JUMPIN' JOHNNY SANSONE and RAOUL & THE BIG TIME at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina), Monday (October 23), 8 pm. $14.50. 416-763-9139, www.ticketpro.ca. Rating: NNNNN
Singer slash harmonica star jum-pin' Johnny Sansone says he never once thought about moving away from New Orleans for good after Hurricane Katrina decimated his city. Not for a second.
"No," he laughs. "I got roots here, man. I wouldn't leave."
Sansone didn't just stick around, but with a tough-as-nails spirit (his former moonlighting gig was in construction), he's made rebuilding Crescent City's music scene a personal crusade.
"I've been spending a lot of time trying not only to build up the music scene, but also to build up the people, because they need a scene to have," he says over the phone from his house.
"After the storm, a lot of the businesses were closed and there was no place for people to get away from the mess of their lives."
In the ruined city, Sansone and his musician pals had to be resourceful.
"We started playing where we could; in churches and whatever restaurants were open," he says. "We'd just have barbecues, whatever - you know, just to give people something to eat and some music to brighten up their day."
Soon the harmonica player was taking starting gigs where there weren't any before, doing weekly dates at a few different spots with featured guests. The plan is eventually to turn his nights over to those musicians, but New Orleans even has a shortage of players right now. Fascinatingly, this situation has altered the shape of the city's music.
"Any bands that were here had to scramble to replace guys who weren't here any more. So a lot of interesting sounds came out of this, and it was just kinda bright. People were playing music they wouldn't normally play just to fill in spots.
"I saw a band the other night that had a tuba instead of an electric bass player, and it really changed the whole sound of what they were doing," he elaborates. "Guys that play jazz all of a sudden in a Cajun band - I mean, their approaches are completely different."
Culturally, that's amazing. Unfortunately, this close-knit phenomenon happening in jazz's birthplace may go unnoticed if tourists don't start taking an interest in the city again.
Out-of-towners are really New Orleans's biggest hope, especially since the U.S. government has turned the costliest natural disaster in its history over to the strapped state of Louisiana.
"Unlike other cities, 70, 80 per cent of our income comes from the tourist trade," says Sansone, who's been a regular at fundraisers and seminars on saving the Delta's wetlands.
"So we're trying to let everybody know that the city's open for business, and we're going out of our way to make sure everybody knows you can still come down here. The crime rate is going crazy and things are happening, but that's not in the tourist areas."
He adds that because he isn't playing the local corporate functions that once helped him make his living, he's got to tour every weekend.
On the bright side, his regular jaunts are spreading appreciation for his incredibly dynamic Chicago-blues-influenced phrasing.
Sansone, who sometimes backs himself with the swamp-pop riffs of his accordion, is best known to Canadians as an accompanist with acclaimed woodwind player/composer Jane Bunnett. Last year he travelled to Cuba as part of her collective, lending some zydeco flavour to the lush Latin jazz of Bunnett's Radio Guantánamo: Guantánamo Blues Project.
He'll join Bunnett in Montreal for a CBC taping on Sunday, the night before he hauls his talent to the Silver Dollar.