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It took her three months to make it home. Even then she was among the small number of women living in a city populated by cops, soldiers and construction workers. The 6 p.m. curfew was still in effect, so Helen and two other female musicians spent their days playing on the streets of the French Quarter, bringing a little beauty back to New Orleans. "Best tips I ever made," she says with a laugh.
She was holed up in a foul-smelling apartment when she spied a flyer for a subsidized community that was sprouting in the Upper Ninth Ward. It was called Musicians' Village, and the 72 houses were reserved for working artists. Two of them were being built with money donated by Phil Mickelson. In the days after Katrina he had contributed $250,000 to relief efforts and pledged all of his winnings from the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which inspired a number of players to do the same. Mickelson was disappointed to finish 15th and earn "only" $81,720, so he rounded the number to a quarter mil. (He would contribute another $250,000 in 2007.) The day after the '06 tournament, Phil and Amy spent nine hours examining Katrina's impact. "They wanted to see the damage and understand how they could help," says Tommy Fonseca, a tournament staffer who drove the Mickeslons around town. "They were deeply moved. I remember Amy breaking down three or four times."
Helen was similarly overwhelmed when the walls were raised on her house. "I had moved so many times since I got here, it was incredibly meaningful to have my first home," she says. As a down payment she had to put in 350 hours of sweat equity building her house and others in the neighborhood. She would often bring her cello to the job sites and play during breaks, to the accompaniment of the pounding of nails.
In November 2007 she moved into her 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house. The bamboo floors provide great acoustics, and in lieu of living room furniture she imported her grandmother's baby grand piano. Among the neighborhood perks are a weekend drum circle and enough working artists that the block put out a compilation CD titled Musicians' Village. One of Helen's neighbors is New Orleans legend Smokey Johnson, who spent two decades as the drummer for Fats Domino. Johnson, 75, tools up and down the street in his wheelchair, always greeting Helen with "Hello, cello" and sending her off to gigs with, "Go get 'em, Killer."
Her $75,000 mortgage is interest-free over 20 years, and with such inexpensive housing she was finally free to take fewer late-night gigs and move on to another challenge. "I had always dreamed of recording albums, but it was this little house that gave me the freedom to do it," she says.
Her first album came out in 2009 as part of the quartet Wazozo; Newton Circus features covers of Paris bistro music with a zydeco twist, with Helen providing lovely vocals in French. In 2011, along with Doug Garrison and Tim Green, she released Running of the Bells, an awesomely eclectic album on which she played the cello, loop, octave distortion and vielle, a medieval fiddle. On April 23, at the Big Easy Music Awards, the album was honored under the all-encompassing category of Best Contemporary Jazz. Helen just finished recording an album of original compositions, with her evocative cello work complemented by electronic music and other pop elements. She sings in English and French. Still untitled, the album is set to be released in June. (Go to helengillet.com for details.)
Even as she's on the verge of more mainstream success, Helen is forever seeking out new challenges. Last week, in one of her 12 gigs during Jazz Fest Season, Helen Gillet's Wazozo Zorchestra, a seven-piece band, performed the sound track to Belgian avant-garde silent films from the 1930s, what counts as just another day at the office. "She's a dream to play for because she has such interesting ideas," says Wazozo tuba player Jon Gross. "I feel rejuvenated playing with Helen because she's such a positive life force."
"She has that classic New Orleans improv spirit," says Gregory Good, Wazozo's guitarist. "Anything goes, and that makes the music come alive." He pays Helen the ultimate compliment, the kind of validation that has sustained her during a topsy-turvy decade in a city she has made her own: "She's a true artist."
The Single Dad
The darkness almost overcame Donte Locke. Day after day he sat in his apartment, the blinds drawn. The woman he loved was gone, into the arms of another man. If Donte was shattered now, it was because he had been abandoned before. He grew up in a rough part of Bakersfield, never really knowing his father, and that void lived in him like a sickness. "All I wanted to do was walk out the door and leave everything behind," he says. But that would only keep the vicious cycle going, because he would be doing to his daughter, Kailea, and his son, Donte Jr., what had been done to him. When he separated with the kids' mother in 2009, he became their primary caretaker. It took all he had to get them off to school so he could then disappear back into the darkness. "One day I was in my apartment, crying, yelling at God, asking him what to do," Donte says. In that lowest moment, the answer became clear: His children were to be his salvation. "I made a covenant that I would live for them," he says.