Jake Clapp 2012-12-10 23:30:42
New Orleans Club Finds its Mission in Its City’s Soul Born and raised in the 9th Ward, Felice Guimont is a New Orleans original. An incisive poet and soulful vocalist, she fronts the rollicking, groove-driven Overtakers. Guimont’s exuberant performances belie her ongoing health crisis. A diabetic since she was 11, Guimont constantly battles problems brought on from diabetic retinopathy. In early 2011, she received a devastating prognosis: she would completely lose use of her right eye without immediate surgery. Working as a registered nurse during the day, the bandleader fell into a gray area. At 48-years-old, she earned too much to qualify for government assistance, but too little to afford insurance. She was stuck. That was until the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic stepped in. The health clinic specializes in affordable care for the city’s musicians, and with its help, Guimont was able to save her eye. So when a new Lions club chartered in the city with the main focus of working with the Musicians’ Clinic, Guimont jumped at the chance to join. “Going through that experience, getting to know the eye doctors and participating in my care, propelled me to become an active member of Lions clubs,” Guimont says. “What we do as Lions is so valuable and essential. I’m now able to help those who are in the same spot as I was.” The first club chartered in the city in the last 35 years, the New Orleans Uptown Lions hit the ground running in 2011 with 101 members, already making it the thirdlargest Lions club in Louisiana. Its basic mission: to aid and assist the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic in rendering eye and hearing care to needy musicians in the area. “New Orleans culture is driven by the music,” says Mauro Leiva, the chapter’s charter president. “We want to continue to do traditional Lions projects, like eye screenings for children, especially looking for ‘Lazy Eye,’ but also give a big helping hand to the Musicians’ Clinic.” Leiva said the club will focus on conducting free screenings for musicians at the city’s various festivals, organizing health fairs and otherwise helping raise funds for the clinic whenever possible. The club is off to a good start, often staging projects with a distinct New Orleans flavor. It held a health screening with the Zulu and Social Pleasure Club (famed for staging the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras Day), worked a Po’ Boy Festival, raffled off quarterback Drew Brees’ autographed helmet and worked the New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience festival. The city affords plenty of opportunities for Lions to piggyback on well-known, well-attended events. New Orleans, of course, is iconic the world over for its culture. The city conjures images of trumpet players standing on the side of French Quarter streets busking for change, or parading brass bands leading the second line in celebration of a wedding or in memory of a loved one recently lost. There’s another side to the city that is frequently overlooked. While New Orleans is culturally rich, those who provide the culture are often poor. “The musicians are often uninsured, they work in dangerous, very hazardous environments, and there’s this myth of ‘drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll,’” says Bethany Bultman, president and director of the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation. “But the reality is more about poverty. It’s a system that esteems a musician, but doesn’t really want to know they took a city bus to the gig.” Organized in 1998, the Clinic offers affordable, comprehensive and preventative medical care to any musician in the city, whether or not they have health insurance. By extension, the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation began in 2005 as a way to aid the clinic and promote New Orleans arts post-Hurricane Katrina. Musicians, DJs, social aid and pleasure club members, Mardi Gras Indians, gospel choirs and even soundmen benefit from the Clinic’s services. Bultman, herself an Uptown Lion, said the clinic regularly sees more than 2,200 patients and works to provide specific care to the type of musician. “You don’t normally have someone at a free clinic say, ‘You’re a horn player, you might have a higher risk of glaucoma because of the pressure you’re putting on your eyes,’” Bultman says. “That’s something we do. Let’s see if we can get a research grant and look at all the horn players that could have glaucoma and let’s make sure they don’t get it, or see if we can arrest it to some extent.” The Clinic has become an important part of the city’s music community, and it’s one of the reasons why the Uptown Lions chartered with such a large number, said Robert Eichhorn, a past Lions Clubs international director. “We wanted to bring excitement into this club,” Eichhorn says. “And if you have a good purpose, the excitement will always be there. We know this is a good purpose.” The Uptown Lions’ membership roster is as eclectic as the Crescent City, with ages ranging from 18 to over 60-years-old, 16 university students, four chefs, business owners, attorneys, doctors and any other profession you can find in the city. Eleven musicians signed on with the Uptown Lions, as well. Performers such as Dr. John, “Deacon John” Moore, Irma Thomas, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Benny Grunch stand out as not only traditions of New Orleans music but also as world-class staples of soul, jazz, funk and R&B. Eichhorn himself was a bassist for The Kingsmen, a New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll group, between 1957 and 1968. Even where the club holds its monthly meetings–in the picturesque solarium of Bultman’s raised plantation-style home in the middle of Uptown New Orleans–is distinctly reminiscent of the city around the club. The friendship between Eichhorn and Leiva goes back to when they were kids growing up in the same New Orleans neighborhood. Years later, around 2004, Eichhorn would bring Leiva into Lions clubs. Leiva said he was enthusiastic at first, but grew tired over time. “I’ve seen and been in different clubs, and just wasn’t happy,” Leiva says. “It got to the point that it was boring, and everything was the same. I was about to drop out, when this banker gave me the idea to start my own club. I looked at [Eichhorn] and said ‘why don’t you do the paperwork?’ I hate paperwork. And here we go.” A new club hadn’t been chartered in New Orleans since 1977, and it had since gone inactive. With the Uptown Lions, Leiva and Eichhorn hoped to have the chance to change the methodology and rebrand Lions for the city. They wanted to make the club hip and exciting again by attracting a younger, eclectic membership that was socially active as well as service minded. With the Musicians’ Clinic already in mind, Leiva and Eichhorn set out to attract a wide variety of ambitious members, especially students. Eichhorn said they felt that the club should be well-connected to everything in the New Orleans community. While their monthly meetings are still standard, the members regularly socialize outside the club and Eichhorn hopes the club’s vitality will show through their events. The club dynamic promises to be less formal than most clubs, more jazzlike in its improvisational flair. That may become evident when the Lion-chefs host fundraisers or the Lion-musicians entertain at projects. “Whereas most clubs charter with 20 or 30 members, we had over 100 enthusiastic members ready to serve,” Eichhorn says. “It’s not your daddy’s Lions club.” In a city with a high poverty rate, the Uptown Lions will have their work cut out for them, but they have the support of the city’s musicians, said Lion “Deacon John” Moore, president of the New Orleans Musicians Union. “It’s vitally important to help keep these musicians alive and healthy,” Moore says. “People come to New Orleans to hear the music, to feel what it’s like to be a native. The Lions club is another arm to help in that.” In a career that goes back more than 50 years and crosses everything from classic R&B and gospel to jazz, the 70-year-old bandleader has seen the hardships that musicians face in the city chasing their passion. With low wages and often unhealthy lifestyles, organizations like the Musicians’ Clinic grow ever more important. Reminiscing about his life as a musician, Moore simply says: “It ain’t easy in the Big Easy.”
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