the wonderful patchwork that makes up American musical culture, to help restore the musical culture of New Orleans is also to help restore a crucial part of our collective cultural heritage.

There are clearly enough musical instruments sitting dormant in the closets, basements and attics of America to fulfill the replacement instrument needs of post-Katrina New Orleans. No instrument donation is too humble to at least give a musician the opportunity to start practicing again. My experience has been that once people learn about the good work being done through the Co-op, their natural impulse is to want to help the cause by donating their surplus instruments. A few dollars in shipping fees and a little word-of-mouth from lots of concerned music-lovers and musicians all over the U.S. is really all it will take to put the thousands of needed replacement instruments into the hands of working musicians returning to New Orleans.

Editor’s note: For readers who may wish to make a donation to the Tipitina’s Co-op, here is the relevant info.

The shipping address for instrument and merchandise donations is:

Tipitina’s Music Co-op
attn: Mark Fowler
501 Napoleon Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70115

You can also contact Mark Fowler by email. To reach them by phone, call 504-891-0580.

Suggestions for needed items as possible donations can be found on the Co-op web site, including how you can make a cash donation.