Interview: Bob Ezrin, Producer, Music Rising Co-Founder

September 22, 2006 · Print This Article

By Devlin Smith, Contributing Editor

Bob Ezrin is an acclaimed music producer who’s gained nearly as much notice for his charity work as he has for his collaborations with an impressive list of artists that includes Pink Floyd. A lifelong lover of New Orleans’ music and culture, Ezrin was pushed into action by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and founded Music Rising, an instrument-replacement fund, with The Edge, Marty Albertson of Guitar Center and Henry Juszkiewicz of Gibson Guitars last fall.

This may be the organization’s busiest month to date. A second Music Rising guitar recently went on sale and this Monday U2 and Green Day will hit the stage during "Monday Night Football’s" return to the Superdome, performing The Skids’ "The Saints Are Coming," a song the two bands recently recorded to benefit Music Rising.

In the midst of a hectic day just before Hurricane Katrina’s one-year anniversary, Bob Ezrin spoke to from his Toronto office about Music Rising, the Gulf Coast and why The Edge is one of his favorite people.

What first got you interested in the region of New Orleans and its music and culture?

My uncle was one of the largest jazz collectors in Canada and had a huge record collection with a tremendous amount of stuff that came out of New Orleans and used to play Dixieland and Second Line for me and I had it in my imagination. I created a picture in my head of what New Orleans was based on the music that I heard and it was this kind of magical, colorful, partying place. I’d seen some pictures as well of Mardi Gras, so I put it all together and to me New Orleans was like Disneyland for jazz, so that was my first exposure as a child. Then as I grew up and I got the know the music more intimately, obviously I got a more realistic picture but the more I learned, the more I loved the kind of blending of West African and Arcadian and European and uniquely North American musical influences to create this rich tapestry, multi-colored, multi-layered, multi-leveled tapestry of music that came out of that region.

Later, as a young producer, I had the privilege of producing Dr, John and though at that point I had not been to New Orleans yet, we create a very New Orleans-style album with a bunch of players from back home and Dr. John had a lot of gris gris in a general sense, the whole project was sort of steeped in New Orleanian hoodoo and we ended up performing the album that we made live for the musicians that were going to participate the night after in the very first American Music Awards in Los Angeles, it might even have been the People’s Choice Awards, I’m not sure, but the year would have been ’76 or ’77, somewhere around there. We performed it live out of Cherokee Studios and for the one night we turned Cherokee into Willie Purple’s club, from Lafayette, La., and we put a false front on the studio, we ended up with checkered tablecloths and serving crawfish and gumbo and put on Dr. John’s Rock & Rizzum Revue for stars as varied as Tommy Smothers and Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, some guys in The Temptations and all kinds of rock ‘n’ rollers, people who were there to participate in the awards show the night following. It was a magical evening. I thought for that night that I was in New Orleans.

Finally, I actually got to go there during Super Bowl 13, I think it was, right around the same time, and just had a wonderful, magical time there and got to know the city and the people and fell in love. Following that, I got to work with Nine Inch Nails a little bit and spent some more time in the city then. I’ve had this like indirect and almost fantasy relationship with New Orleans since I was a kid.

Going back a year, what were your memories of when Hurricane Katrina happened? Where were you? Were you stuck at the TV all the time? What was going through your head as that was happening?

I was in LA when Katrina struck. I was watching the pictures on television. I was as far removed from that weather as one could be but watching the TV and, like everyone else, at first shocked by the ferocity of the event and the extent of the damage and then very saddened for the residents and then, very shortly thereafter, completely outraged by the lack of effective response. It was impossible for me to understand how the most powerful country in the world could effectively overlook the loss of one of its major cities. I just couldn’t comprehend that and, in fact, to a certain extent, it continues to overlook it. If you turn on television today you can see Kelly and Regis and they’re having a great time, and all the soap operas go on and the evening news talks about the JonBenet murder suspect and so on, nobody talks about the Gulf, the Central Gulf Region, and when they do, they only talk about New Orleans, they never talk about Biloxi or the rest of the afflicted area. These people and their lives, their culture, their whole history has been wiped out and as a country we seem content to ignore that fact.

When did it first occur to you that you needed to do something to help?

Like right after. I’m a serial activist and I’m involved in whole bunch of other stuff. I have to credit Henry Juszkiewicz and Marty Albertson for starting this off. I was sitting there saying, "I must do something" but I hadn’t quite figured out what when I got a phone call from Marty, who is my dear friend, and he’s the CEO of Guitar Center, saying, "Henry Juszkiewicz and I are going to sell a million dollars worth of guitars to raise money for the musicians in New Orleans and we’d really like it to go to musical instruments. How do we do that? Can you help us to do that? We’re thinking that it would be great to distribute the instruments through the jazz festival. Can you help us to do that?" Of course, I was thrilled to be able to figure out a way to spend a million dollars in musical instruments for people who had lost everything, particularly since my greatest concern immediately after the disaster was what was going to happen to the culture of that place. We already saw what was happening to the people, to the infrastructure and the physical reality of it, but what was going to happen to their vital and essential culture? When these guys called, that was a great way to start to address that problem.

It was apparent immediately that Jazz Fest had their own problems and that they were probably not going to get off the ground for quite some months after because they had to deal with huge issues down there. It is a testament to Quint Davis that Jazz Fest happened and that it was as successful as it was, because it was really magnificent and this guy just performed a super-human task in taking an impossibility and making it a beautiful reality. We couldn’t do it with Jazz Fest and what I recommended, being a member of the board of governors of the LA chapter of NARAS, I suggested that we hook up with MusiCares, which I knew was already in the area and had already served many hundreds of musicians with living assistance and some cash, so they already had a list of musicians who had been wiped out and it would be a simple matter to go back to that list and say, "By the way, did you lose your instruments, too?" So that was a natural, MusiCares was set up for it, they have a great qualification process, they’re a very tightly run ship, and we made a deal with them to become the qualification and sort administrative arm of our new initiative to put out this million dollars worth of instruments.

Basically, immediately following that, I had lunch with The Edge in Toronto, I had lunch with a bunch of people and he was there, and both of us were saying, "It’s terrible. It’s a disaster. We need to do something." Of course I started to talk about some of what the Guitar Center and Gibson was doing and he said, "I’ve been wanting to do the same sort of thing," so I gave him my phone number fully expecting it to be just rock star small talk and he was on the phone to me two days later with a list of things that we were going to do, which I just loved, "We can call this one and we can talk to that one and we can put this together," and very shortly thereafter we formed our little core group and Caroline Galloway from Gibson named us Music Rising, way better name than anything Edge or I were able to come up, and there we were, we were born.

Music Rising became an initiative to replace the instruments that were lost in the Gulf Region during the two hurricanes and ensuing floods. We raised a bunch of money, MusiCares kicked in a lot of money and between us all we were able to, to date, help to put 2,000 musicians back on their feet by providing them with instruments and gear so that they could get out and work again.

What kind of reaction have you gotten personally from the musicians you’ve been able to help?

People don’t know my face, so I don’t get stopped in the street, but Edge did when we were there during Jazz Fest. People were coming up to us from all over and going up to Edge and saying, "Thank you, thank you so much." The reaction that we were getting that was most telling was people were thanking us who had nothing to do with the musical initiative just for caring and for being high profile and for keeping a light shining on the region, people were saying we were among the earliest of responders and were among the very few people who still cared and they were really thankful for the attention that we were bringing to the region in its continuing need.

That just sort of inspired us and energized us to think about what else we needed to do there, we couldn’t stop with just professional musicians. It was never our intention, anyway, to be exclusively about professional musicians, we were about the whole musical culture of the Gulf and, so, for us that starts in the churches and in the social aid and pleasure clubs and in the schools of the region, so we are now focusing our attention and our efforts on those. Clearly in the early days there were no churches and schools and stuff, they’re just now getting back up physically, so as they are prepared to receive, we are raising money to give instruments and equipment to them so that they can get their musical hearts back.

During Jazz Fest Edge did an interview with CNN where he mentioned that you guys were working on a documentary. Do you have any updates on that, when it might come out or where it might be shown?

The documentary is in the final stages of editing and I think it’s going on Canadian television and the end of September. [Ed. Note: The program is airing on CTV Sept. 23.]

Do you know when it might make it to the United States?

I don’t know.

Was Jazz Fest the last time that you were in New Orleans?


When do you plan on going back?

We’ll be back next month [September] for a very special event that we’re planning next month to kick off phase two.

What are you hoping that you’ll find there when you go back?

Well, that pre-supposes that I haven’t been talking to people and I don’t know what’s going on. I sort of already know what I’m going to find and it’s just to be very disappointing. The fact is that we’re a year on and there are, I think New Orleans only has 25 or 30 percent of its old population and that is obviously artificially inflated by the continuing presence of relief workers and government workers and that sort of thing.

There areas of the city where many people once lived that still look like the dark side of the moon and that are stuck in a kind of legal, institutional, governmental gridlock. It’s like a Chinese puzzle trying to figure out how to rehabilitate. First, it has to be determined whether they want to rehabilitate and someone has to decide on who has the right to decide that, it’s that simple. Who has the right to decide whether you can move back into your home or not? Then, being that public safety is governed by certain regulations, and being that prior to this flooding some areas were considered safe that we now know are not safe and therefore have to live by different regulations, it means that many, many, many houses, a huge percentage of houses that were in the flooded region, have to either be rebuilt to a different set of tolerances or they have raised physically, higher up in the air, so that they would be "safe." That’s fine except for who pays for that?

The fact is most of those areas were inhabited by poor people who are lucky to own the houses in the first place and do not have the capital to be able to go back in and do huge structural changes to their homes. Many of them don’t even have the capital to move back in. Insurance obviously didn’t cover what many people hoped it would and the insurance companies are winning the battle of flood versus wind. Many poor people are getting very little money for the loss of their home and possessions. There’s a huge problem in rehabilitating these areas and repopulating them. And the longer it goes on, the less likely it is that people will return because they’re growing new roots where they are, and as much as it really pains some people to the point of tears when they think of not going back "home" to their Gulf Coast roots, they have feed their families and they have to have shelter and they have to be able to create a future for themselves so they have to move on. That’s very sad, they move on and they take with them their history, their culture, their heart, their soul and the place is forever changed because of that.

What do you think our readers can do, not just as far as instruments, but in helping the people in the region in general?

At the risk of sounding self-serving, and I’m not trying to be that way because I’d really like to see more being done in the region, there’s a lot of controversy about a number of the charities that are operating, and, honestly, I’m not an expert on which ones work and which ones don’t work, I just know that we work, and so do a number of other people who have supported us and continue to support us, including President Clinton and members of some very prominent American families and leaders of business. We’re very simple, we have no politics and we have virtually no overhead, we just collect money and put it into instruments that we give to people who have lost them. If they want to do something musical, is a really good way to go, for now.

If they want to do something other than musical, if you go online and check out the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, that they may have information on organizations that they’re working with, and I know from having done some work with them that they are incredibly thorough and diligent about who they select to work with.

So, if it were me and I was starting from scratch, I would go on their website and see if there was a list of charities that they were partnering with in the region and I’d kind of start there because you know at least those people have gone through a very rigorous vetting procedure.

What’s next for Music Rising?

What’s next for Music Rising is the kick off of phase two. As I said, we’re going to have a really special event in September and will be announcing that very soon. That will be to kick off our initiative for churches and schools and we’re going to do a celebrity guitar (and musical instruments) auction for the coming months into next year, where we’ll be raising money through the auction. Also, there will be other money-raising events and occurrences and, like I said, that stuff will be coming out really soon.

The most important thing is that not only have we not lost interest, I’d say we’re actually more aggressive and active now than we’ve ever been in trying to get some things going for the Central Gulf Region and for the good people who live there. They are our brothers and sisters and I’d like to think that if we were in a similar situation that they’d reach out and help us, too.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about Music Rising?

Let me tell you a little bit about my partner, The Edge. A lot of celebrities will find something, lend their name to it, do a couple of public service announcements, show up at the occasional high-profile event and consider themselves to be incredibly charitable. The Edge has been involved in every single step of this process, not just the decision-making but also the implementation. He’s rolled his sleeves up, he was there in New Orleans before I got there, he was there in November of last year and did his tour and then I got there in December.

So many of the ideas that we have come from him and he’s leveraged his celebrity in the humblest and most business-like way. I’m daily impressed with this guy, at his commitment, his sense of service, his understanding of his responsibility to his brothers and sister, and just his essential innate goodness. He is a truly good man.

I’d like to say that the best part of this whole process for me has been getting to know him and work with him this closely and I have to say in a very short period of time he has become one of my favorite people in the entire world.

That’s so good to know and it’s really exciting to work for Interference and be able to talk with people who are working with the members of U2 and get to know all their charities. That’s the kind of thing we hear over and over again and it’s great to be a fan of a person and organization that is of that level.

That has heart, has soul and incredible honesty, too. That’s another thing that I’m so impressed with him is that he’s not only honest in business, he’s honest with himself, which is a rare quality in a star of any sort. I find that true of all the guys in the band, they’re amazingly honest and healthy.

What your fans can do, because it’s a U2-oriented thing, obviously the shirts are really important. We’re making a new guitar, we’re going to make an Epiphone Music Rising guitar, all the money from which is going into phase two. That guitar will be sold through Musician’s Friend online.

The other thing that your fans can do, too, is because we’re dealing with churches and schools here, I urge people to think about how they can go to their own churches and their own schools and talk to people there to try to organize initiatives and events. Whether it’s something as simple as a bake sale or as complex as a full-on charity drive every little bit helps and the people of the Gulf Coast need it all, they do. Whether it goes back to us for musical instruments or it goes to some organizations like ACT, which is All Congregations Together, which I know is a good organization down there, to help out with churches, or goes into the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund or some other place, it doesn’t matter, it’s all needed, it is all needed and it’s desperately needed. This is a prime example of where people have to be their own government here, we cannot wait around for somebody else to solve this problem, we the people have to solve it ourselves.

[bI know that our readers, ever since this Music Rising has been announced, have wanted to get involved. They’ve been very excited to help out with this organization.[/b

I think I can safely say the first one to raise a million dollars, we could probably arrange a personal performance in their living room.

Maybe a group of people will get together if they can get The Edge at their house.

I can’t promise but I think they would have a good shot.

Many thanks to Bob Ezrin, Anna Taylor and Caroline Galloway for all of their help with this article!


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