Monday, January 7, 2008

'Pink house' project ends on high note

On Sunday, in front of a backdrop of flamingo-colored houses, hundreds of people celebrated Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation and caught a rare appearance by the Lower 9th Ward's homegrown superstars: the Lastie family, whose musicians have blown horns and beat drums for this city's finest bands for nearly a century.

"The Lasties are one of the greatest unbroken line of drummers," said writer Jason Berry, who decades ago, made a documentary about two great New Orleans music families: the Nevilles and the Lasties.

The Lastie Family Gospel Choir's afternoon concert marked the end of the art installation of 150 pink fabric homes that appeared in early December as an attention-getter for actor Brad Pitt's nonprofit Make It Right project, which aims to build environmentally friendly, affordable housing for Katrina victims.

To kick off the fundraising, both Pitt and philanthropist Steve Bing, a real-estate developer and film producer, pledged to match up to $5 million in contributions.

The nonprofit is still collecting dollars, but at this point it has raised $10 million matchable dollars from more than 17,000 donors in more than 80 countries.

The donor list is studded with luminaries: Angela Bassett, Bill Cosby, Tom Cruise, Carrie Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Will Ferrell, Goldie Hawn, Salma Hayek, Ethan Hawke, Angelica Huston, Samuel L. Jackson, Quincy Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Ving Rhames, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan, Kevin Spacey, David Spade, Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Denzel Washington, Barbra Streisand, Russell Simmons, brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, and brothers Branford and Wynton Marsalis.

Tom Darden, the project's executive director, said the exhibit would have had a longer run except for its rented scaffolding, which was needed elsewhere for Carnival.

Once the 40,000 square yards of pink awning material is removed from that scaffolding today and tomorrow, it will be recycled into collectible handbags that will be sold on the Web site for Make It Right,

So far, 70 families have applied for financing from the project, which hopes to break ground in March for the initial 20 of more than 150 houses. The first homes should be finished by the end of summer, Darden said.

By that time, the Lastie family -- independent of Pitt's organization -- also hopes to have a toehold back at the other end of the Lower 9th Ward. Specifically, once Road Home financing materializes, the family wants a new roomy house, built on the corner lot where the big green two-story house once stood, behind centuries-old oak trees.

It's the place that the younger generation of Lastie-family singers ate their way through pounds of red beans and stuffed mirlitons. "We all ate Sunday dinner -- always -- at Teedy Betty's," niece Devora Hampton said, referring to her aunt, Lastie family matriarch Betty Ann Williams.

The older generation knows the demolished house on Delery Street as the rehearsal spot and hangout for musical legends such as Professor Longhair, Oliver "Who Shot the La La" Morgan, pianist Emile Vinette, and Jessie "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" Hill, Williams' uncle.

The family's legacy got its start in the 1930s, when Williams' father, Deacon Frank Lastie Sr., brought drums into Guiding Star Spiritual Church. He was thought to be the first musician in town to incorporate percussion into worship service.

Three of Deacon Lastie's sons also became notable musicians -- trumpeter Melvin Lastie, saxophonist David Lastie and drummer Walter "Popee" Lastie -- as did his two daughters, Williams and her sister Devora Hampton, who lead the choir at St. James Methodist Church, where Williams is organist. A fourth son, Joseph Lastie, raised a drummer son, Joseph "Fish" Lastie, Jr., who Sunday played the drum set behind the family choir, his bass and snare drums matching perfectly with the choir's rhythmic hand-clapping.

Williams' son, top-flight jazz drummer Herlin Riley, was absent Sunday: He was on the road, playing music. When Riley was only 3 months old, his uncle Melvin Lastie began playing his horn by Herlin's crib; when Herlin reached six months, he began trying to blow on a trumpet.

Williams' grandsons, too, pursued music, including the late Joseph Williams, a trombonist, and brother Arian Macklin, a tuba player who now leads the Kinfolk Brass Band. He and his brother both started out on percussion before turning to horn, Macklin said.

"This is a drumming family," he said as his toddler, Joseph Macklin, Deacon Lastie's great-great-grandchild, lay against his chest, tapping a small hand in perfect rhythm.

Williams looked past the stage at the streets she had walked as a young child, before the brick and wood houses had floated away, to be replaced temporarily by pink ones.

"By the hand of God, I know that the 9th Ward will come back," she said. "This is home for me. It's home for our family, for all of us."