Out of nowhere, two weeks ago came the announcement of what's probably the largest non-levee-related construction project planned in New Orleans since Katrina: the New Orleans National Jazz Center and park. The highly ambitious project proposes a near-total redevelopment of a 20-acre area including the storm-devastated Hyatt Regency hotel, City Hall and other buildings into a practically utopian jazz district. The center will include an open-air park and theater, jazz museum, studio and classroom space, archives and more that the many interests involved hope will kick-start year-round tourism for jazz fans in a more universally friendly venue than bars and nightclubs. The total cost of the new district is currently estimated at $715 million, and at least a huge chunk of up-front costs seems taken care of, largely by Strategic Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt's parent company (see Commentary in Gambit Weekly's June 6 issue.)

Culturally, though, this level of ambition is a huge leap from New Orleans' standard treatment of our musical resources -- the ultimate utility of which was, to be fair, called into question after the post-Katrina months saw several of our iconic artists finding themselves better treated and more comfortable in neighboring cities. We've got a great love for street and club culture and folklife here -- no aphorism is more oft-quoted than Ellis Marsalis' famous dictum that New Orleans music "bubbles up from the streets" -- but a real, sustainable music industry has never been a reality, and neither, more to the point, has a state-of-the-art entity like the proposed district.

The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) is partnered with all of the district's players to drive the center's cultural programming as well as act as house band, and NOJO creative director Irvin Mayfield is pumped, to put it mildly.

"This is the catalyst for taking jazz, which is America's and New Orleans' natural resource, taking it, bottling it, selling it, refining it, making it available not just for tourists but for residents who can't come and participate in our wonderful nightlife. This is to make it a lot more family-oriented, present a lot of education programs, and present the experience of this is jazz."

Mayfield is working with Tulane University and his own alma mater, NOCCA, to develop educational programming for the center that will be available onsite and also, potentially, in New Orleans schools. The main goal, he says, is to build a nexus for jazz programming that will offer a total multimedia experience of the art form that's available to anyone, from exhibitions to concerts by big-name performers who often don't visit New Orleans due to lack of appropriate venues. It also will aim to challenge the longstanding New Orleans attitude of clinging to concepts of street cred and authenticity to the detriment of progress, without -- hopefully -- taking away from the music.

"Jazz is jazz," says Mayfield. "You don't change art in a museum to make it more family-oriented. You just change the time of day that it can be presented. And we'll think about those things -- how do we make an environment that doesn't feel like not-jazz? How can we do it so we're doing something that's not that New Orleans'-best-hidden-secret thing that we have going on here?"

In Mayfield's vision, the space will accommodate almost infinite interpretations of and tributes to jazz.

"Jazz is about everybody doing their own thing and being individuals, but a jazz band is the community of individuals. Some of our ideas are ... we'll have a space where you could maybe have a ballet, where Alvin Ailey's troupe could present how they feel about jazz, but also have all of our other wonderful cultural institutions that are here come in and show how jazz affected their art form."

Ultimately, Mayfield sees the project as practically inevitable. "Wynton Marsalis told me, if I can do what I'm doing in New York [with Jazz at Lincoln Center], where I'm a fish out of water ... you guys have this stuff growing in your backyard. You got too much of it. Just water those seeds a little bit. Plant a few more of them some different places, and see all the fruit that it bears. That's the concept that we have here -- we're just trying to take what we already have in New Orleans, and we're trying to nurture it and grow it and let people know how they can experience one of the greatest American treasures, jazz music."

Rock Documentary DVD Release Preview.

One Eyed Jacks is holding a preview screening of the DVD release of Hail Hail Rock 'N' Roll, the densely packed 1987 documentary by Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford on rock 'n' roll pioneer and extraordinary freak Chuck Berry. The 4-disc DVD set, (to be released June 27), features two discs of the original Chuck Berry 60th birthday all-star concert and attendant documentary footage. The gems here are the extra, previously unreleased footage of legendary rockers like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton struggling to put the show together as well as extended interviews with Willie Dixon, the Everly Brothers and others. One Eyed Jacks, 615 Toulouse St., 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 20. Free admission.

Irvin Mayfield is helping to develop programming for the - New Orleans National Jazz Center. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Irvin Mayfield is helping to develop programming for the New Orleans National Jazz Center.

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