Stacey Plaisance

On Saturday afternoons in New Orleans, pianist Harry Mayronne wheels a piano onto the front porch of jazz singer Anais St John's home for their weekly performance. spaced 1.8m apart, they serenade a handful of friends and neighbours assembled on chairs on the footpath and a larger audience online.

For years, the two have performed intimate cabaret-style jazz numbers at the city's swanky clubs and hotels. But now as the coronavirus has shuttered those venues, they and other musicians have had to find other outlets to both make ends meet and musically soothe a city that desperately needs it.

"It's something that's become really magical and really special very suddenly," said Mayronne.

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Few cities are as closely identified with music as New Orleans. It's heralded as the birthplace of jazz, and it's a melting pot of genres, from zydeco to hip-hop, from R&B to rock. It's a destination for vibrant live performances that can be heard from just about every corner of the city.

But the coronavirus and social-distancing measures have nearly silenced its music scene. Bars and restaurants, where music could blare out until early morning hours, are closed. The many festivals in the spring, important earners for artists before the slow, hot summer, have been cancelled, such as this week's New Orleans Jazz Fest. The weekly second-line parades on Sundays featuring brass bands have stopped.

The young musicians making a name busking in the French Quarter are gone. Jazz funerals where mourners send off loved ones with a slow dirge and then an uplifting rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In are over.

Musicians have also fallen victim to the virus, most notably Ellis Marsalis jnr. The jazz pianist, musical educator and patriarch of the Marsalis musical family, died April 1 after contracting the virus.

But the city's musicians are still finding ways to get the music out to the people. Artists are livestreaming from their porches, studios, living rooms, front lawns or wherever they can find space for safe distancing.

For Mayronne and St John, the weekly performances sometimes have a theme. One week it was "Quarantina" featuring songs by Tina Turner. But other days, it's simply a "porch performance", as it's billed on social media.

Walter D'Arensbourg, 3, has a toy guitar at Adam Pearce's concert.
Walter D'Arensbourg, 3, has a toy guitar at Adam Pearce's concert.

A handful of neighbours — many in masks — bring folding chairs to watch and listen from the footpath, careful to keep a safe distance from one another.

"It's nice to just be able to walk around the corner, bring your wine and have a glass of wine with Anais," said resident Penny Warriner, sitting across the street during a recent performance. People can also watch online and tip through Venmo and PayPal.

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In the Maison lounge on a recent Sunday, New Orleans rapper Mannie Fresh played DJ. He said into a microphone, "smile, today is a new day", as he spun the Kirk Franklin gospel tune I Smile to an audience of thousands. Thousands, that is, online.

The club known for live acts such as the Brass-A-Holics and Big Easy Brawlers is shuttered. Fresh's only physical audience is the club's owner, Jeff Bromberger, and a handful of technicians streaming the performance to the world via Facebook, Instagram and Twitch.

"It's just my way of uplifting people, and it's uplifting for me as well," Fresh said of his three-hour sets on Friday and Saturday nights and inspirational one-hour sets on Sundays.

Adam Pearce puts on a concert from his porch in Jefferson Parish, New Orleans. Photo / AP
Adam Pearce puts on a concert from his porch in Jefferson Parish, New Orleans. Photo / AP

"If you're clapping your hands right now, put a thumbs-up sign to me or send me some prayer hands," he says into the camera on his computer, browsing comment threads and giving shout-outs to fans.

They also provided some structure and "routine" as residents remained under a citywide stay-at-home mandate, he said.

"It's not crazy to say that if you come from New Orleans, you party Friday, Saturday, and you go to church on Sunday," he said. "So, that's our normal routine."

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His audience had been growing each weekend, lately drawing 10,000 to 20,000 viewers, Bromberger said: "It's almost like medicine for people, because it's a distraction."

Waiting is a challenge for club owners such as Bromberger, who owns the Maison and Dragon's Den. He had just started gutting and building a new venue when the pandemic hit.

Bromberger said he's concerned about the uncertainty of how much time it will take for the music scene to rebound and tourists to return. But he's also worried about reopening only to have to close a second time if there's a another wave of infections.

"I have no idea what the environment, what the market, what we're even going to look like coming out of this, whenever that is," he said.

For now, New Orleans artists are just grateful that fans are watching — and tipping — online or, for the lucky few who live close enough to catch one of St John's porch concerts, coming in person, at a safe distance, of course. She was scheduled to perform at this month's French Quarter Festival, a free multi-day event at which area artists perform in various venues.

"We are resilient," St John said. "Things will come back, but it's going to take time, and it's going to take patience."

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- AP