Musicians, protesters denounce sound ordinance

Trombone player Glen David Andrews led a band of musicians and members of New Orleans’ music community on Friday as they paraded into the City Council chamber, where they performed a quick jazz funeral for a withdrawn sound ordinance they feared would have irreparably damaged their ability to play music in New Orleans.

Singing “Music ain’t a crime,” the group danced into the hastily opened chamber, where they performed the traditional funeral hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” then finished with the Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna,” along with the chorus of “The Treme Song” — “buckjumping and having fun.”

The second line followed an emotional rally across the street in Duncan Plaza that attracted about 300 music fans and musicians from across the spectrum, including Frenchmen Street mainstays Alex McMurray, Washboard Chaz and Margie Perez; members of the rock/ska band The Scorseses; singer Dayna Kurtz; and DJ Quickie Mart.

The focus of the rally was a proposed ordinance that has already been at least partially scrapped. After a public outcry about some of its provisions, Councilwomen Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer withdrew it late Thursday, saying they will craft a new ordinance that will focus more narrowly on the French Quarter and Bourbon Street.

With the ordinance temporarily off the table and a scheduled council committee meeting canceled, the rally became a celebration and a call for further action.

“It’s a very important step, but a lot of other steps need to be taken,” said Hannah Kreiger-Benson, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. “Everybody needs to breathe in for a minute, then go back to examining the underlying issues that drove this whole conversation in the first place and see how they could be solved in ways that also nurture and protect our cultural economy.”

In their statement Thursday night, Palmer and Head acknowledged the “public consternation” about the proposed ordinance.

They agreed to work with David Woolworth, whose Oxford Acoustics firm conducted a New Orleans noise study that was released in August, and with French Quarter groups to craft a new plan reworking the proposed sound restrictions.

Neighborhood advocates have complained that existing noise regulations are particularly unworkable in the Quarter, as the rules outlaw sound that is 10 decibels above the ambient, or surrounding, level — a standard that has proved difficult to enforce in entertainment zones like Bourbon Street.

Palmer and Head pledged they will have a drawn-out process, beginning with a draft to be presented at a Jan. 27 committee meeting, and renewed focus on improving the enforcement of the city’s existing noise regulations, a task that is supposed to move from the Police Department to the Health Department.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu applauded the council’s decision to put the breaks on the debate. In a statement Friday, he said the city is working to create the necessary Health Department positions, with the hiring process already begun.

“We believe there can be a consensus document based on inclusion and transparency,” Landrieu said.

Nathan Chapman, a longtime French Quarter resident who led a multiple-neighborhood coalition that supported the original ordinance, turned his attention to the next task at hand.

“We’re about to all go to work on Bourbon Street,” Chapman said. “Certainly it has its own unique problems, and it’s important enough to all of us that it’s worthy of having its own discussion.”

At the Duncan Plaza rally, speakers were slightly hampered by a portable sound system that posed no threat to any of the decibel caps that have been discussed, but they made up for it with passion.

Trumpeter Mario Abney spoke about what New Orleans’ music represented to him before he moved here from Chicago, and warned against using other cities as models. “This isn’t Nashville. This isn’t Austin,” he said. “This isn’t Chicago. I moved here so I could play my horn.”

Many musicians were warily relieved that the ordinance had been withdrawn.

Lucas Davenport of St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus wasn’t sure that it would have been constitutional, and considered the whole effort “a waste of city resources and a waste of time. But it’s not a waste to come out and tell them to stop.”

Many of the speakers revisited past wounds, some of which were more relevant than others, but a common concern was that the process that led to the writing of the earlier ordinance pitted residents against musicians, as if musicians weren’t residents. Singer Margie Perez teared up when she said, “I’m a resident. I pay taxes. I vote here. What about my quality of life?”