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Clip: Proposed National Jazz Center in New Orleans

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  • Carl Z.
    Jazz center could revive heart and soul of the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 4, 2006

      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'
      now-infamous Superdome.

      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
      their property.

      "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
      hang spot."

      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
      hardly qualifies.)

      "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
      participants say.

      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."
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