Monk Institute Moving to New Orleans

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has decided to move from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The goal is to help young people in a post-Katrina Big Easy continue to learn the music that is the heart and soul of the city.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Twenty months ago, Hurricane Katrina silenced one of America's most musical towns, as musicians fled New Orleans. Today the city is still on the mend, but there are signs that New Orleans may be coming back into tune. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the hardest job may be keeping it that way.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHN BURNETT: A tourist could walk through the French Quarter, listening to arpeggios, glissandos, slurs and rolls pouring out of open doorways, and draw comfort from the belief that the city is back stronger than ever, after its near-death experience. But that would be wrong. Because the music of New Orleans isn't born and doesn't grow in these clubs.

Mr. DAVID FREEDMAN (General Manager, WWOZ): It grows out in the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Wards in what I call the cultural wetlands of not just the city, but of the country.

BURNETT: David Freedman, a native of New Orleans, is general manager of radio station WWOZ, a pillar of the music community.

Mr. FREEDMAN: If you've driven around, I'm sure you have, you'll see that most of those neighborhoods are still empty. People aren't back, we're still missing a quarter of million of our people. And so my concern is not whether we have a product in the marketplace, but whether we have any kind of future in terms of our living culture.

BURNETT: The storm washed away a fragile root structure of students and mentors that has flourished here for more than a century. No one is exactly sure how many guitarists and drummers and trumpeters and high school band directors have not yet returned. The marching bands were few and far between at this year's Mardi Gras.

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BURNETT: The news that came out of a packed auditorium at Loyola University at uptown New Orleans earlier this week was more encouraging. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz is moving its performance program from the University of Southern California to Loyola. On hand to make the announcement was T.S. Monk Junior, son of the late legendary bebop pianist.

Mr. T.S. MONK, JR. (Musician): If you can't learn about Christianity in Jerusalem, where can you go? Well, if you can't learn how to play jazz and get the finest education in this music in New Orleans, where can you go? It's got to be here in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: One of the most important things the Monk Institute can do for New Orleans is to send its college students out into the faltering public school system. John Snyder, director of the Music Industry Studies Program at Loyola, says music instruction had been disappearing from local schools for more than a decade, and the situation is even worse after Katrina.

Mr. JOHN SNYDER (Director, Music Industry Studies Program, Loyola University): So many schools were closed and now the few that are open are so starved for funds that arts are just not high on the agenda. So it's up to us to do something about it. And that's why the Monk Institute, their whole modus operandi is about bringing music back to the school systems.

BURNETT: It was already happening before the Monk Institute arrived. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation runs a free music school for talented youngsters at Dillard University on Saturdays. Jazz vocalist Leah Chase coaches a group of aspiring singers.

Ms. LEAH CHASE (Jazz Vocalist): The phrasing...

Unidentified Students: (Singing) Travel my way in the highway, that's the best.

Ms. CHASE: 'Cause what?

Unidentified Students: Get your kicks on Route 66.

BURNETT: The director of the Institute of Jazz Culture at Dillard is Edward Anderson, a jazz trumpeter and a New Orleans native.

Mr. EDWARD ANDERSON (Dillard University): I myself was mentored by several musicians and all these musicians will tell you the same thing. You know, as young kids they were taken into the wings or, you know, invited to come out and play with the elder musicians. It's a tradition.

BURNETT: Across town the next day, the same thing is happening inside Tipitina's, which is no longer just one of New Orleans most famous nightclubs; it's at the heart of a nonprofit foundation dedicated to saving the city's musical traditions.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Organist Lani Smith sits behind his instrument with his black turban, white beard and beatific smile, looking like a guru.

Mr. LANI SMITH (Organist): Okay, where are the kids? I want to see some kids up here.

BURNETT: When he calls, more than a dozen teenagers saunter onstage with their instruments.

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BURNETT: Since the hurricane the Tipitina's Foundation has donated more than a half million dollars worth of instruments to musicians and restarted these Sunday music workshops. Their coordinator is Deborah Vedakovich(ph).

Ms. DEBORAH VEDAKOVICH (Coordinator, Tipitina's Foundation): Before the storm we had no idea the thread was so fragile. We all thought it was a rope. I mean, you don't think your life is going to change. You don't plan for that.

BURNETT: Music was one of the things that everybody took for granted in New Orleans. The next generation was always there, playing trumpets on the way to the bus stop. The parades were crowded with marching bands. After Katrina, no one's sure of anything anymore, not even a musical continuity, which is why they are working so hard, to borrow a phrase, to keep the cultural wetlands abundant.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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