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Jazzman testifies to city's kindness

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When Hurricane Katrina blew jazzman Devin Phillips from his native New Orleans, he found more than dry ground. He found fertile soil for a fresh start.

Now 2,600 miles from home, he and other Crescent City musicians are engaged in a cultural exchange that's enhancing the entertainment scene here while salvaging careers left in limbo by the storm.

Days after the hurricane, the 24-year-old saxophonist was trolling the Internet looking for fellow evacuees when he stumbled across a link to the Portland Jazz Festival inviting displaced New Orleans musicians to head northwest.

"I thought it was a hoax," Phillips says. "I called, and they said they'd fly me up and help with accommodations, networking and jobs. I arrived to a very warm reception in a jazz community I didn't even know existed."

He's had several paid engagements and in February will be on the bill of the Portland Jazz Festival, along with other New Orleans players trickling into town: At least 14 are here now, seven went back to salvage possessions from ruined homes, and more are on the way.

"I'm getting enough gigs to support myself," says Phillips, who received a sax from an anonymous donor. "I feel lucky. If I weren't playing, I'd be a bitter, nasty person. I'd feel cheated if I were working in a Subway. My friends who went to Atlanta and Houston say it's like crabs in a bucket there, with too many musicians and a lot of tension."

No tension invades the airy Jazz Festival office downtown where exiles gathered.

"We have a lot to figure out, but like the music, it's improvised," festival artistic director Bill Royston says. "We can't let society turn its back on the culture that gave us Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. All of us into jazz have been influenced by New Orleans, but it's not often you can sit down with these artists and have dialogues."

Trombone player Stephen Walker, 26, says he's pleased by Portland's "true hospitality." He left New Orleans with his father, a dialysis patient, early Aug. 29, the day Katrina struck, and weathered the storm with 50 other relatives outside New Orleans. He drove to Atlanta before accepting Portland's invitation.

Sho Dozono is a philanthropist and president of Azumano Travel, which has been flying the transplants back and forth and providing cab vouchers. "Until New Orleans is open for business, we're going to bring more musicians here and enrich our community with talent," Dozono says. "I don't like the idea of handouts. I want to provide work opportunities, and these folks want to play."

Portland's generosity is changing the muscial menu. "Suddenly, this is where the Pacific Northwest meets Cajun. Who knew?" says the jazz fest's managing director, Sarah Bailen Smith.

The evacuees left home uncertain about shelter, much less gigs. Bass player Nobu Ozaki, 33, bounced around Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona before driving to Portland at Phillips' urging. Since then, he has played in sold-out shows at The Blue Monk jazz club. "I'm getting so much help from everybody," Ozaki says. "I want to make this long term."

Drummer Chuk Barber, 54, rode out the storm in his sister's house near a levee. "Now I'm homeless and jobless," he says. The future of his band, The Original Lowriders, is uncertain. But in Portland, he and bandmate Lance Ellis have hotel rooms, transportation, opportunities to play and the unexpected admiration of local fans.

"I didn't know how much I could contribute to a music community," Phillips says. He recently saw his home in a satellite image online ("it still has a roof"), but he's in no rush to return. "If I'd known the support for jazz was this strong in Portland, it wouldn't have taken a hurricane to get me here."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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