To paraphrase Don Mclean, August 29th, 2005, was the day the music nearly died. Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees caused more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region to be displaced, and in the city of New Orleans a good number of the evacuees were musicians whose homes were destroyed. Very early on it became apparent that many who made their living performing the iconic jazz, blues, zydeco, Mardi Gras Indian call-and-response, and other music of the region could not afford to come back. What followed, as the floodwaters slowly receded, and people took stock of the damage, was a deep concern that New Orleans had just lost one of the most important aspects of its culture.
One of the biggest worries was that there would be nobody left to teach the next generation, and that bothered musician and native New Orleanian, Harry Connick, Jr. “The music has always been a representation of who we are as New Orleanians,” he explained to Robin Roberts for our ABC special, Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm with Robin Roberts “And (it) has been the backdrop for good times and bad times. So the thought of it not bein’ around anymore was somethin’ that made me lose sleep at night.”
Immediately after the levees broke, where once music filled the neighborhoods of New Orleans, there were desperate cries for help. Harry Connick Jr. witnessed the trauma of his fellow New Orleans’ citizens first-hand, and the commonality of the desperation that affected all walks of life. “When I went to the Convention Center there were black people there, there were white people there. There were old people, there were young people. There were people that had money, there were people that didn’t have money.”
The Convention Center in New Orleans, where an estimated 25,000 traumatized people sought shelter, was not an official site for evacuation. With no food or water available, and dangerously high temperatures, people’s lives were endangered. Connick, Jr. recalls a sight that still haunts him to this day, “Around the side of the building, there was a woman who had died who was in a wheelchair. And I’m sayin’, like, “This is– this is our city. This is New Orleans. This is the United States of America. What the hell is goin’ on around here? It really freaked me out.”
Which is why, shortly after that experience, Connick, Jr. and his friend, saxophonist and bandleader, Branford Marsalis, banded together with a goal of doing something to help their hometown. They thought about what they might offer to help heal the city, as musicians. Then they joined forces with Habitat for Humanity to create the Musicians’ Village, with a goal of bringing the displaced musicians home—a good number of whom had inadequate housing prior to the storm.
“The music has always been a representation of who we are as New Orleanians,” Connick Jr. reflected, sitting on the steps of Musicians’ Village house, chatting with Robin Roberts. “And (it) has been the backdrop for good times and bad times. So the thought of it not bein’ around anymore was somethin’ that made me lose sleep at night.”
You could say it took a global nation to build this village—approximately 70,000 volunteers from around the world, donors, sponsors and low-income families helped build the 72 homes that now line several streets—a harmonious burst of brightly colored houses with front porches that allow for impromptu jam sessions. “We love our culture. And we will always fight to keep what makes New Orleans great alive,” Connick, Jr. stated with a seriousness that belied the conviction it took to make this dream come true.
Along with the houses, they also built the Ellis Marsalis Center, a community center named for the legendary jazz pianist, teacher, and patriarch of the Marsalis clan (father of Branford, and of Wynton Marslais, who runs Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York), who mentored so many like Harry Connick, Jr.
“Ellis was the biggest influence in my musical career and even outside of my musical career,” Connick, Jr. explained. “Getting me to understand what it meant to work hard, to practice, to not settle for any mediocrity not only in music but in life too.”
The act of mentoring has long been a tradition of the city’s music scene. Each generation learned from the greats, and subsequently passed on their knowledge to those rising up the ranks. “The thing about New Orleans musicians is that if they know you’re serious, they’ll bring you in and teach you. That’s how all of us in my generation got what we have, from people who are in older generations being kind to us, being patient with us, and taking the time to teach us about this incredible tradition of culture and music in New Orleans,” Connick, Jr. explained.
In fact, the Crescent City is said to be the birthplace of one of the most identifiable and beloved genres of American music: jazz. It is here that the founding fathers of jazz, such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and King Oliver—to name but a few—grew up. They set the stage for the key figures of today’s jazz superstars, including the likes of Harry Connick, Jr., Trombone Shorty, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kermet Ruffins, and Terence Blanchard (who scored the music to Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm).
“There’s something in the water,” Connick, Jr. says, because music has always been a part of everyday life in New Orleans, with street musicians jamming on every corner of the French Quarter, and festivals such as Jazzfest drawing crowds from around the world. But only after the ravages of the storm, and the flooding of the city, did it became obvious that the stability of the city’s musical culture needed to be rebuilt like the levees.
And that’s what’s happening at the “The Center,” as it’s fondly called, which opened in 2012. It is a state-of-the-art facility that brings music into the lives of the youngsters who reside in and near the Upper Ninth Ward—the neighborhood that became the poster child for the ruination of so many lives after the city flooded.
What the adults and kids have access to here is astounding: a 170-seat performance space with acoustic panels that would make any performing arts institution jealous, a high tech recording studio, several music classrooms, a computer center and listening library, and a dance studio. But most important of all, The Center provides a place for children from the Ninth Ward to make music a reality in their lives, no matter what their family might be able to afford.
Michele Jean-Pierre, Executive Director of the Ellis Marsalis Center, says the whole concept of creating a community of musicians revolves around these questions: “What about the next generation of musicians and where are they going to come from? What are we going to do to keep the music alive?”
She says, “The children come not really knowing what their abilities are. And once they are exposed to the music you see them starting to grow and develop. It’s so exciting.” Many of the kids have no musical training. “Some of our students are coming from situations that are very economically challenging.” She says for the majority, “It would be a luxury to pay for music lessons.” She adds that The Center also has counselors on staff, because some of the kids “are coming from situations where they’re seeing violence on a day-to-day basis.”
During the school year, the Center offers an affordable after-school arts program ($30 per session) that focuses on teaching the fundamentals of instrumental music, dance and music theory, in addition to computer literacy and homework help, the technical skills required to present performances. There is also a production-training program with the goal of fostering careers in audio, lighting, and engineering. All of this is offered to students ranging in ages from seven to eighteen. The program is an important supplement to the education many of the students receive at some of New Orleans’ more challenged schools. Jean-Pierre says, “With the rebuilding of New Orleans, and the rebuilding of schools, a lot of the traditional music programs were not included. So we offer just about every musical instrument and we start at ground zero teaching children how to read music. They grow into wanting to be a musician that can go and play with anyone in the world, any orchestra in the world.
They also care for their young musicians in other ways. “The majority of our students come from low performing schools, about 60-70% of them, schools that qualify for free lunch,” Jean-Pierre explains. Part of The Center’s objective is to create a safe haven and help their students focus by keeping them from being hungry, so they offer a meal in conjunction with the food bank Second Harvesters.
In addition, The Center gives several concert series in which members of the village come together to perform and talk. The school’s young students are always included. Jean-Pierre says, “The children that come here get to sit in and learn about the history of New Orleans music.”
The children themselves express how being at The Center affects their lives and gives them a foundation to dream about a future. Eight year-old Legend Joseph, who plays the violin, says with abundant enthusiasm, “Going to the Center and playing music every day makes me feel happy.” His sentiments are echoed by Selen Verden, nine years-old, another violinist, who adds, “Whenever I go to sleep I think about me playing music and being a professional musician.”
Discovering who they are, and who they might become, is a sweet refrain Jean-Pierre hears every day from the kids at the Ellis Marsalis Center, evident in the music as well as their peels of laughter and joyous smiles.
Harry Connick, Jr. is rightfully proud of The Center and its devoted staff. “For these young kids to– to wake up in the mornin’ and go into that multimillion dollar center and say, ‘Yeah, this is ours. This belongs to us.” Just that idea of ownership, I think, is limitless in its potential to help young people develop self-esteem.” And, as he so artfully expressed, while observing some of the youngest residents of the Musicians’ Village, “This is our future. When you look at these young, beautiful faces, to know that they go to bed at night, knowin’ that they are part of somethin’ and they have a piece of it, that’s worth a lot.”
In fact, it’s priceless.