If you close your eyes and let your mind drift, focusing solely on the music, it's easy to forget the fluorescent lights, the stark surroundings, the school desks. The hypnotic rhythm and funky solos of Art Blakey's "A Night in Tunisia" whisk you away to a favorite jazz haunt. When the song ends, you expect applause -- not an instructor's critique.
"There's always been a history here at NOCCA of people in high school playing at a professional level," says Michael Pellera, assistant department chair of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts' music department and a jazz co-instructor. "We have some serious talent here."
Since early January, jazz students at NOCCA have been fine-tuning that musical talent -- partly in preparation for their Jazz Fest and partly a makeup for the months that classes were halted after Hurricane Katrina.
Although NOCCA's Jazz Ensemble has played at Jazz Fest for years, instructors and students agree this year marks a triumph.
"We should all be really grateful just to be there," says Joey Peebles, an advanced drummer in NOCCA's jazz program. "There should be a certain degree of humility after everything we've all been through."
The journey to Jazz Fest has been marked with hurdles. In the weeks after the storm, administrators and faculty at NOCCA tried to place students at art schools in areas where they relocated. Some of the most prestigious arts institutions, including Juilliard, took students tuition free.
"Our main focus was to find out where the kids were and make sure they continue their art education," says Brian Hammell, the communications coordinator at NOCCA. "Those schools came to our rescue."
While not every student currently attends an art school, NOCCA successfully placed all its seniors. Damage to NOCCA's Riverfront campus posed another obstacle. Although the school did not flood and its state-of-the-art equipment was unscathed, high winds busted windows and damaged the roof, requiring an estimated $500,000 in repairs.
The chaos after the storm also kept NOCCA from reopening. The National Guard used the school as a base camp to launch security and rescue operations throughout Faubourg Marigny, Bywater and the Lower Ninth Ward. "We wanted to keep students out until we were 100 percent sure the building and the area were safe," Hammell says.
By the time the National Guard left in mid-October, administrators already had begun to set up satellite locations for the spring term. Until the Riverfront campus reopens May 30, classes are scattered throughout the greater New Orleans area.
Jazz students currently study at V.C. Haynes Middle School in Metairie -- a drastic change from NOCCA's Ellis Marsalis Jazz Studio, designed with brick walls and black curtains to resemble a French Quarter jazz club.
But no one's complaining.
"Haynes has treated us like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is in residence," Pellera says.
Even so, students miss the inspiration and experience they gained from fellow NOCCA students. Art shows inspired them to push the boundaries of their music. Drummers often played for the dance department. And each Friday, jazz students performed -- frequently their own compositions -- while media-arts students recorded the rehearsals.
"We got to practice with the engineers and sound techs and understand how everyone has to come together," says Nick Sanders, the only senior and fourth-level jazz student yet to return. "We can't do that now."
Finding a place to practice has also posed a problem.
"Kids can't practice like they used to be able to because many are living in trailers," says Alvin Batiste, the lead instructor for the jazz program. "So we practice them here."
The biggest setback for the jazz program has been NOCCA's cancellation of this summer's three-week intensive session. A two-pronged and valuable tool, the session gives students from across the state an opportunity to study at NOCCA. It also allows students whose full-time acceptance is conditional on attending the summer session a chance to practice.
Rather than hold the three-week session, a full-time summer term will convene from May 30 through June 30 to make up for the lost fall session.
With the help of local and national musicians, the jazz program has overcome many of its post-Katrina hardships. From drummer T.S. Monk Jr., Thelonious Monk's son, to blues-guitar legend Bonnie Raitt, distinguished musicians have held master's classes in unprecedented numbers.
Master's classes "are actually on a roll despite Katrina," Batiste says. "People want to help us."
Donations from across the country and Canada have also poured in. The NOCCA Institute, the fundraising arm of the school, has received $260,000 from schools and individuals as well as foundations set up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help the Gulf Coast region.
The majority of NOCCA's post-Katrina donations, ranging from $136 to $13,000, have come from art schools that held bake sells or concerts to raise funds.
"These students' hearts were touched," says Elizabeth McMillan, director of development at the NOCCA Institute. "They wanted to help however they could."
Gibson, the world-renowned guitar company, will donate guitars, amplifiers and drums to jazz students who lost their instruments in the flood. And a New Orleans woman recently donated her piano to jazz student Conun Pappas after learning that the keys on his Yamaha piano locked up after sitting in 5 feet of water.
"I've been playing it everyday since," says Pappas.
After all the loss and turmoil caused by Katrina, NOCCA's staff, faculty and students have realized, each in their own way, how important the school is to their lives.
"Katrina added a lot of good things to our lives," Joey Peebles says. "Knowing basically what's important, that was a big gift from the storm."
- Grateful to be here: Drummer Nick Hughes finds his rhythm.