Musicians’ Village, Upper Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA – August 9, 2011: On August 25, 2011, as the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, one of the most positive responses to the catastrophe that devastated New Orleans will be unveiled – The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. Located at 1901 Bartholomew Street in the heart of the Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward, and named for one of the city’s most influential pianists, educators and living legends, the Center will serve as a state of the art facility for the preservation and ongoing development of New Orleans music and culture.
Like Musicians’ Village, the innovative New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity project that has provided 72 single-family homes and 10 elder-friendly duplex units for the city’s displaced musicians, the Ellis Marsalis Center was the brainchild of one of Ellis’s sons, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and one of his most celebrated pupils, singer/pianist/actor Harry Connick, Jr. “Jazz is a tremendous part of the city’s tradition,” Connick explains, “and after the storm we had to do more than just hope that the tradition would continue.”
That hope has been realized in the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, with its intimate performance space, recording facility, classrooms and computer facilities. The Center will provide a range of musical instruction and cultural enrichment programs for the area’s students. Equally important, its state-of-the-art performance space, recording facility and computer technology, and the production and professional development training provided by Center staff, will be available to Village residents, the many talented artists who claim the surrounding Ninth Ward as home and ultimately all of New Orleans. The Center is both a gathering place for Village residents to address community issues and a home base where diverse creators can realize their visions. “We intend to connect the art forms,” Ellis Marsalis emphasizes, “music and theater, music and dance, including hip hop, films and the visual arts. The physical space and resources of the Center are fantastic.”
“Other people and organizations have created some wonderful programs,” Branford Marsalis notes, “but many have to operate out of dilapidated facilities, and in many cases these programs are only available through a financial effort that most families cannot make. Our idea was to offer not just music but computer literacy, Mardi Gras Indian culture, dance and all kinds of things in one place.”
Having identified the need, Ellis Marsalis became the obvious embodiment of the Center’s goals. “What makes the Center unique is Ellis,” says Executive Director Michele Jean-Pierre. “His resume speaks for itself, not just in terms of the music that he and his sons have created but also the literally hundreds of students that he has inspired. With his involvement in every aspect of curriculum planning and faculty selection, we are in a unique position to sustain his legacy.”
The resulting facility is described by Jean-Pierre as a “dream center.” It includes a performance space that seats 150 and doubles as a recording studio, with state of the art audio equipment and lighting; a dance studio that will double as an exercise facility; two large classrooms; a computer room where students can access educational software and residents can employ technology in enhancing their careers; a listening library/study area; a “musicians’ hangout room” that can accommodate meetings of community groups; and a large front porch and courtyard. “We’re creating a new mold,” Ellis Marsalis notes with pride, “and only fragments of what already exists will suffice. We intend to be more than a music school and more than a performance space.” Jim Pate, Director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and an enthusiastic supporter of Harry and Branford’s idea of the Center as essential to the city’s post-Katrina response, adds that it will be “the beating heart of the entire Musicians’ Village effort. As a facility, the Center has perhaps even exceeded the original vision, with audio-visual facilities second to none.”
Funding for the Center was raised primarily through private donations, in tandem with the overall Musicians’ Village project. Pate reports “In addition to the almost 70,000 volunteers and donations from around the world, both the Center and the Village have received tremendous support from the Dolan family and Madison Square Garden, the Dave Matthews Band, Warner/Nonesuch Records and many others in the music community.” The Dave Matthews Band Musician’s Lounge has been named in acknowledgment of the group’s support; one classroom will be named in honor of Moe Dallolio, a big band musician in New York who became a Long Island music educator, and whose family is helping to fund programming at the Center; and Hurwitz Way, in the Village’s neighboring Toddler Park, is named for Robert Hurwitz, President of Nonesuch Records. Further support will come from American Girl, which is celebrating the debut of two New Orleans dolls, Cécile Rey and Marie-Grace Gardner, with the release of the song “A Lot Like Me” by Connick’s 13-year-old daughter Kate Connick. All proceeds from sales of the single will benefit the Center.
Yet, as Jean-Pierre points out, support has not been confined to the arts community. “I call it `the Center that love built,’” she says, “because every day people are reaching out via the internet or just showing up to help. For example, a family that had been here previously to help construct the Village recently came back to donate a trombone that their son had outgrown. So many of the 70,000 people who helped build the Village continue to support us.”
The potential impact of the Center, both on the neighboring community and New Orleans as a whole, is limitless. “All of the things that Ellis taught us can take place at the Center,” Connick notes. Branford Marsalis envisions “Kids who live in the Upper Ninth, not just Village residents, riding their bikes over and taking advantage. And the opportunity for Village residents to pass information along – not just to kids, but to the rest of us, and not just at the Center but `on the stoop’ – will be just great.” “We’re beginning with a focus on the children of Village residents,” Jean-Pierre explains, “but the problem of access to arts instruction is so great that we’ve already reached out to children in two nearby schools that no longer have music programs. We can also provide space for Village residents to come together and address community issues, as well as a quality recording facility for local musicians. One of our four full-time staff is a trained audio engineer, and internships in this area are part of our vision for the future.”
Pate sees the Center as integral to the core Habitat for Humanity concept of neighborhood stabilization. “What makes Musicians’ Village unique is the people who bought the houses,” he explains, “and we’ve already been approached by other Habitat branches and independent groups about how to make this model work for visual artists, native craftspeople and other artists. The Center reinforces the effort of residents transmitting their knowledge and demonstrating the positive impact of sharing their heritage.”
All of this is in keeping with the efforts that Ellis Marsalis has pursued in New Orleans for the past half-century. “When NOCCA [the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] was founded, it allowed me to concentrate on `jazz studies,’ but a lot of what I did was flying by the seat of my pants. I ended up assembling materials over the years that are being digitized now, and I see a similar situation at the Center. And not just for jazz.”
Harry Connick, Jr. can testify to the success of Ellis’s efforts. “Ellis’s strengths are his greatness as a pianist coupled with his ability to let you discover things on your own. Instead of insisting on teaching you his way, he watches and lets you discover. He definitely taught me a lot about playing the piano, but his work ethic and constant quest were even more important. That someone so great never stops learning and practicing was his ultimate lesson.”
“My Dad forced all of us to think about what we were doing,” Branford concurs. “Instead of rote learning, which encourages memorization rather than understanding, he asked us to think about why we did something. This forced me to approach music in a different way, one that gave me a great advantage when I became a professional.”
With the Center as his base, Ellis Marsalis will ensure that these lessons are also learned by younger generations, and that the artists of all generations who reside in Musicians’ Village, the Ninth Ward and the rest of New Orleans have a dream home in which to realize their creations. “When we announced the Center,” Branford recalls, “my father showed no emotion at all; but two hours later he was on the phone, talking about the Center’s potential and what had to be done to make it live up to that potential.” That potential is about to become a reality that New Orleans and the wider musical world can celebrate.