The Piano That Can't Play a Tune

How Fats Domino’s restored showpiece reflects the trajectory of post-Katrina New Orleans, an Object Lesson

Gerald Herbert / AP

If you could see Fats Domino’s piano today—white and gleaming on a pedestal at the Louisiana State Museum in the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans’ French Quarter—you might think he had been kind enough to donate one of his signature grands to the museum for its music collection. That is, if you were unaware of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago, including Domino’s home on Caffin Street in the largely obliterated neighborhood known as the “Lower Nine,” where the white Steinway once held pride of place in Domino’s living room.

Submerged in nine feet of water from a massive breach in the nearby Industrial Canal, it sat for weeks in the fetid lake that covered 80 percent of New Orleans after Katrina. Curators from the Louisiana State Museum raised $35,000 to have it reassembled and restored, and it now sits beneath a spotlight in an exhibit room as if waiting for Domino himself to sit down and play it. At the dedication ceremony in 2013, Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardanne said, “His beautiful grand piano, fully restored, will serve as the perfect symbol for Louisiana’s resilient nature and ever-evolving musical heritage.”

Well, no and yes. Despite the painstaking restoration, the white grand piano is unplayable. It is this last fact that makes the story of this instrument such a powerful metaphor for New Orleans since Katrina. It is a tale about persistence in the face of government neglect, cataclysmic disaster, and the painful incompleteness of reconstruction. More particularly, it is a lesson about the importance of preserving the material remains of the city’s past even as it focuses on the future.

These objects—some partly restored, some not—are all the more important in light of the city’s record of demolition of many significant musical landmarks, despite the recent efforts of preservation groups to turn the tide. Louis Armstrong’s birthplace, for example, was torn down in the 1960s to build a city jail. Other jazz landmarks are in grave disrepair.

The history of New Orleans music had an additional vulnerability before Katrina: The homes of the city’s musicians and writers held much of the city’s musical heritage. Letters, handwritten scores, photographs, cocktail napkins, matchbooks, and musical instruments were under the beds and in the attics of working musicians and their descendants. Most of Michael White’s enormous collection of artifacts from early jazz musicians—some 50 clarinets, reams of sheet music, reeds and mouthpieces, and taped interviews with musicians—is gone. White’s house near the London Avenue Canal in Lakeview took in water up to the roof. The only things salvaged by volunteers were some of his clarinets. “They looked like bodies,” White told me. “And the ones that were in cases looked like bodies in coffins. They weren’t really about me, they symbolized New Orleans history and culture and the present state of the culture.”

Tending to the artifacts the storm left behind, as White did, can feel restorative. And it is not the same as choosing property over people, something that does not bode well in New Orleans. “The black working class in New Orleans,” the historian George Lipsitz wrote in Katrina’s aftermath, “has long refused to concede that white property is more important than black humanity.” After the storm, neighborhood traditions like the parading of Mardi Gras Indians persisted, despite and because of the challenges of rebuilding those communities. But the preservation of cultural artifacts after Katrina, such as Domino’s piano, was something of a different job.

As show-stopping as Domino’s white Steinway grand is, it is the opposite of the first piano he played, acquired by his family in the 1930s. That piano, Domino told his biographer, was “so beat up that you could see the rusted metal through the ivory, it had been played so hard.” According to the authors of Up From the Cradle of Jazz: “The Ninth Ward blues built off of pianos and horns.” There was an old upright in just about every small music club in the Lower Ninth Ward. The white piano, on the other hand, was not even Domino’s regular instrument. Instead, it was the one that greeted visitors to the house on Caffin Street and was a favored backdrop for family photographs. The glorious grand piano testified to his rise from a part-time musician and factory worker to one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll.

Domino’s upbringing in the Lower Ninth Ward, surrounded by his Creole relatives, inflected his music. His father was descended from French-speaking African Americans who lived as enslaved and then freedpeople in Louisiana’s sugar parishes. Like many Louisiana Creoles, black and white, they had roots in Haiti. When the Dominos arrived in the Lower Nine, the neighborhood was still mostly rural, with unpaved streets, farm animals, and scarce electricity and indoor plumbing. In a recent radio show devoted to Domino, writer Ben Sandmel observed the artist’s “Caribbean vocal style” in songs like “My Blue Heaven.” “It’s almost like he’s an English as a second language speaker. It’s a very thick regional accent,” Sandmel said. “If you listen to oral histories of people [from the Lower Nine] who recorded around that time there are a lot of thick accents and a lot of French-isms in the speech.”

When he combined his Creole influences with New Orleans’s distinctive eight-bar blues, Domino changed the course of American music. He sold 65 million records, more than any other musician in the 1950s besides Elvis Presley. Though Presley was proclaimed the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, he freely admitted that African Americans in New Orleans like Fats Domino were playing it first as “rhythm and blues.” Domino’s wild popularity in Jamaica also inspired the creation of ska and reggae. But fame and influence, of course, did not exempt him from the hurricane.

At the time of the disaster, many outsiders were surprised that so many poor, mostly black people had no means of evacuating the city. But even long-time New Orleanians with means, Fats included, chose to wait it out, as was their custom. Domino had to be rescued by boat, taken to the Superdome, and then evacuated to Baton Rouge. Because everyone knew where Domino lived, many assumed he had died in the flood; one misinformed soul even painted “R.I.P. Fats” on the front of his house. In an odd way, the 24 odd hours when Domino seemed to be “missing” became the focus of anxiety for many New Orleanians who had lost track of friends and relatives. According to curator Bruce Raeburn, for many observers of Katrina’s aftermath “musicians represented what was best about the city, so their fate became the gauge of both loss and recovery.”

Music historians have long recognized the pivotal role that Fats Domino (by all accounts a shy and humble fellow who seldom grants interviews) played in the history of American popular music. After Katrina, state historians hoped to salvage his instruments from the house in the Lower Ninth Ward. One of the people who spearheaded the effort was Greg Lambousy, then director of collections at the Louisiana State Museum. After he got the call from Domino’s daughter that they could take the pianos to be restored, Lambousy gathered a rescue team and in March 2006, seven months after the levee breach, they drove a truck and trailer through the broken streets to Caffin Avenue.

There were two pianos in Domino’s house, one white and one black. Whereas the white one, a grand, was a “showpiece” the black baby grand, also a Steinway, was the one Domino played at home. The black piano was also the most intact. Restorers stabilized it and put on display in a permanent Katrina exhibit at the Presbytère on Jackson Square, looking just as it did when the water receded.

The white piano was in worse shape. All but one of the legs had been detached, and it was put into storage until funds could be raised for its restoration. Six years later, with the white piano still in need of a benefactor, Lambousy had an idea. He approached one of Fats Domino’s wealthiest and most influential fans: with $1,000 in seed money from Paul McCartney, the rest of the $35,000 came in quickly. The piano had been submerged for two weeks, and according to Shane Winter, the lead conservator on the project, it still had raw sewage left inside years later when conservators finally went to work on it. Its paint was crackled and peeling. His team had to take the entire instrument apart, some 6,000 pieces, so make sure that no water was trapped inside it. The conservators restored the white piano as much as possible to its original appearance. They could have made it play again, Winter told me, but given all the new parts required that would have created a different piano altogether.

Perhaps the real contrast between the black and white pianos, though, and how they ultimately emerged from Katrina, has to do with when they were each renovated. Charles Chamberlain, a historian at the state museum at the time, recalls the sense of near panic that New Orleans culture was under in the year after the storm. The devastated black piano made a clear visual case for rescuing other remains. “Right after the storm, everyone thought that the culture was truly threatened,” Chamberlain recalled. But the white piano seemed to make a triumphant statement about the ability to overcome what had been damaged, to come out the other side of trauma.

Times are still hard for the Lower Ninth Ward. The neighborhood finally has an elementary school again, Martin Luther King, though many of the children who live nearby instead scatter across the city during the day to attend charter schools. The streets near the canal are still mostly devoid of houses, though Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation continues to build new ones that sit higher above the street than the old shotguns did. On the other end of Caffin Avenue from Domino’s house a new convenience store opened this year, selling fresh produce and groceries in the neighborhood for the first time in 10 years. But lately there has been talk of building luxury condos on the Mississippi River edge of the Lower Ninth Ward.

There is also a Lower Ninth Ward Living History Museum now, run on a shoestring and the labor of young volunteers, which includes oral histories from residents, and an exhibit on the neighborhood and its history of civil-rights activism and culture. Portraits of the Lower Ninth Ward’s musical sons, including Kermit Ruffins and Domino himself, hang on the walls.

Domino’s house is still there, not far from the museum. It is in good condition, though he is living these days across the River on the westbank. And of course, it no longer holds its gleaming white showpiece. When asked by a reporter in 2006 if he planned to move back to his house on Caffin Avenue, Fats Domino replied: “I hope so. I like it down there.” So far, he has not returned to live in the neighborhood.

The residents of the city before Katrina who have lived through the flood’s long aftermath (this writer among them) have proven to be a resilient bunch, but they are not, nor can they ever be, fully restored. By the same token, post-diluvian New Orleans has lost whole segments of itself in the people who have not returned and the neighborhoods that have not been rebuilt.

Fats Domino’s white piano, meanwhile, has become a monument, an objet d’art, a thing reborn with a new and different purpose: to commemorate the storm that destroyed it.

This project was made possible with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.