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Jazz Endangered in New Orleans

The Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans comes to an end today. And while the crowds are larger than last year, this year's celebration was still considerably smaller than before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. VOA's Jim Bertel reports that despite the vibrant atmosphere, there are growing signs Mardi Gras, and New Orleans, may never be the same.

Mardi Gras is in full swing in New Orleans. Revelers from all over the world turned out in recent days to watch parades and fill the city's famous French Quarter to take part in the biggest party of the year. That includes Nicole Heth. "Everybody has amazing outfits on, there's hairstyles, clothing, shoes, it's crazy,” she says. “The beads that are flying everywhere, the balconies of people, I love it."

Many in New Orleans say this year's Mardi Gras feels more normal than last year's scaled down celebration, the first after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of the city and killed hundreds of people in August 2005.

Mardi Gras is considered a key to reviving New Orleans' tourism business. The damage from the devastating storm is still visible in many parts of the city, but is largely unnoticed by those who stay in the French Quarter and central business district.

One thing visitors will notice is: much of the music that made New Orleans the capital of jazz is missing. "It's not like it was in the past,” says one repeat visitor to the city. “No. There [are] not any street musicians. There used to be a lot more street musicians."

Like many city residents who lost their homes in the storm, many of the jazz musicians who once performed in the city are gone. "You take it for granted, you take the little things in life for granted, like walking down the street and seeing a jazz musician. The little things in life are what you miss,” says another visitor.

Jazz has been synonymous with New Orleans for decades, but few clubs featuring this uniquely American art form have reopened. Efforts to help local musicians through relief funds and subsidized housing have had limited success.

Joe Braun is a local musician. "It's been hard this year to make a living here in New Orleans,” says the member of the Jazz Vipers, “because there are less and less places to play."

Many venues are too badly damaged to reopen; others have switched to more tourist-friendly rock and roll, forcing Steve Venet and his jazz band to perform far from the city's famous Bourbon Street.

"This is primarily a local scene. There are very few tourists that will venture out here," he says of his new location.

And tourists, like those celebrating Mardi Gras this week, will be instrumental in reviving the city, both economically and culturally. For now, the future remains uncertain, leaving many musicians feeling disheartened. But their love for the city's unique musical heritage motivates them to play on.