Clip: Proposed National Jazz Center in New Orleans
Jazz center could revive heart and soul of the Big Easy
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
Published June 4, 2006
NEW ORLEANS -- Can jazz save this city?
A number of influential figures in New Orleans and Chicago are betting
millions that it can, last Tuesday proposing a jazz-based version of
Chicago's Millennium Park for the forlorn area near New Orleans'
If the Chicago owners of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans and their
Crescent City partners can pull together $716 million in financing,
New Orleans will have a 200,000-square foot National Jazz Center, a
20-acre jazz park featuring live music performances and an
under-the-stars amphitheater and band shell.
The complex will be home to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the
centerpiece of a larger plan to refurbish the hurricane-battered Hyatt
Regency New Orleans and erect new government buildings.
But what makes this development different from any other ambitious
civic project in America is its embrace of a music integral to the
city's identity, before and after the hurricane: jazz.
"If you put this in the middle of Kansas City, I doubt it would be a
success," says Laurence Geller, chief executive of Strategic Hotels &
Resorts Inc., which owns the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.
"But being in the birthplace of jazz, it can.
"New Orleans is a city that has suffered in many ways, just as London
-- my hometown -- did during the blitz [in World War II]," adds
"The city needs something to coalesce behind, and I think it's jazz."
Geller hastens to acknowledge that he and his partners are not
indulging in an altruistic act. Even before the Hyatt Regency had been
damaged by the hurricane, it had been eclipsed as a primary hotel
destination, with visitors increasingly veering away from the
Superdome area and toward the convention center, on the Mississippi
River. Geller and friends needed to find a way of reviving interest in
"The axis of tourism had shifted," says Wm. Ray Manning, the lead
local architect in the planning and design of the proposed Hyatt Jazz
District, which has received enthusiastic support from Gov. Kathleen
Blanco and recently re-elected Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
"We needed something to galvanize our area, and the New Orleans Jazz
Orchestra needed a home," adds Geller.
"This became a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them and for us."
At the heart of the venture is a proposed National Jazz Center, which
will include a major performance space seating 1,200 to 2,000 people;
a black-box theater for 300 to 500 listeners; an interactive museum;
and rehearsal space for NOJO and other New Orleans musicians. Though
reminiscent of New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center complex -- which also
combines performance, rehearsal and exhibition space in a sprawling
urban venue -- the National Jazz Center will have an artistic profile
all its own, say its planners.
"You can go to a concert any night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but you
will not see a jazz funeral or a second-line parade there," says Irvin
Mayfield, founder and artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz
"It's the ceremonial aspects of New Orleans music that you will see at
the National Jazz Center.
"But that's not all. I can envision our interactive museum having an
experience where you can see what it feels like to sit inside the Duke
Ellington band. Or there could be a hologram of Miles Davis' Quintet,
with smoke in the room and people buzzing, and you're thinking, `Man
-- that's what it was like to see Miles Davis in the '50s.'
"We're looking to make a performing-arts center that has a jazz-joint
sensibility: sophisticated but down-home. We're looking to make this a
A different approach
The idea, says Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne -- who
designed plans for the development -- is to create the antithesis of
the staid, buttoned-down concert halls that define classical
orchestral music in America.
"This will be radically different than a symphony hall," says Mayne,
whose California-based Morphosis firm has created a general concept
for the ensemble of buildings but has yet to work on detailed plans
for the jazz edifice.
"The National Jazz Center needs to have an extemporaneous, spontaneous
feeling," adds Mayne, speaking by phone from Italy. "It couldn't be
more different than a classical concert hall."
Moreover, says Mayne, the feeling of jazz will extend beyond the
National Jazz Center, stretching from its doorstep, across a
six-block-long park and on to the amphitheater and band shell.
"The connective glue to the whole project will be music and
performance, the sensibility of jazz."
The bittersweet irony here is that such a venture -- a $70
million-to-$80 million National Jazz Center, plus attendant grounds
and amphitheater -- would have been inconceivable before the
hurricane. But after that disaster, jazz advocates in New Orleans and
across the country were jolted into action.
Last October, Kevin Poorman, a Chicago-based executive vice president
of Pritzker Realty Group and a native of New Orleans, held a
fundraiser in his home for displaced members of the New Orleans Jazz
The event made him realize, he says, "that there was no iconic place
for jazz in New Orleans, which is kind of the city's signature."
(Skeptics might cite Preservation Hall, in the French Quarter, but
that historic venue is so diminutive in size and far removed from its
origins as a presenter of early generation jazz musicians that it
"Then we got to thinking about Millennium Park, and the incredible
impact it has had in Chicago, and it seemed we really needed something
like the Pritzker Pavilion [band shell] in New Orleans."
So Poorman put Geller in touch with Mayfield, who invited his mentor
Wynton Marsalis into the discussions last November. As perhaps the
most visible jazz musician on the planet, as well as the artistic
director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis brought credibility and
gravitas to Mayfield's ambitions.
That the area of the proposed jazz development happens to be near some
of the sacred ground on which the first New Orleans jazz musicians
invented the music only added to interest to the project, the
Yet there's a long way to go from conception to reality. To help pay
for the National Jazz Center, New Orleans architect Manning expects
NOJO to launch a major capital campaign and to attract federal funds.
With Geller and colleagues having located roughly $400 million in
financing toward the $716 million total for all of the buildings,
Geller says he's cautiously optimistic that the jazz venture can fly.
"I'm reasonably confident that we can get this built -- we've already
identified more than half of the money needed," he says.
"The other question is how confident are we that we can have the
National Jazz Center running once it's built, that it can have an
endowment and a secure future.
"Those details have yet to be worked out."
Just 4 years old, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra certainly does not
yet command the global reputation that the Lincoln Center Jazz
Orchestra did when it moved into its $128 million quarters in the Time
Warner Center in midtown Manhattan in 2004. And Mayfield, a gifted
trumpeter and jazz champion, never has programmed anything as complex
as a bona fide arts center.
Winning over public
Though the story of the new jazz development played big in New
Orleans, earning several pages of enthusiastic coverage in the
Times-Picayune and an avalanche of reporting on TV news shows, the
public still will have to be won over. Some observers argue that a
massive edifice runs counter to the in-the-streets nature of much of
New Orleans music, and others wonder if such a project is needed at
"We already have a national jazz park," says John Quirk,
superintendent of the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, an
ongoing project of the U.S. Department of the Interior that is
developing programs and construction in Louis Armstrong Park, albeit
on a much smaller scale.
"It seems that everything we're planning is being replicated with the
National Jazz Center. There's room for a performing arts center, but
let's make sure it's something different."
And Friday, Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie noted that all
the talk of jazz development has overlooked the historic structures
still standing nearby.
"During the announcement of this new jazz-centric complex, it was
noted that the facility will be built near Louis Armstrong's old
home," wrote Elie. "But little was said about the importance of an
area just a few blocks away, the 400 block of South Rampart Street.
"That block is home to three crumbling buildings that might be the
most important surviving structures in the history of early jazz. The
Eagle Saloon, the Iroquois Theater and the Little Gem Saloon are all
standing, though barely," Elie opined, referring to venues where the
earliest jazz musicians played, roughly a century ago.
New Orleans architect Manning told the Tribune that the structures
would be preserved.
Qualms notwithstanding, the planned National Jazz Center and adjoining
jazz district stands as New Orleans' first major rebuilding venture
since Katrina, and therefore it has stirred passions.
"Jazz is ingrained into our culture," says Mayfield. "You can go into
a housing project in New Orleans, you can go into the most
economically depressed place, bring in a tuba, and you can start an
explosion of excitement playing 1920s jazz music.
"That's what makes this place so different."
Adds architect Mayne, "We're just starting the conversation, but I
believe we're showing the potential that can come out of disaster."