In the afterglow of another exceptional closing weekend at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival we took advantage of an opportunity to witness the progress of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music the Monday after Jazzfest. Earlier that weekend we had chatted with Ann Marie Wilkins, the driven and industrious woman who manages Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., the Marsalis Music record label, and most important to this conversation is board chair of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a jewel of a 17,000 square foot facility.
You may recall this ambitious post-Hurricane Katrina, Ninth Ward redevelopment project. In the wake of the devastation of what New Orleans residents simply refer to as “The Storm”, Branford and Harry hatched a plan to salvage at least part of the storm’s Ground Zero, the Ninth Ward – the part of New Orleans with the highest storm-delivered misery index of all. Their idea was to develop the Musicians Village to house a percentage of the musicians who had been driven from the Crescent City in the horrific wake of the failure of the federal levees. Part of that development would be an arts-based community center to be named after Branford’s father and Harry’s mentor, Ellis Marsalis.
To get you up to speed on the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, we followed-up our tour with some questions for the Center’s executive director Michele Jean-Pierre.
Please give a quick sense of the backstory behind the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.
After Hurricane Katrina, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. wanted to find a way to help musicians come back to New Orleans. They joined with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to create the Musicians’ Village, a residential community primarily for musicians with a community center as its focal point. Ellis Marsalis, father of Branford and teacher of Harry, is also an internationally respected jazz musician and educator. The Center would appropriately be named the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music
to honor an individual they both love and respect.
Much beloved New Orleans drummer and WWOZ radio show host Bob French sitting amidst the post-storm devastation in the Lower Ninth Ward. French was one of the initial residents of the subsequent Musicians Village development.
Who do you hope to serve with the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, what is your core constituency?
The core constituency of the Center are the residents of the Musicians’ Village and the children who live in the 9th ward, the largest of the 17 wards of New Orleans. We will also make the Center available to other members of the New Orleans community on a space available basis.
What is Ellis’ ongoing relationship to the Center?
Ellis is the visionary behind our music education program and he advises our Director of Music Education, Daryl Dickerson. He is
actively involved with music instructor selection and guides us on matters related to curriculum and instruction.
What kinds of daily activities happen at the Center?
During the school year, we run an afterschool music education program Mondays through Thursdays. Students attend twice
a week for 3 hour blocks. Each enrolled student takes one hour of their selected instrument, one hour of Piano in our Piano
lab where Music Theory is being taught and reinforced through piano instruction and one hour of Homework Assistance and or
Computer Lab. Our Computer Lab work focuses on strengthening Music Theory lessons in a fun and interactive way.
We also offer vocal and dance classes.
We also feed the children an assortment of fresh cut seasonal fruits, yogurt, granola bars, raw veggies, multi grain crackers and
cheeses before they head to their first class. They also have the option of returning after their last class to obtain more snacks to keep them
until they go home.
On Saturdays, the focus is our Strings program. Children may register for Violin, Viola, Cello, Upright Bass and guitar classes.
On Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, we also offer an adult piano class. Classes start early so once again, we provide
healthy option breakfast foods.
We also have occasional master classes for our students held in our Performance Hall. Students have an opportunity to hear professional musicians, ask
questions and learn first- hand from them about their journeys in becoming professional musicians.
This summer, we will implement our Audio/Lighting/Video Production Intern Program. We have partnered with the City of New Orleans and the NOLA Works
Program and 14 youth between the ages of 15 – 18 will participate in this 6 week summer experience and receive a paycheck for their learning experience.
We will also offer our regular Music Education Program Mondays through Thursday to over 100 beginner and intermediate youth of the 9th ward. On Saturdays, we
will offer our regular Strings Program with the capacity to reach an additional 45 students.
How has the Center been funded thus far?
The Center has been supported through the generous donations of people throughout the world, who in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina and the near destruction of important institutions of learning, saw the importance of their continued donations of funds to assist
in the rebuilding efforts. Branford and Harry engaged people worldwide in their crusade to develop this Center and continue their untiring
efforts of enlisting the help of others to support the mission of the Center.
[Editor’s note: It should be added here that both Branford and Harry have contributed significant sweat equity and financial support – including concert fees – to this project; their respective involvement goes far deeper than simply lending their auspicious names to this project.]
How does the Center interface with the surrounding Musicians Village, and what’s been the response to the Center thus far of the occupants of the Musicians Village?
Prior to the completion of the construction of the Center, focus groups were conducted with residents to get their input of how the Center could best serve their needs.
The information from these focus group discussions played an important role in the planning for which services the residents identified as priorities. Currently, the
Center offers extended hours for the residents to use practice rooms, the computer lab, obtain administrative support, attend exercise classes as well as adult piano classes.
The Center will also provide facilities for Village residents to record CDs and plans to offer a Village resident performance series in the near future. Quarterly the Center
holds a public community event. These have included: Christmas children’s movie night and toy distribution by Santa, a Good Friday Fish Fry with outdoor activities
for the family and a visit from the Easter Bunny, and a special Night Out on Crime Event which included a community Barbeque and access to community resource information.
The residents response has been extremely positive. This is evidenced by the number of resident children who attend classes in our afterschool and Saturday programming at
the Center. The residents also enjoy accessing the classes offered at the Center.
When I visited there you and Ann Marie mentioned a project underway – or in the planning stages – to record the occupants of the Musicians Village; please tell us more about that project.
It is our intention to allow Village residents to record CDs at the Center – the Performance Hall was designed to double as a recording studio (Ellis Marsalis and Japanese Jazz Pianist,
Makoto Ozone recorded the first CD in the hall in May). Thanks for your inquiry about all of the current activities at the Center. We have just started on our journey but remain excited about the potential for growth of not only our students but the residents who choose to utilize the many offerings at the Center.