When did Robin Parry realize that her Philly-to-New Orleans musician exchange and fund-raising program was making a difference in both cities?
Maybe it was when Parry, a self-described "middle-aged rocker-soccer mom," held her first unadvertised "Big Easy Sunday" at World Cafe Live with the UPPC Royal Brass Band - to a packed house.
Or maybe it was when she watched Philly musician Anna Slovich, who had just spent a week gutting destroyed houses, cry as she left Jackson Square.
Or maybe it's the calls and e-mails that she receives from Philly musicians, such as the hip-hop group Spank Rock, asking to donate their time. Or maybe it's the support she's garnered not only from WXPN-FM, but from WWOZ-FM in New Orleans and legendary clubs such as Tipitina's.
Or maybe it's all of those moments combined, the memory of which causes Parry to tear up as she reflects on Philly to New Orleans' first anniversary.
"One year later, and Philly musicians are actually picking up the ball just like I had faith that they would," says Parry, 44, her voice emotional. "That's how I know it's working."
Parry, who lives in Maple Shade with her three teen- and tween-age children, had never been to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005.
"The only special affinity I had with New Orleans music before my trip was the fact that Trent Reznor owned a house there," she says in an e-mail. "I didn't realize just how much that city's music had to do with the culture."
But she had always worked in the local music biz: booking bands into small venues, hosting shows. A bartender at World Cafe Live since it opened, Parry helped WCL with its events, upstairs and downstairs, and volunteered her time to its charitable endeavors.
She could never get to Jazz Fest, New Orleans' annual celebration of funky sound and indigenous culture; never really had the money or time. Then in April 2006, several of WCL's regulars - WXPN-FM members Steve and Mary Hassad, who knew Parry's musical passion - helped out by paying her way down.
"They felt it was important for me to experience it," Parry said.
Before she left, World Cafe Live owner Hal Real told her to seek out the little things that make the Crescent City special.
"I have been going to NOLA for the Fest for 20 years," says Real. "I'm not sure that anyone who loves NOLA - respects its unique blending pot, culture, musical heritage - could not get involved."
So Parry went. She walked through areas of devastation like the Lower Ninth Ward - houses, yards, or what was left of them.
"As far as I could see, a po' boy was just another name for a hoagie," she says. "But I met the locals: artists, musicians, trash collectors, cabdrivers - people who broke out of their attics with axes, people who lost everything they owned in the flood, people who cried and held my hands and thanked me for coming."
One of her most devastating memories: a broken class picture of a young schoolgirl lying forgotten on the floor of a ruined house.
"When I got home, I cried my eyes out for days, as if I'd broken up with a boyfriend," says Parry.
Parry returned to Philadelphia determined to help out - really help out. Her resolve was driven by the fact that Katrina was more than a natural disaster, it was a breakdown of government.
"There are floods and fires and disasters every day," says Parry. "What I saw and came to understand was that what happened in New Orleans was a national disaster."
Parry's experience in the music business told her first to hold a benefit. But careful research proved that throwing charity money at the situation meant nothing.
So a better idea arose, one based on Parry's belief that the music community is a strong one.
"And that in time of need we take care of our own," she says. "That New Orleans is the heart and soul of American music and culture and that the music communities across the country have the power to make a difference and save NOLA."
While she was in New Orleans, Parry had met with Real, WXPN-FM's Roger LeMay, and Bill Taylor of Tipitina's Foundation in New Orleans. She also contacted a volunteer group in New Orleans, Hands On New Orleans, and started making contact with New Orleans' musicians.
The response was positive. Real offered WCL as a venue for the first Philly to New Orleans show, and some of its employees for tasks like logo design and marketing. The first show was set for Aug. 13, 2006.
The gig featured several bands, including the UCC Royal Brass Band, which ended the show by marching through the club playing the New Orleans anthem, "When the Saints Go Marching In." The $2,000 she raised, along with the media coverage, inspired her to book another show a month later, this one featuring Bonearama, a band led by Craig Klein, who also plays trombone with Harry Connick Jr.
That September show proved momentous for Parry and a turning point for her fledgling organization. Philly's Jamaladeen Tacuma wrote a gospel jazz suite for the occasion, which was attended by New Orleans evacuees and a New Orleans disc jockey.
"As soon as Robin started promoting shows in Philly and bringing up N.O. bands, it started rocking," says Klein. "And I was there."
From those first gigs, things snowballed. Also in September 2006 - a mere four months after its start - P2NO raised enough money to send its first volunteers to the city to gut and paint houses, restore animal shelters, and build playgrounds and school buildings.
Through constant networking, Parry made the trips work. New Orleans Fine Hotels in the French Quarter agreed to give her group deep discounts on rooms. And Tipitina's made sure the volunteers got comped tickets throughout the city.
But that didn't mean Parry was off the hook. "If ever the ends didn't meet once we were down there, Robin would cover the rest with money out of her own pocket," says Slovich.
Slovich's volunteer experience sounds backbreaking for those not used to it: early hours and hard labor in 80-degree humidity, scraping mold off houses by hand, working in tight conditions.
When she wasn't working, Slovich busked, making friends - genuine connections - with other local musicians. One homeless woman, "Janis," sat and listened to Slovich for hours, learning lyrics to her songs so she could sing with Slovich.
"Before she left, Janis told me, 'Music is the good left in this old place. God blessed you, child,' and proceeded to take out one of her earrings and placed it in my hand," says Slovich. "She changed me. That place changed me."
The connections that Philly to New Orleans has built between musicians have also been a professional lifeline for those in Louisiana.
Klein, who now lives in Baton Rouge, La., because his house in St. Bernard Parish was flooded in Katrina, has sponsored his own gutting projects ("over 110 so far") with his Arabi Wrecking Krewe.
He has also played many of Parry's gigs: Big Easy Sunday brunches and Toulouse Tuesdays at World Cafe Live, "Ortlieb's to Orleans" monthly Thursday events at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus, shows at the Tin Angel.
And like other Orleans-based musicians who've played Parry events, Klein appreciates being regarded as an artist first rather than a charity case. Bottom line: These guys want to play.
"Everyone wants to gig with Robin," says Klein. "She cares for the music and the musicians, and that's reassuring, especially from someone who is on the other end of it all."
Besides helping individual musicians, Philly to New Orleans' success has brought welcome attention to a city that desperately needs it.
"Robin's effort to tell Philadelphia that New Orleans is open for business is wonderful, says Grace Wilson, spokeswoman with the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., who has e-mailed Parry weekly since Philly to New Orleans was formed. "Truly the best way to help this city is to visit."
"We can use all of the help we can get here," says Tony Ciaccio, president of Hypersoul, LLC, a New Orleans-based producer of music and cultural events with whom Parry has exchanged acts.
"It's the people that have volunteered their time that have helped restore the lives and spirits of those impacted by significant disaster. . . . Robin kept it fun, productive and relevant."
Parry has commitments from more local musicians for the next rounds of aid: Lady Alma, Devin Greenwood, Birdie Busch, John Francis and Naheem Juwan of Spank Rock. The Anthony Lattanze Band booked its own Philly to New Orleans tour, holding benefits along the way.
But still, Parry handles most of Philly to New Orleans herself. "P2NO is Robin," Slovich says. "I still remember her eyes lighting up as she spoke about her plans, how helping someone in need made her glow. . . . It was beautiful."
As her organization starts its second year, Parry intends to continue her pay-it-forward work, and make it possible for passionate people to go help in New Orleans and experience the spirit of the city and the need to preserve it.
"I hope Philly to New Orleans starts our people off on a musical trip to this American mecca, hopefully to come home and work to save it," Parry says. "Or at least to experience it before it goes away."
Parry's words are intentionally political; she's become a convert to the issues that galvanize New Orleans residents, such as wetlands restoration. Her work with Philly to New Orleans has convinced her that the underlying problems hampering the city's rebuilding efforts must be solved if New Orleans is to survive.
"We need political pressure to finance the projects that will protect this great city. We've got to choose: levees or war," she says.
"If we just let it blow over, we will never recover from it."
Philly to New Orleans
Regular fund-raising concerts occur at the following venues:
at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus
Big Easy Sunday
at World Cafe Live
Other events are held at venues around town, including the Tin Angel, the Barrington Coffee House, and MilkBoy Coffee. For details, go to www.phillytoneworleans.
org or www.myspace.