Plans for New Orleans Jazz Center Stir Debate

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Plans for a public-private partnership to build a 20-acre performing arts park and National Jazz Center in New Orleans raise key questions: Should jazz be institutionalized? Can it be?


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

In New Orleans, many people hope that music will provide the key to the city's economic recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The city has plans to create a multi-million dollar jazz district downtown. But not everyone thinks this is the best way to preserve and to use the city's musical heritage.

From New Orleans, Eve Troeh reports.

(Soundbite of drums)

EVE TROEH: Every Monday, drummer Bob French plays Ray's Boom Boom Room on Frenchman Street.

Mr. BOB FRENCH (Drummer): Come on (unintelligible) come on...

TROEH: He invites his friends up on Stage 2.

(Soundbite of music)

TROEH: Small neighborhood clubs like this one still showcase jazz every night in the city. But Katrina scattered musicians around the state and the country, and the crowds are nowhere near their old numbers. Many people think New Orleans' music scene is the key to reviving the city as a whole.

(Soundbite of music)

TROEH: Like trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. Just 28, he's New Orleans' official music ambassador. Three years ago, he created the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, modeled after Wynton Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York. He believes New Orleans jazz is a kind of natural resource that has never been fully tapped. He says the city needs more jazz landmarks.

Mr. IRVIN MAYFIELD (Founder, New Orleans Jazz Orchestra): We need to be doing just like they do in Austria, letting people know that Beethoven's sisters, brothers, cousins got a haircut at this place. We now have the number one jazz destination in the world, but we may have not had that one singular place you can go.

TROEH: He pictures one big central location, where people can have a This Is Jazz Experience. Through concerts, education programs and exhibits, it would be a family-friendly alternative to smoky late night clubs.

Mr. MAYFIELD: You can walk in and see a hologram of the Miles Davis Quintet playing (unintelligible) have a ballet, maybe Alvin Ailey can present what they feel about jazz.

TROEH: Developers and city officials are buying into this vision. In May, the city approved plans to turn a six block stretch of downtown into the Hyatt Jazz District. It includes a large national jazz center and amphitheater, but also lots of green space, a new city hall, and funds to renovate the Hyatt Hotel. The price tag is about $716 million; much of that will depend on federal funds and municipal bonds. The rest will be funded privately through Strategic Hotels, the Chicago-based company that owns the Hyatt.

Laurence Geller is the company's CEO.

Mr. LAURENCE GELLER (CEO, Strategic Hotels): I started this with no altruism in mind. I started this saying that it will improve the district around us, would be good for us, and good for the Superdome, and good for business.

TROEH: Geller's plan to develop the area around the New Orleans Hyatt was inspired by Chicago's Millennium Park. That project took six years to complete at three times the original budget. But Geller says it transformed a dead area of the city.

Mr. GELLER: It's put up the price of real estate. It's caused real estate to be developed. Residential is flourishing with views onto to it. When I thought about it in the context of the research we had on New Orleans and what meeting planners and tourists were wanting, that's truthfully what inspired me.

TROEH: A centralized jazz district would be new for New Orleans, where the music has traditionally flourished all around the city. In 1994, Congress designated most of the city a National Jazz Park.

Unidentified Man #1: Joplin is good.

Unidentified Woman: Joplin? You mean Janis Joplin? No.

Unidentified Man #1: No. No. No. Long before Janis, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Scott Joplin.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1: Mm-hmm. Right there.

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

TROEH: In the French Quarter, park rangers tell people where to go to hear different kinds of jazz and teach them about its history.

(Soundbite of piano music)

TROEH: And piano wizard, Tom McDermott gives free concerts that span more than a century of the music, starting with Jelly Roll Morton.

(Soundbite of music)

TROEH: Another musician, Bruce Barnes, is also a park ranger, complete with a Smokey the Bear hat. He says no one development, no matter the budget, can keep jazz alive.

Mr. BRUCE BARNES (Park Ranger/Musician): It always helps to have more resources to be able to spread the message of jazz, but that does not validate the music and culture. It's not what made the music. The music came from the poorest people in the city, quite often, and it's still those people who have kept it alive in a functional cultural way.

Unidentified Man #2: Strike up the band (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of music)

TROEH: This month, the National Park Service held a parade to celebrate their soon-to-be headquarters, an old jazz landmark.

Ms. PAT HUDSON(ph): (National Park Service): I'm Pat Hudson. I'm the regional director for the National Parks Service for the southeast region. We're out here today to commemorate renovating Perseverance Hall. This is the building where people had dance events, where the community came to life.

TROEH: The renovation will cost about $3 million. The hall sits in Louis Armstrong Park, a vast space still closed after Katrina. It's home to two other large performance venues and the historic sight of Congo Square.

Mr. JAMES CARTER (City Councilman, New Orleans): Where individuals of color were able to congregate on Sundays to engage in song and dance and other sort of social functions that were extremely important to the survival of the African-American people.

TROEH: City Councilman James Carter says renovating the existing park just makes sense, historically, culturally and economically. As for the downtown jazz district, he'll believe it when he sees it.

Mr. CARTER: I don't see any competition at all, but again, that is speculative to that particular site. This is actual.

TROEH: The Hyatt jazz district is supposed to break ground next year.

(Soundbite of construction)

TROEH: At the site, workers are still cleaning out some of the buildings left empty after Katrina.

Mr. RONALD WILLIAMS(ph) (Construction Worker): Hot, stuff, no A/C, and today no lights. A ghost town, pretty much.

TROEH: Construction worker Ronald Williams has been living in Baton Rouge since the storm.

What about the plans for the National Jazz Center? Have you heard about that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: No, no, I didn't. That sounds like a good thing for, like, the tourists. But like, for a local person, it really won't affect my life any. It can't keep me here.

TROEH: Williams plans to move out of Louisiana altogether. He says he has a hard time watching the tourist districts bounce back when so many locals can't come home. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

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