In the early 1980s, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison Jr. and Terence Blanchard — all graduates of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) —were among a group of exciting young jazz musicians starting to gain national attention. Blanchard says they knew they had gotten a good education at NOCCA, but they didn't realize how good until they left New Orleans.
"We didn't think anything of it, because we assumed the same thing [that was happening at NOCCA] was happening around the country," Blanchard says. "We thought that we needed to be on our game because there were other people that were going to be on their game from other parts of the world. It wasn't until we got to New York and we didn't see that mass influx of young musicians that we thought we'd see, that we started to look around and say, 'OK, man, that was kind of unique.' It started to resonate for me how important NOCCA was."
This year, NOCCA celebrates its 40th year of performing arts education, and the 2015 Jazz Fest spotlights NOCCA's achievements at its Cultural Exchange Pavilion, which usually highlights the music and culture of another nation. Programming features musical performances, including jazz, classical, choir and musical theater, and visual arts demonstrations and exhibitions ranging from mural painting, photography and film screenings to large-scale puppetry and papier-mache creations. Many performances and exhibits are in the NOCCA Pavilion tent in the Fair Grounds infield near the Congo Square area, and some programming is in the Grandstand. The pavilion includes work by NOCCA students, faculty and alumni, and there are performances by Blanchard and Harrison and a tribute to Ellis Marsalis by the youngest Marsalis brother, Jason.
Blanchard credits his teachers and his experiences at NOCCA for much that he has accomplished in his career as a musician, composer and educator.
"Dr. [Bert] Braud, Ellis [Marsalis], Roger Dickerson, Kidd Jordan, George Jansen — we felt there was a community of educators who really had our best interests at heart," Blanchard says. "There just seemed to be a healthy attitude towards learning and playing and being a professional."
Blanchard also is a music educator and mentor. He serves as Artistic Director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, and next year he'll join the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He also regularly mentors young musicians in his own band, many of whom have gone on to have successful recording careers.
"It's important to educate, because if I didn't have it, I wouldn't be here," Blanchard says. "I don't feel like I have all of the answers, but I do have a lot of experience, and I'm here to share my experiences."
The NOCCA Pavilion also will feature a younger generation of NOCCA alums, including Alexis Marceaux and Sam Craft. Marceaux and Craft perform and record as ethereal folk duo Alexis and the Samurai, and they front Sweet Crude, an energetic Cajun-inspired indie pop band that includes fellow NOCCA grads Jack Craft (Sam's brother) and Jonathan Arceneaux.
Marceaux studied musical theater at NOCCA for three years, before her education was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Craft, who was a few years ahead of Marceaux, studied classical music. While it may seem like a formal education for a couple of aspiring pop stars, Marceaux said the transition was natural.
"I started writing music when I was 13, so even during all of my NOCCA experience in musical theater, I was playing coffee shops with my acoustic guitar," Marceaux says. "Going back and forth between that world and the theater world at NOCCA really helped me get on the stage with more confidence."
Like Blanchard, Marceaux and Craft both learned the importance of arts education at NOCCA. Marceaux teaches voice at an after-school program at Lusher Charter School, and Craft teaches violin at Thibodeaux School of Music, a music education center founded by Paul Thibodeaux, another NOCCA grad.
Last year, Marceaux and Craft were appointed Young Alum Co-Chairs of NOCCA's annual gala. It gave them a chance to perform for an audience of faculty, staff and patrons, but more importantly it gave them a chance to interact with current NOCCA students.
"When we were in school, it was really cool to see somebody who was young, but older than us, doing what we were about to be doing," says Marceaux. "Maybe we can be a role model for up-and-coming artists there, and we can kind of tell them what it's like to do this as a profession."
At the NOCCA Pavilion, Marceaux and Craft will share the spotlight with alums including musicians Sasha Masakowski and Khris Royal and street artist Brandan Odums, who spearheaded the recent outdoor graffiti art spectacular Exhibit BE.
"So many people that we know from NOCCA are doing wonderful things, and that's the best part about it, just seeing them flourishing and seeing them being successful," Marceaux says. "We all know that we went to this wonderful school that taught us a lot, and we're now able to be in the real world doing what we love."