Ask Drew Brees about his on-the-field accomplishments in 2008, and he might ask you to be more specific. About 3 miles away from the Louisiana Superdome field, where the NFL's reigning Offensive Player of the Year amassed most of his near-record 5,069 passing yards, there is another field benefiting as much, if not more, from Brees' right arm — the one with which he not only famously slings footballs, but also signs checks.
Lusher Charter School's Uptown athletic field was in disrepair in the summer of 2006, when the Saints quarterback and wife Brittany first arrived in storm-ravaged New Orleans, bringing with them the Brees Dream Foundation, a private charity the couple founded in 2003. Three years later, the field has been made anew, thanks to nearly $700,000 in contributions from the foundation and its partner organization, Operation Kids (OK).
"It was just in terrible shape," says Steve Reiher, OK vice president for marketing and development. "The field was releveled and drained, and it's got new sod. The lights are up. I think they haul in the bleachers and put up a scoreboard and they're done."
It's the biggest of a dozen such projects identified by Reiher's group and targeted for assistance by Brees' foundation. They include some $240,000 for summer internships and professional electives at New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School, which sits opposite Lusher's yard; $260,000 for the Edible Schoolyard, an organic garden and cooking curriculum at Samuel J. Green Charter School, located seven blocks downtown; and $300,000 for New Orleans Outreach, a series of after-school, tutoring and mentorship programs at both schools. All told, the projects' costs total $1.8 million, of which all but about $150,000 has already been awarded.
"Two summers ago, we made the commitment to raise [the money] and fund all these projects in New Orleans that involve rebuilding schools, parks, playgrounds," Brees says. "These last three years (in New Orleans) have been incredible. We've had the opportunity to raise a lot of money to put right back into the city, and we're constantly on that mission of identifying projects and fundraising."
When the finish line neared, one question loomed: How best to come up with the remaining funds? Brees and company needed reinforcements, and in a musical twist befitting both the city's cultural history and the foundation's "dream" handle, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Little Richard are set to deliver. The rock 'n' roll legends headline this week's Domino Effect, a lavish, all-star concert at the New Orleans Arena paying tribute to Fats Domino — and paying dividends to the Brees Dream Foundation.
"What this concert is accomplishing is finishing their financial goals [with] Operation Kids for this period," says Dave Rosen, whose Austin, Texas-based firm Illuminated Entertainment is producing the event. "We would like for this to be successful enough that we can do this every year and work with the Brees Dream Foundation (toward) whatever goals they have that year."
Fats Domino's influence is borne out in the musicians his celebrations draw together. Dr. John and Allen Toussaint anchored a long list of New Orleans performers for a lifetime achievement ceremony at OffBeat's Best of the Beat Awards in January 2007. Later that same year, Goin' Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino, a double-disc homage benefiting the Tipitina's Foundation and Fats' Ninth Ward home renovations, paired Paul McCartney with Toussaint, Robert Plant with swamp-pop kings Lil' Band O' Gold, Lenny Kravitz with the Rebirth Brass Band and Ivan Neville with Taj Mahal.
Mahal is one of eight scheduled performers at the Domino Effect, which promises the same mashed-up genre jumble that defined and distinguished Goin' Home. Joining him and the three headliners are multiplatinum rapper Wyclef Jean, the Latin fusion band Ozomatli, modern bluesman Keb' Mo' and country guitarist Junior Brown. In a final casting coup, the uproarious and unpredictable Tracy Morgan (of NBC's 30 Rock) signed on as MC.
Rosen, while playing coy with his agenda ("It would give away all my surprises"), excitedly divulges a few details about the proceedings. "It's not a festival," he stresses. "It is a well-choreographed event. There's a tremendous amount of instrumentation with these bands and players. ... All the performers will be playing with each other a ton. There's going to be a lot of Fats Domino's music played."
The producer originally envisioned the concert as a showcase for Fats himself, as the centerpiece of a stage populated with grand pianos. That notion, along with an initial partnership with Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation, never came to fruition. But Rosen believes the 18-month process that yielded the current permutation will be worth the wait. "I'm kind of glad it took as long as it did," he says, "because now we have this fantastic show."
Illuminated Entertainment is the charitable offspring of Rosen's primary business, Rozone Productions. The companies' specialties are extravagant musical productions for artists from Metallica and Sting to Merle Haggard and Randy Travis. Expect not just cutting-edge sound, Rosen says, but spectacular visuals as well. Referencing Versa Tube technology — an intelligent, tube-lighting LED scheme — and large-scale video monitors, he sums up the three-and-a-half-hour show with one word: "major."
There's a first and a second half with an intermission in between, Rosen explains, "But the music will flow continuously. It will be seamless. ... Tracy's going to come out and say some words. Of course, Drew and Brittany are going to come out and speak to the cause and welcome everybody. Junior Brown's going to be playing initially; he's kind of our warm-up. Then it kicks off."
Wyclef Jean, among the last performers added to the schedule, says the concert's hall-of-fame lineup and recombinant structure were major draws. "That's the idea, the mosh-pit idea of combining different styles together," he says. "I think that's what's going to make it magical."
The Haiti-born Jean is no stranger to charity — having created Yéle Haiti, a foundation promoting educational opportunities and social change on his home island, in 2005 — or New Orleans music. "Something about the jazz that comes out of [there], right, it sounds different than anywhere else around the world," Jean says. "There's a reason. ... I was a jazz major in school, and one thing about me, I used to get in trouble a lot. Similar to Fats, I would just do my own thing, you know? I'm a big fan of his, so no telling what's going to come up."
Brees admits he wasn't too familiar with Fats' oeuvre before 2006. "But after coming to New Orleans, I think you get exposed to a whole new realm of music and culture," he says. "You look at just what the city of New Orleans has meant to [American music] over time, the great acts that have come through New Orleans and that New Orleans has helped cultivate, just for them to all want to be a part of this event, to come back to New Orleans and know that they're going to play in front of a great crowd, a bunch of people that love their music, and then obviously pay tribute to Fats Domino — it's really a cool deal."
Could the Fat Man himself make an appearance? If it's one of the surprises Rosen has in store, he's not saying. "Fats is a very important person to me, as far as being in this industry," Rosen says. "I've been working with Fats since the beginning. ... It wouldn't be fair to him to even try to have him perform. But he's behind the event 100 percent. He would like to come and, if he's capable, say a couple words to the audience."
With the funds generated by the Domino Effect, the final pieces of a $1.8 million puzzle will fall into place. Best Buddies Louisiana, a global charity focusing on specialized programming for children with intellectual disabilities, and New Orleans Outreach, which installs extracurricular supports at Samuel J. Green Charter School and New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School (among others), are the direct recipients. "They provide after-school programs in everything from poetry reading to robotics to basketball, tutoring and mentoring," Operation Kids VP Reiher says of New Orleans Outreach.
Then, the Brees Dream Foundation will move on to Phase II, for which initial planning is already underway. The starting place — improving conditions for some area schoolchildren — was an obvious first step, Brees says. "When I think of New Orleans and the rebuilding effort and the people that were displaced by the storm and are now looking to come back, most of them have families. When they look at New Orleans to come back to, the first thing they're going to think of is, 'Where am I going to send my kids to school? Are there parks for them to play in? Are there after-school programs for them to be involved in? Are there athletic programs for them to be involved in?'"
The foundation's impact is visible in a seven-block stretch Uptown, where fifth-graders are learning to plant, harvest and cook their own organic vegetables, and 10th-graders now have an athletic field to rival the one Brees steps onto on Sundays.
"I think that post-Katrina New Orleans has been given the opportunity with a clean slate," Brees says. "It's like, we've got to start from scratch here. But maybe this is a good thing because we can build the public school system and the charter school system and all these different school systems back better than they were before. And [the Brees Dream Foundation is] jumping onboard with that. We feel like we can play a big role."
The Domino Effect featuring Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Little Richard, Wyclef Jean, Ozomatli, Taj Mahal, Keb' Mo' and Junior Brown
7 p.m. Saturday, May 30
New Orleans Arena, 1501 Girod St., 587-3663; www.dominoeffectnola.com