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The First Horn 

The idea of a National Jazz Center downtown is like a song waiting to be played. What's lacking is the political vision " and the will to blow the first note.

FThe Chicago-based company that owns the Hyatt Regency Hotel recently announced it was selling the 31-story property, shuttered since Katrina, to a local concern. The Hyatt's departure is a serious loss to the cultural economy. Lawrence Geller, CEO of the Hyatt's parent corporation, had put several million dollars into developing a National Jazz Center there, linked with the hotel's redevelopment. Mayor Ray Nagin touted Geller's idea as a sign of the recovery at a press conference shortly after his re-election in 2006. Geller commissioned renowned architect Thomas Mayne to draw up plans for a world-class concert and museum complex on a 20-acre site at Poydras and LaSalle streets. At a projected cost of $700 million, the proposal anticipated state support.

Despite a $1 billion state surplus, not a dime came from Baton Rouge for the idea. Politics and timing stymied a project that still has the potential to be an economic engine for a new downtown economy, proponents say.

The idea began with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, founder and artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and Ron Markham, the orchestra's CEO. In 2004, the musicians won a pivotal ally in the orchestra's financial planning: Mayor Ray Nagin. NOJO's mission of performing jazz classics and new compositions in schools, concerts and tours relies on the kind of public support that Wynton Marsalis secured for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Nagin committed $400,000 to NOJO to be spread across two years. Mayfield and Markham established a board of heavy hitters: lawyer Bill Hines, developer Darryl Berger, Entergy's Dan Packer, philanthropist Jeffrey Goldring and others.

Because of Katrina, the second $200,000 went unpaid " Nagin was forced to cut city workers by 50 percent. 'The money simply wasn't there," says Mayfield, 'and we understood why. The mayor has been good to us."

A month after Katrina, Mayfield and Markham flew to Chicago for a NOJO fundraiser at the home of Kevin Poorman, a New Orleans native and vice president of Pritzker Realty Group. Poorman told the Chicago Tribune that the event made him realize 'there was no iconic place for jazz in New Orleans, which is kind of the city's signature. 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 in New Orleans."

At the party, Geller approached Mayfield about putting a jazz club at the Hyatt once it was renovated. Mayfield countered with a more ambitious idea, a national jazz center near the hotel " an idea inspired by Jazz at Lincoln Center as spearheaded by Mayfield's friend and mentor, Marsalis.

For his part, Marsalis joined the Bring New Orleans Back Commission that Nagin launched in hopes of igniting a recovery. The recovery foundered for many reasons, but Marsalis' cultural subcommittee report was a visionary document, training a lens on the cultural infrastructure with help from research consultants at the London School of Economics and Indiana University. Meanwhile, Mayfield, Markham and Geller were selling the jazz complex idea to Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco. From the report:

'San Francisco [in 2005] committed $56 million to its nonprofit cultural sector, which leveraged $706 million in spending by cultural organizations for a total economic impact of over $1 billion. Montreal spends approximately $350 million annually on its cultural organizations, stimulating more than $3.5 billion in spending by these organizations and producing a total economic impact of more than $4 billion. Even though we make only a modest investment of $2 million through the Arts Council of New Orleans, this leverages $45.5 million in total spending by arts organizations and a total economic impact of $300 million."

'Market New Orleans as a world-class cultural capital," the report recommended. It envisioned a National Jazz Center " with concert and museum space " as the anchor of an expanded downtown arts district.

In publicity that a city cannot buy, New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff exulted over Mayne's design on Aug. 28: 'Situated on the corner of Poydras Street and Loyola Avenue, it would be flanked by cool glass towers. An elevated section of Interstate 10 cuts through the city just to the west; the imposing form of the Superdome, its broad crisscrossing ramps extending from the street right through the structure, stands just a block away.

'Like the Superdome, the Jazz Center would be a piece of urban infrastructure: big, tilting columns raise one end so that street life slips directly underneath the building. Visitors enter by a grand staircase set beneath the bowl of a performance hall."

But Geller found himself the only guy in the deal who was spending money. In a recent interview with Gambit Weekly, city Recovery Director Ed Blakely said that complex zoning issues downtown caused delays.

'It died for lack of project management," says Mayfield. 'When a project costs as much as this, you need different teams at different stages. I don't think a good first team was put together; you need a certain amount of money. The governor in an initial meeting told us, quite honestly, "We support it, but we're not giving you any money.' There were other challenges. Mitch Landrieu was running for mayor. Where is our cultural guy in the middle of this? As we proceeded, the governor didn't know if she was going to run for re-election. Instead of the state donating funds to help start it off, you had a lot of politicians saying people are not back home yet. They were afraid of bad press."

Large capital projects succeed when elected officials put their credibility on the line. The Superdome went up in the 1970s because of Gov. John McKeithen and Mayor Moon Landrieu, both of whom took hard hits in the media and from conservative politicians for daring to take political ownership of the stadium. The Dome revitalized Poydras Street and helped stabilize, then rejuvenate all of downtown. If the Veterans Administration Hospital goes up in the proposed Tulane Avenue medical district, it will be a similar economic catalyst in that area. Building the National Jazz Center near the Dome would likewise create an economic anchor for a downtown cultural district, with South Rampart Street and the Broadway South theatres anchoring a hard-hit section of Canal and Basin streets.

The National Jazz Center has the potential to be a cultural showcase in an infrastructure that includes the CAC, New Orleans Museum of Art, Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Audubon Institute. It would be a magnet for major exhibitions, conferences and concerts, a place where schools and colleges will send students on field trips for big-ticket exhibitions that gain national press.

'New Orleans has never succeeded at saying who we are," declaims Mayfield, talking like a politician. 'Branding is a key for modernization: what's your label as a company or a city? I'm saying, jazz is our industry " a cultural industry, an economic industry " based on our natural resource. Oil is to Saudi Arabia what jazz is to New Orleans. It's authentic. It's sold all over the country. It started here. It lives here. Americans look for authentic experiences. No business is going to thrive if the city doesn't get behind a definition of itself."

The old monikers " the City That Care Forgot, the Big Easy, the Crescent City " are banal. Remarketing New Orleans as The City Where Jazz Began is a statement of authenticity. Developing a world-class jazz complex belongs in some brave politician's master plan.

It is not just Nagin and Blanco whose passivity is deafening.

In 1913, Louis Armstrong was arrested on New Year's Eve for shooting off a gun. He spent three years in the Colored Waif's Home in Gentilly, where he got his first horn and the discipline of musical instruction. It changed his life.

A century later, there is no equivalent of the Colored Waif's Home here. Many public schools do not have full band programs. Creating a place for troubled kids to live and learn about music culture is doable. Putting a band and music teacher in every school is doable. These incremental steps, which will help reduce crime, can be met if elected officials want to meet them and see them as building blocks to help achieve the larger goal of a jazz complex for educational, cultural and economic purposes.

Perhaps it takes a bandleader like Mayfield to sell the concept in boardrooms, colleges and banks before politicians realize they should get on board.

A national jazz center won't happen without university presidents, too. Jazz began in New Orleans. The only university in America where jazz history is required to graduate is Columbia, in New York City " an Ivy League school. What do they know that we don't?

If Xavier, Tulane, Dillard, UNO and Loyola " each of which has jazz assets in curriculum, programming or archival holdings " embraced a mission in which the story of New Orleans jazz should be taught, a similar program could be replicated in high schools.

Jazz is often cited as a metaphor of democracy, the improvisational roles of instruments coming together, negotiating a melody; out of the many emerges a singular statement. It is a sad statement on political leadership here that Lawrence Geller is selling his company's interests after so visionary a plan. But he is leaving something valuable behind " that multi-million-dollar architectural plan. If we are lucky, Geller's role in the fullness of time will be rather like the first horn sparking a melody. There is a precedent: Dave Dixon, the original dreamer who promoted the idea of the Superdome some 40 years ago, hatched a plan that John McKeithen and Moon Landrieu realized was too valuable to ignore.

Gambit Weekly contributor Jason Berry's books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz and Last of the Red Hot Poppas, a comic novel about Louisiana politics.

click to enlarge "New Orleans has never succeeded at saying who we are. I'm saying, jazz is our industry Ñ a cultural industry, an economic industry Ñ based on our natural resource. Oil is to Saudi Arabia what jazz is to New Orleans." -  - Irvin Mayfield - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "New Orleans has never succeeded at saying who we are. I'm saying, jazz is our industry Ñ a cultural industry, an economic industry Ñ based on our natural resource. Oil is to Saudi Arabia what jazz is to New Orleans."

    Irvin Mayfield

click to enlarge news_feat-16322.jpeg


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