THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN A FEW MONTHS AFTER TERRY LEE AND HIS FAMILY WE'RE STRUCK BY HURRICANE KATRINA IN 2005... THEY LOST EVERYTHING OWNED (THE STUFF) , BUT SOON TO FIND OUT ... "HOME IS WHERE YOUR HEART IS, AND NOT WHERE YOUR STUFF IS."
New Orleans. It used to be that pianist/vocalist Terry Lee Ryan could take it for granted. Everything about the city; the old streets, the people who inhabited them, and most importantly, the sounds that seemed to infuse it all. Now, however, he has to carry all of that with him, bearing on his shoulders the culture and the music of the city that he has called home his entire life. He has brought it all to Northern Virginia. An evacuee from Hurricane Katrina, Terry Lee Ryan can now be found entertaining the guests who pack the piano Lounges across the Venue's of Northern Virginia, Terry Lee Ryan’s playing is vibrant and he performs with an energy that permeates atmosphere of all these well known venues. When he’s not singing, he keeps up constant conversation with the guests, inviting them to join in on a song then barreling into renditions of classics, by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel. But there are other moments when he switches gears and starts in on songs about New Orleans. Suddenly the joyful enthusiasm is replaced by yearning, a sound that originated in the city years ago, long before the recent hurricane and flood, but now seems to define the indescribable wreck of homes and lives. Terry Lee Ryan is one of thousands of musicians who have been scattered across the United States by Hurricane Katrina, taking with them the soul and sounds of New Orleans.Like many other musicians who called that city home, Terry Lee Ryan made a living performing in a variety of locations, from consistent jobs at hotel lounges to spot work with the many performers who frequented the area. The night before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans Terry Lee Ryan was playing at the Marriott Hotel located on Canal Street in the middle of the city, a place where he’d been playing regularly for the past 10 years. The next day, with warnings about the storm reaching category five strength, he, his wife, and their two daughters gathered what they could in two suitcases and fled the city. Crowded by thousands of others also fleeing the storm, it took them over 10 hours to get to Baton Rouge, just 80 miles away, and it wasn’t until late in the evening when they finally stopped in Birmingham, Alabama. Early the next morning, with word that the storm was going to continue into Alabama, they got back into the car and headed to Fairfax, Virginia, where Terry Lee Ryan’s sister-in-law lives. They planned to make it back to their home when the storm passed. But it soon became clear, as they watched on TV as the levees broke and flooded the city, that their stay in Virginia would be significantly longer. Now, instead of focusing on moving back home, Terry Lee Ryan is working to start a new life in Northern Virginia, with the hopes of continuing his career in both music and martial arts. Terry Lee Ryan has always loved music, something he admits is hardly unique in New Orleans . His father worked in the public school system by day, but in the evenings he would get jobs singing at places around the city. He would perform the popular tunes of the day, those made famous by Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Louie Armstrong. Those were the songs Terry Lee Ryan grew up loving, and still the ones that he loves to play. He said that he enjoyed the music so much that he would find ways to play it on his own. While his father worked in public schools, Terry Lee would sneak off into the school and look for a piano to play on. At just nine years old, he would plunk out notes by ear, trying to put together the complex harmonies and rhythms. Eventually, he taught himself a number of songs. Terry Lee shared this story of learning to play with one of the greatest piano players ever to come out of Louisiana. One evening, not too long ago when he was working at the Marriott, there was a party going on in the hotel in recognition of Fats Domino, the legendary blues singer and piano player. Eager to meet him, Terry Lee asked the security guard to get him in to the party. Not only did the guard get him in, but sat him at the table with Domino. The two hit it off right away and Domino shared his own story of playing in finding piano's after hours in the public schools of New Orleans. When Terry Lee was old enough he started working odd jobs in order to buy his own piano, a used Spinet piano, which while nothing grand, was enough to get him going. By the age of 13 he was starting to play gigs with his father and by the time he was in his late teens he was playing in several groups, pounding out everything from blues to rock and roll. Because he never received any formal lessons, Terry Lee never learned to read music. Even now, as he sits in the piano bar at Pistone’s all he has in front of him is a notebook filled with song lyrics. Everything else comes from his head and out through his fingers. At this point he’s not even sure how he does it, it just comes naturally. “If I thought about it I would probably mess myself up. All I can say about it is that it is a gift. And the Lord will give it to me as long as I sit here,” Terry Lee said. Not only has he managed to excel despite not being able to read music, but he has actually impressed some of the top musicians in the country. During Mardi Gras one year, he was asked to perform with popular singer and pianist Harry Connick Sr. & Jr. When he showed up at the event, Harry Connick Sr., the dad, was there handing out folders of sheet music for the performance. He asked Terry Lee whether he could read it, and not wanting to disappoint, Terry Lee said it would be no problem. He sat down at the piano and spread out the music in front of him, he knew the names of many of the songs, and had no problem following along on those. For pieces he didn’t know, he would listen to the other musicians and follow when they switched chords and turned pages. By the time he had been playing for 20 years, Terry Lee established himself with a solid career in New Orleans. He was playing at some of the city’s most legendary venues, including places like The Cat’s Meow and the piano bar at O’Brien’s. He also had a second career going in martial arts, something he describes as a complement to his music. Terry Lee is a fifth degree black belt in open palm system, a martial art similar to the Korean form Kuk-Sool-Won. For several years he has operated a school in New Orleans with many students. But Hurricane Katrina would bring both of these careers to a jarring end, at least for the moment. After the storm passed and the flood waters receded Terry Lee and his family returned briefly to the city. They walked through their house, where mold and mildew were growing four feet high onto the walls. All the furniture was ruined. The equipment in his home studio was destroyed. The only thing he had left was his Kurzweil keyboard, which he had stored five feet off the ground, and some of his gear that had been left at the Marriott. Terry Lee put one of his students in charge of the martial arts school and he and his family returned to Virginia to try and assess what to do. “We have no choice right now." This is our new home. I wish I could tell my family we are going to pack up and get back tomorrow. But we can’t. The economy is off. Music is completely off. All the musicians in New Orleans have scattered,” Terry Lee said. He guessed that it will be almost a decade before the city will be rebuilt to the point where a local economy will be able to support music again, as before. In the meantime, however, he is doing what so many other musicians are; keeping the spirit of the city alive. He said it used to be that he would play the classic New Orleans songs like “Louisiana 1927” or “Walking to New Orleans” because that’s what the tourists wanted to hear. Now he plays them because they are a way to keep a hold on a part of himself that may or may not return. “No matter what I’m always going to be a New Orleanian,” he said. “ New Orleans is my roots.”