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New Orleans Music Finds a Patron Saint in Ken Ehrlich

Ken Ehrlich-produced concerts helped post-Katrina recovery

Musicares Ken Ehrlich
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

For those who’ve lived there, and even better, taken in the music scene, there’s no place like New Orleans.

But when Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city, the Nola music scene was especially threatened. Its musicians were scattered, and the city’s unique bond with its musicians threatened to be broken for good.

Ken Ehrlich, an aficionado of the Crescent City’s music, saw the danger and did what he could to help preserve New Orleans and its culture.

In 2005, after Katrina, Ehrlich sprang into action, producing “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy,” a pair of simultaneous benefit concerts held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall to raise money for the victims of the hurricane.

Thanks to Ehrlich’s relationships with the titans of the music industry, he was able to secure such performers as Elton John and Simon & Garfunkel. Such headliners enticed Americans to shell out for the pay-per-view event, which raised nearly $9 million for relief organizations, including the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, Habitat for Humanity and MusiCares.

Pulling off such a feat required a little help from Ehrlich’s friends, particularly producer Quint Davis, who has helmed the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since the early 1970s. Davis and Ehrlich have been friends for more than 30 years; Ehrlich was the first person to produce the Jazz and Heritage festival for television.

“At that time, the Jazz Festival was not that well-known outside of the area,” Davis said. “But it was (known) to him. He did some really historic, great stuff. He did Stevie Ray Vaughan on a Mississippi riverboat going up and down the river. That’s really the thing that makes him the greatest live music producer of all time. He doesn’t just do a television production of something, he goes to another level artistically, and puts things together.”

These innovative performance moments, which his peers refer to as “Grammy moments” or “Ken moments,” have come to define Ehrlich’s career. For the “Big Apple/Big Easy” concerts, for example, Ehrlich knew that a run-of-the-mill benefit concert with big names doing their biggest hits was not what the occasion called for.

Instead, he insisted that the mainstream acts team up with musicians from New Orleans to perform the music relevant to the evening, as when Diana Krall sang Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” with Trombone Shorty, and Aaron Neville joined Simon & Garfunkel for “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Another “Ken moment” became a seminal moment in New Orleans’ post-Katrina story: the re-opening of the Superdome. “New Orleans and the Saints — you can’t have a more spiritual way of coming back,” Davis says.

“Ken got U2 and Green Day to play together on the field and go live on TV to re-open the Dome,” Davis adds. “The Edge had found this old punk song called ‘The Saints Are Coming.’ The song has since become one of the themes of the New Orleans Saints. And every game that they play, every time they come out on the field, they play ‘The Saints Are Coming,’ which Ken put together with the Edge. ”

Ehrlich’s friendship with Davis and love for the Big Easy’s music have kept New Orleans on his mind for years.

“It’s so important to keep that culture alive and the organization that’s doing that more than anyone else is the Jazz and Heritage Foundation,” Ehrlich says, referring to the foundation that funds the Jazz and Heritage Festival each year.

And after decades of attending the festival as a fan, Ehrlich will return in 2015 to once again produce it for television for AXS. Ehrlich’s excitement to do so is only matched by his friend’s; said Davis of Ehrlich, “He’s my favorite person and dearest friend in the world. That’s a pretty good combination for working together.”